On a Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933–2013
Jennifer M. Murray
University of Tennessee Press
Gettysburg is a household name, and the historic battle normally produces several military studies a year. Nearly as many books have appeared concerning the aftermath of the battle, including Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the preservation of the battlefield. In addition to reports and histories by National Park Service staff, academic and popular historians have also paid attention to Gettysburg’s aftereffect, with writers like Jim Weeks, Thomas Desjardin and Amy Kinsel scripting the park’s history and its role in memory. Since most of those historians worked in the 1990s, their stories are dated; Jennifer M. Murray has provided an up-to-date assessment of many more recent changes at the battlefield.
Murray traces Gettysburg’s growth and its role in memory from 1933, when the NPS took over from the War Department, until the present. Thus her story is essentially an overview of the Park Service’s governance, and the agency does not always receive high marks. Murray’s work essentially revolves around the dual NPS desires to preserve and use the park at the same time, and she homes in on the superintendents who possessed almost dictatorial powers in swaying the park’s development the way they deemed fit. Questionable procedures emerged, such as the 1930s idea of planting trees to block views of the monuments. In effect, some superintendents treated the battlefield, until recently, more as a tourist attraction than a historic site to be preserved.
Murray also keys in on the memory aspects of Gettysburg’s history, especially the long focus on the “High Water Mark” military vision that has recently been replaced with the “New Birth of Freedom” social vision. She places the broadening of the battlefield’s interpretation squarely amid the recent growing progressiveness of the Park Service’s wider interpretative policy; the result is obvious in the new visitor center that opened in 2008, with its fresh, expansive interpretation.
Murray’s book is solidly researched, well written and, perhaps of more lasting value, the only work to bring the battlefield’s history up to the present, incorporating the most recent changes.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.