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National Battlefield Tower at Gettysburg

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: September 23, 2000 
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BEATING A DEAD TOWER

I guess by now you've heard about the demise of the National Battlefield Tower at Gettysburg. The tower went down with a crash–and a flourish. Through the miracle of modern communications technology, the detonation of strategically placed dynamite was synchronized with the firing of a cannon aimed at the tower by a reenactment unit. For all the world, it looked like that cannon had shot down the 307-foot tower.

Like most people, I struggle with the bad habit of going over things past, things which cannot be changed. Maybe I shouldn't, but I want to rethink for a moment why the tower had to come down, and whether it was right for the government to force the issue.

Now, I'm not exactly a cheerleader for the anything-to-make-money school of unrestricted capitalism. I feel a knot in my stomach whenever I drive through portions of the township where I work, where the beautiful farm, meadow, and forest lands of my youth have turned into acre upon acre of pavement, malls that duplicate other malls less than a mile away, or treeless, look-alike developments named for the landscapes they obliterated, like "Deer Meadows" or "Heritage Farms." It seems as though our communities need to reevaluate what we love about where we live, and permit or deny private development accordingly.

The same sort of logic should apply to historic sites, such as the Gettysburg battlefield. Development around the battlefield isn't a bad thing, but it needs to be managed for the sake of the community and the site's integrity. The individual's right to develop should stop where the rights of the community–be it local, regional, or national–begin. What happened with the tower was that the national community, represented by the U.S. government, determined it was intruding on the integrity of the battlefield. It had to come down.

Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, I immediately think, "but on the other hand…" Who is qualified to say whether something is infringing on the common good? If you polled people, asking whether they thought the tower should have been removed, you would find them sharply divided. Some would say the Gettysburg battlefield should be restored in nearly every detail to its 1863 appearance, complete with clear-cut fields where woods now stand. Others would say the tower was simply too large and ugly. But many others would tell you they considered the tower a valuable learning tool, a vantage point from which they could really understand the Battle of Gettysburg. There was no consensus on the tower; at the level of public opinion, there was a hung jury.

It's always a balancing act, this business of being a free country. It's a fine line between having neighborhood rules about building exteriors, as on Boston's historic Beacon Hill, and micromanagement from city hall. It's a fine line between restricting tobacco companies' ability to market their dangerous products, and telling people they're not allowed to smoke. That fine line has always shaped American history. The line moves a lot, and people don't always agree where it should fall. But it is precisely in striving to see the line, case by case, while working through our constitutionally established institutions, that America really becomes a land of freedom, justice, and the rule of law.

Should the tower have come down? I'm not sure. Welcome to America!


Jim Kushlan, Former Editor, Civil War Times, 2000



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