Gettysburg Visitor Center, Pro and Con

As one who has publicly criticized the new visitor center complex at the Gettysburg National Military Park, I wish to make some comments in light of Gary W. Gallagher’s column “Go to Gettysburg!” in the February 2009 issue. I certainly agree with the basic premise of his article. By all means do visit the new complex. It has many things to offer both the veteran and novice visitor alike.

Where I do not agree with Mr. Gallagher, however, is the implied notion that somehow we should ignore missed opportunities for education as well as outright mistakes in the exhibits. I cannot help but feel that Mr. Gallagher does not think a totally misrepresented artifact on display is significant. Mistaken identifications, poorly reproduced uniforms and fraudulent artifacts are significant problems.

For example, the campaign hat attributed to Maj. Gen. George Meade is most likely an 1880s campaign hat someone substituted for the real thing many years ago. The visitor center Website prominently displays a Zouave officer’s kepi from the 10th New York. But it is not an American Civil War cap. The horn insignia on the front is the French chasseur or “hunting” horn insignia that was not used by many American soldiers except a few French-American militia units. The silver ball buttons and chinstrap are also giveaway clues. Furthermore, the officers of the regiment wear standard American-style insignia on their caps in all of the numerous photographic portraits of that regiment that I have seen.

I could list many more problems. Let me just state my belief that if Mr. Gallagher had found continuous references to the battle having been fought in August 1863 rather than July he would have objected. As a museum professional of nearly 40 years, the similar mistakes I found within the displays in relation to artifact descriptions and provenance are significant errors, and I object to them.

Michael J. McAfee

Curator of History, West Point

Newburgh, N.Y.

I found Gary W. Gallagher’s article on the Gettysburg visitor center very interesting. I now know that I am not alone in my disappointment with the new visitor center. When fundraising and planning were going on, everything I read and heard was that it would be the museum that had been needed for years, big enough for the entire collection of artifacts to finally be displayed. But that is not the way that it turned out. There is less on display than in the old facility.

The artifacts used are part of the décor and seem to be there only to lend atmosphere to the TV screens, pictures and narratives printed on the walls and partitions. This is not what many of us expected or wanted.

Glenn Singleton

Glen Burnie, Md.

I just received the February 2009 Civil War Times. My wife and I have been visiting the Gettysburg Battlefield almost on a yearly basis since 1994. It is always a pleasure to be there and try to picture the battle. Gary W. Gallagher’s article concerning the improvements in the battlefield is excellent. But I enjoyed his defense of the visitor center exhibits most of all.

Both of us are retired teachers and have some experience in presenting material. I saw young boys and girls absolutely fascinated with the presentations along with the adults. The cyclorama show is spectacular. I fully agree with Gallagher that this is the type of exhibit hall that is needed. To get casual visitors engaged in learning the significance of the battle should be the basis for the center, and it does this admirably. Some may get so engaged in the history of the war and battle because of this center that they join the critical masters of detail.

Joe and Pam Tausta

Oneonta, N.Y.

He Thinks It’s General Wheat

Congratulations to Mike Musick for his article “General Wheat, Is That You?” (December 2008). It’s a great piece of research, and Civil War Times did a nice layout. The full-page illustration of Mr. Musick’s ambrotype is especially impressive. He made a good, instinctive acquisition and was able to justify it with ample and convincing evidence. That is not always easy to do.

Somehow and some way, there is still good stuff out there for those who know what it is.

James Barber

Portrait Identification Specialist

National Portrait Gallery

Do Your Wedding Duds Still Fit?

In “Mary Todd’s Rebellious Relatives” (February 2009), the caption for the photo of Mrs. Lincoln on P. 40 says she’s wearing her wedding dress. This can hardly be the case, since she and Abraham were married in 1842, and the photo was taken as part of a series of Mathew Brady sittings in 1861 and 1862. While Mary Lincoln was always a little zaftig, she was surely also plumper 20 years after her marriage and probably would not have fit into her wedding dress.

