Monday, March 2, 2009

Gettysburg: 1863 in 2009?

John H. Summers has a terrific new article in The New Republic that examines ongoing work to restore the battlefield site at Gettysburg to its "1863 appearance" -- whatever that might be.

Summers writes that:

The project likely delights the reenactors who troop to Gettysburg every year in pursuit of authenticity, as well as those tourists who expect less to encounter history during their battlefield trip than to experience it. Academic historians also appear to approve. University of Virginia professor Gary Gallagher, who advised a recent project at the battlefield, cheers in the current issue of Civil War Times that "there has never been a better time to visit Gettysburg." Those who might object to the removal of the trees, he says, are "people who don't understand the difference between a historic park and Yosemite." Rehabilitation has something for everyone: It flatters the left's suspicion of cultural authority, its invitation to ordinary Americans to participate in their history, even as it honors conservatism's fetish for an unchanged, historically correct past. Indeed, Gettysburg, the jewel of America's battlefields, is one of several currently targeted for rehabilitation, including Vicksburg and Antietam.

But Summers takes a dim view of the project:

To truly experience what it was like to be at Gettysburg, we would need to lie with soldiers as they bled to death, groaning in pain; rotting corpses with missing limbs; streams running red; winds swarming with flies; air smelling of burning horseflesh. As we cannot know the precise cartography of the battlefield, or the movements of every soldier, or the location of every tree, so we should not try to leap backward into authenticity, or expect to become an eyewitness to history simply by showing up. The arrogance laid up around this expectation is astonishing.

I have visited Gettysburg 15 or so times, and have wandered all over the battlefield. I have even had an opportunity to clamber up the face of Little Round Top. The Confederate assault on it must have been astonishingly difficult -- and its near success almost miraculous. Summers' essay is a keenly argued, carefully researched and deeply felt essay on history and time, memory and conflict, that is worth reading and pondering.

(I recently reviewed Summers' book of essays -- Every Fury on Earth -- for the most recent issue of BookForum. It's also worth checking out.)

Photograph of dead Confederate soldier in the "Devil's Den" at Gettysburg by Alexander Gardner: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

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