There has never been a better time to visit Gettysburg. Both the historical landscape and the National Park Service’s interpretation afford visitors a splendid opportunity to understand what brought the armies to Pennsylvania, how the battle unfolded, what Union victory meant in the broader sweep of the war and how Americans have remembered what the soldiers—and Abraham Lincoln—did there in 1863.
I make this claim on the basis of more than a hundred visits to the battlefield. My first, as a 14-year-old from Colorado entranced with the Civil War, came in 1965; my most recent, with middle and high school teachers, just a few weeks ago. The changes have been striking over the years. On my initial trip, Gouverneur K. Warren still reigned as the hero of Little Round Top. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was virtually invisible—a circumstance Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels (1974), Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War (1990) and Ron Maxwell’s film Gettysburg (1993) would alter dramatically. The National Tower appeared in the mid-1970s, an affront to the battlefield that was mercifully demolished in 2000. A Ford dealership on the Carlisle Road mocked the landscape of the first day’s fight until its recent removal. Trees obscured so many parts of the field from the 1960s through the 1990s—including, among many others, Devil’s Den, Oak Hill and the ground along Plum Run north of the Trostle House—that important elements of the tactical action made little sense.
Resolute leadership by Superintendent John Latschar over the past dozen years has yielded spectacular results. The park has cut trees (despite shrill opposition from people who don’t understand the difference between a historic park and Yosemite), built miles of historically accurate fences, planted orchards and otherwise labored to restore the battlefield to its 1863 appearance. Visitors can now stand where John Bell Hood’s division formed for its assault on July 2, look toward Devil’s Den and the Round Tops, and understand what those Texans, Georgians, Alabamians and Arkansans saw. They can retrace the steps of the attackers in the largely open ground of July 1863—whereas just two years ago they would have had to fumble through confusing woods to find the Triangular Field where the 1st Texas and 3rd Arkansas collided with the 124th New York and two sections of Captain James E. Smith’s New York battery. Before the tree cutting, when I led tours that included the walk from Hood’s jump-off point to Devil’s Den, I always breathed a private sigh of relief when we emerged from the woods in the right place. Anyone who has not been to the park recently will appreciate the revelatory impact of the scenic restoration.
They also will benefit from a greatly improved visitor center. Generations of tourists crowded into two large buildings on Cemetery Ridge—one housing French artist Paul Philippoteaux’s Cyclorama, the other a nondescript brick structure offering cramped exhibits that lacked any real theme. Both structures stood on a crucial part of the battlefield, erected in eras before it became unacceptable to so violate historic ground. A new visitor center opened this past summer, with more exhibit space and state-of-the-art storage for the park’s priceless collection of relics and research materials. Soon the buildings on Cemetery Ridge will be razed and the terrain restored to its wartime contours. That will be a tremendous victory for all who have lamented their jarring presence and huge parking lots.
The new visitor center and its exhibits have drawn extensive fire from a range of critics. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will say that I served as one of the historians who advised designers about the exhibits. I have been fascinated by the reaction—much of which has broken down along a line separating those who know a great deal about Gettysburg and those who might visit the battlefield just once or twice. It is the former who seem most upset. They lament the absence of long rows of shoulder arms that filled a wall in the old museum, insist that far more relics should be on display, wonder why there is not more explanation of different types of artillery rounds, and worry that visitors might be denied a full appreciation of the variety of Union and Confederate belt buckles and buttons. On a broader level, some critics believe the new exhibits devote far too much attention to framing the battle and not enough to its tactical ebb and flow. Why so much about slavery and the causes of the war? Why a section on how the conflict was remembered? Why so much material on civilians?
I believe the critics care deeply about Gettysburg but miss several key points. First, exhibits should convey just a general sense of the battle’s tactical story. Walking the battlefield, where hundreds of interpretive markers assist visitors, is the only way to achieve real tactical understanding. Second, it is very important to explain why a battle mattered, how it fit into the greater sweep of the conflict. If a visitor leaves the park knowing where Company B of the 20th Maine fought on July 2 but is ignorant about the volatile Northern political situation within which the campaign unfolded, I would reckon the visit a failure. Finally, I believe Gettysburg functions as the closest thing we have to a national Civil War museum. Most of the 1.5 million yearly visitors are neither experts on the battle nor well informed about the war. The new exhibits may be their only significant opportunity to learn about the Civil War, and for most tourists the difference between a Schenkl shell and a Hotchkiss bolt is utterly beside the point. But if they gain some knowledge about the battle’s tactics, why the armies were in Adams County and how the site became a focus of reconciliation, I would judge their visit a success. Because of exemplary work at the park over the past few years, the chances of such success are far greater than ever before.