Joseph M. Di Cola

Queen Creek, Ariz.

The article “Mary Todd’s Rebellious Relatives” notes that Mary’s mother, Eliza Parker, died in 1812, but Mary was born on December 13, 1818. Eliza married Robert Todd in 1812 and died July 6, 1825, when Mary was 7 years old. Also the caption for the picture of Mary Lincoln states that she is pictured in her wedding dress. That picture was taken during the White House years; styles in the 1840s, when the Lincolns wed, were very different from the hoop skirt.

David P. Charrier

Bethlehem, Pa.

Did Dennett Spin the Facts?

I found Stephen Budiansky’s article “Dark Days in the Southland,” in the December 2008 issue, very illuminating, both of the North and the South. If the article is a fair representation of John Richard Dennett’s reporting for The Nation, I believe it shows there was just as much hatred of the South in the North as there was hatred of the North in the South. After such a long and bloody war, that is understandable. Dennett, it seems, was concentrating on feeding the negative, anti-Southern prejudices and stereotypes that must have been widely held in the North. That is my conclusion because there didn’t seem to be any positive stories of black and white Southerners pulling together to get through the hard times.

I don’t believe it was all as completely negative as represented by Mr. Dennett’s reporting. Nor do I doubt racial prejudice was just as strong in the North. You only have to read about the actions and attitudes of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman to know that. Some in the media still harbor antiSouthern prejudice, as shown by the overwhelmingly negative reporting of issues involving Confederate heritage.

Thankfully, those of us who love history can offer a more fair and balanced representation of the war, its outcome and its impact on America.

Michael D. Jones

Iowa, La.

At Odds With Gallagher

Regardless of our opinions of the blue or gray, most of us who have read Gary Gallagher’s columns in Civil War Times and elsewhere will have taken offense at his campaign of personal slander and exaggerations about Southern history.

In “Lights…Camera…Civil War!” (June 2008), Gallagher explained why Northerners were not as passionate about the memory of their cause as Southerners: “The Northern equivalent of the Lost Cause has never been given a convenient name (perhaps winners worry less about such things than losers….It argued that slave-holding secessionists sought to undo the work of the founding generations by dismantling a Union.” So that is why some of us attempt to preserve the memory of our ancestors—because we are losers?

The real reason why both Northerners and Southerners try to preserve history is because it is often attacked by revisionists like Gallagher. I ask any – one who challenges my view of Gallagher’s works to order a series of memoirs by both Union and Confederate veterans and civilians for your library. You will find that the history of these people and their causes contradict Gallagher’s claims.

Zacharias Tims

Augusta, Maine

Give General Prentiss Credit

Regarding Timothy B. Smith’s article “Shiloh’s False Hero” (December 2008) about Benjamin Prentiss, the Union general who surrendered the Hornets’ Nest during the battle, I feel Mr. Smith does not give natural leadership its due.

Anyone who has dealt with true emergencies knows the value of natural leadership. General W.H.L. Wallace was down, making Prentiss the highest-ranking experienced Army officer then in command. Smith attempts to belittle Prentiss by insinuating only half an hour lapsed between Wallace being mortally wounded and Prentiss surrendering the Hornets’ Nest due to overwhelming odds. As instructed by Ulysses S. Grant, Prentiss held the line at all costs and followed his orders throughout. Thanks to his leadership, his men stood fast till the end.

What more could I have asked of one of my officers if this was my last order? Anyone who has ever been in a real emergency knows that a few seconds, let alone a half hour, can seem like a lifetime.

Smith also fails to account for a further distraction for the Confederates: thousands of captured men. Moving them to the rear took time and manpower, buying Grant time and further draining Confederate resources. The Rebels regrouped and headed for Pittsburg Landing, but were stopped.

General Prentiss was a faithful motivator of his men, and a natural leader. He earned the right to tell his story.

Jeff Palaka

Torrington, Conn.


Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.