Page 2 of 3   <       >

At Last, a Gettysburg Redress

It is an odd way to spend $15 million -- the artistic equivalent of preserving and rebuilding an old McDonald's or saving a commercial sign simply because it's become a familiar part of the landscape. But after almost 100 years of life at Gettysburg, there was no question that the cyclorama would be retained.

That is typical of the often irrational choices that must inevitably be made when the goal is to restore a place to its look at a given point in history. According to the Park Service, in 1863 there were 898 acres of wooded land on the battlefield; today trees cover about 1,974 acres. Removing them is history's gain, but the environment's loss -- though, to be fair, the Park Service is also re-creating wetlands and the new visitor center is heated and cooled with geothermal wells.

And while site lines are re-created by removing forest and rebuilding old lanes, roads and fences, the battlefield is covered with 1,328 monuments, which feels like one for every regiment that trod the bloody fields. Some of them, especially the Pennsylvania memorial, are so large they amount to substantial stone structures. None were there when the battle was fought, of course, but there are no plans to remove them.

Curiously, the effort to rehabilitate the battlefield as authentic, 19th-century farmland comes when the events of the battle are increasingly being subsumed into a different kind of historical narrative. The daily blow-by-blow is still there. But it is surrounded by a broader discussion of the early U.S. history, slavery, westward expansion and the fraught presidential election of 1860. Only about a third of the museum space is devoted to the three-day battle, in which almost 8,000 men died and tens of thousands were wounded or captured.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), who hasn't yet seen the new visitor center, thinks the Park Service is making progress in its effort to tell a broader story. He toured Civil War sites in 1996 and said he found that many of them "wouldn't even tell you why they were fighting." Jackson noticed that sites that were in areas without much political or racial diversity tended to focus more minutely on battle tactics and elide the whole issue of the war's causes. So he inserted language to accompany a 2000 Interior Department funding bill that required Park Service managers to emphasize "the unique role that the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War and its role, if any, at individual battle sites."

Visitors who sit through the new film will hear a collage of voices on the subject of the war's causes, including passages from Frederick Douglass's 1852 speech "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?," which bubbled up to new prominence during the recent controversy over remarks made by Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Even more powerful is the film's reminder that the 1913 Gettysburg reunion, which documentarian Ken Burns celebrated in conventional style as a moment of healing between North and South, was in fact a rapprochement only for white people, even as Jim Crow laws were becoming pervasive throughout the South. And that President Woodrow Wilson, who spoke at the reunion ceremony of new brotherhood between North and South, returned to the White House to sign orders segregating the federal workforce.

This hasn't come without controversy. Rogers points out that Gettysburg was originally a military park, that it was for decades a place for military officers to study the particulars of a particular battle.

"It is kind of understandable that the original emphasis on Civil War battlefields had to do with strategy and tactics and battlefield action," he says.

And then there was opposition from Southern groups who felt not only that the traditional emphasis on the battle and heroes of the battle should be retained, but that focusing on slavery as a cause of the war diminished the importance of states' rights as an issue.

There is also deep discomfort among many Park Service people about the degree to which private groups are funding public initiatives. Robert Arnberger, who sits on the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, worries that the increased reliance on private money is weaning Americans from the responsibility to protect places like Gettysburg with tax dollars.

"On the surface that appears to be a really neat idea," Arnberger says of the new fad for public-private partnerships. "The problem is that the projects that get done are only the projects that you have a partner for. And it skews the entire prioritization of what's important in the Park Service."


<       2        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company