Haunted by the Past: Battles over Civil War Myth-Making in Gettysburg
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As the smoke began to dissipate over the small town of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, what was revealed was a scene of unimaginable carnage. The battle that lasted for three long days had left a scar on the town and its residents. It is well known that the Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War. Lesser known are the ways that the event changed Gettysburg from a small and beautiful town surrounded by nature to a place that commemorates and commodifies the battle. Other towns also saw extensive changes, but change in Gettysburg was unique: the site of a national historic park, with some 20 museums, countless tourist shops, and one to two million visitors from the 1980s to 2010s, Gettysburg still carries the legacy of that bloody battle. This project explores how tourists, activists, and others interested in the meanings of narratives of the Civil War centered on Gettysburg. By examining guidebooks, maps, and newspaper articles, I analyze the remaking of Gettysburg in relation to heritage tourism, civil rights struggles, and politicians' rhetoric about American exceptionalism. Times of commemoration and division — the World Columbian Exposition, the battle’s 1913 reunion, and the Vietnam War — prompted Americans to revisit Gettysburg, to reclaim their citizenship, national memories of the war, or a romanticized past. To understand the development of Gettysburg tourism in recent decades, how current residents engage the town’s history, and the battle’s resonance in relation to contemporary political struggles, I conducted oral history interviews with 18 Gettysburg residents and Gettysburg College students. These accounts highlight some of the recurring issues in modern American society, such as the presence of right-wing militia groups in the context of political polarization and the challenge of teaching accurate American history. Gettysburg continues to serve as a battleground in contests over the Civil War and its legacies.