Thursday, October 23, 2008

Gettysburg Redux

Remember when I wrote that “the present always trumps the past”—that is, that the demands of making a living and the inescapable forces of commercialism eventually obscure our history? (As a reminder, see Ruminations on Forgetting. For further evidence, see also the lovely diner above, smack dab in downtown Gettysburg, where our 16th president is fronting a scrambled eggs and hash browns joint.)

Well, it turns out, not only was I wrong, but I was way wrong.

We’ve just returned from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, arguably the most important historical site in America. (Actually, that’s a hard question. I tried to list the top 5: Gettysburg, Lexington/Concord, Pearl Harbor, the first McDonalds in Des Plaines and Disneyland? Something like that.)

Anyway, it was at Gettysburg, in the first days of July 1863, that 165,000 Union and Confederate soldiers met. After three days of relentless, courageous battle, culminating in 12,000 Confederates advancing across open fields in an attack now known as “Pickett’s Charge,” General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia retreated south.

Pickett’s Charge has come to be called the “high-water mark of the Confederacy” because, after losing 5,000 soldiers in an hour, Lee also lost both his air of invincibility and the war’s initiative, Lincoln had his elusive victory and would be re-elected, and the Union would eventually be preserved.

As you visit the battlefield and walk Pickett’s Charge with one of the superb Licensed Battlefield Guides, or visit one of the other important sites from the first two days of the battle, you come to understand that all it would have taken was, perhaps, a little less humidity and smoke, or a few dozen more men advancing against a key flank, and everything might have been different.

The reason I’m writing about Gettysburg, though, is not to wax poetic about the battle. (Too many smart people are already engaged in that practice.) What I really wanted to highlight are the remarkable things happening at Gettysburg today.

George Will wrote about it recently, describing the creation over a decade ago of something called the Gettysburg Foundation.

It’s a private organization that has partnered with the Gettysburg National Military Park to do, in essence, the great things that only a private organization can do, while allowing the Park Service to do the great things that only a public organization can do.

In that regard, I’ve read a lot of negative things lately, in the context of the financial bailout, about public-private partnerships somehow being repugnant, or moving the country closer to socialism.


Here’s what I can tell you about that cockeyed point of view: The Gettysburg Foundation and the Park Service—keying off the vision of Superintendent John Latschar, the generosity of Bob Kinsley, and the leadership abilities of Bob Wilburn--have invented a public-private partnership that features the very best parts of capitalism, stewardship, preservation, patriotism and education.

The result is a new, $100M visitors center, the reclamation of a spectacular 1880s Cyclorama of Pickett’s Charge, and the gradual reshaping of the Gettysburg battlefield to recreate the terrain and sight-lines commanders would have experienced in July 1863.

Battlefield 1, Home Sweet Home motel (now removed) 0.

This means that the old visitors center and historic (but still hideous) cyclorama building, which sit in the middle of the battle and on ground where hundreds of soldiers fell, will be removed. This also means that a combination of professionals and volunteers have raised money, buried utility lines, demolished anachronistic viewing towers, preserved farms and monuments, planted trees and shrubs and rehabilitated orchards.

And, to recreate the 1863 battlefield, the Park Service has cut down trees.

Private groups can do lots of things well, including running gift shops at museums and negotiating good contracts with concessions providers. But private groups cannot go before Congress and ask to cut down trees in a military park.

For that matter, it's hard to imagine the Park Service doing it. But they did, and it worked, resulting in a favorite line from the trip: “Remember that this is a military park, not a wildlife preserve.” (In the process, of course, acres of wetlands were rehabilitated and hundreds of trees replanted—but in the locations where they grew in 1863.)

The picture above shows Devil's Den from Little Round Top, cleared of trees and looking just the way soldiers would have seen it in 1863. This historic view simply didn't exist just a short time ago.

There are some 13,000 photographic images of Gettysburg in and around the time of the battle (think people knew it was important, even then?). This means that what you see today can be made amazingly consistent with what you would have seen in 1863.

The new museum complex is beautiful, situated near the battle but on land uninvolved in the fighting. It tells the story of Gettysburg in its historical context, focusing as much on why the battle was fought and—most important—what it means today, as on the battle itself. The Foundation employed 11 historians reacting to the creation of exhibits by the Park Service and private designers. If that sounds like a second battle of Gettysburg you would be misinformed; apparently the museum came together in a real spirit of collaboration.

A centerpiece of the new Gettysburg is the Cyclorama of Pickett's Charge. Sue Boardman and Kathryn Porch have written a wonderful history and guide to the Cyclorama—a 365-foot painting in the round (the IMAX of 1884)—which was so emotionally stirring that, we are told, grown men wept.

I have captured here a few pictures of the Cyclorama, none of which do it justice.

On the last morning of our stay, just as the sun was coming up, I threw on my running stuff and jogged up to Pickett’s Charge. There I was, gasping for air by General Lee, who was sitting on his horse and staring calmly across the open field at General Meade, back among the Union artillery.

I thought—wouldn’t this be a perfect run? A nice soft field for legs tired of pounding on cement. No traffic. A gentle uphill climb toward the Union position. One of the most historic twenty-minute marches in American history.

And then I thought. . .No. I probably wouldn’t jog in church, so I shouldn’t jog here. This is sacred ground.

And, come to think of it, what has been done at Gettysburg to reclaim history in the last 15 years is pretty hallowed as well.