Gettysburg at 150

I attended The Future of Civil War History conference recently at Gettysburg. One outstanding element of the conference involved a series of field experiences, two-hour plus morning tours with various experts covering topics like battlefield rehabilitation or the fighting in downtown Gettysburg, but these filled up incredibly quickly during the pre-registration period. My guess is that the conference organizers could have hosted twice as many of these as they did and they would still have been oversubscribed.

I was most curious about the sessions “New Media and the Future of Civil War History” and “Interactive History: Creating a Gaming Experience at Civil War Sites.” The New Media session was very well attended and full of interesting presentations. The session, chaired by Scott Nesbit of the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond, aimed to address how new media technologies are transforming scholarly methods, research, dialogue, and outcomes, as well as enabling the wider visualization and dissemination of history. I learned about a number of great digital history projects: Matthew Pinsker’s House Divided at Dickinson College; Evan Kutzler’s Slavery at South Carolina College; and Anne Sarah Rubin’s Sherman’s March – Mapping Memory. Lloyd Benson, a professor at Furman University, asked how do historians deal with storytelling in light of these new tools, stressing how new media enables crowdsourcing and participation from new constituencies. Sharon Leon from George Mason’s Center for History and New Media made a critical point when she asked, who are the users? How do we empower them? She observed that we are currently building sites mostly for scholars, but what about for interpreters, docents, or others in the field, or for students or high-school teachers? What are the preconceptions and knowledge base of these audiences? How do we model behavior to encourage engagement with sources and the more challenging questions that engage historians?

Little Round Top
View of the battlefield from Little Round Top, March 16, 2013. Photo by Marcelo Guidoli.

The Gaming panel, chaired by Trevor Owens of the Library of Congress, was not exactly what I expected, and was somewhat sparsely attended. Although there was little that seemed to address the title of the session—i.e. gaming a civil war battlefield—there was a lively, informative discussion and a number of interesting projects discussed. Rebecca Mir of the New-York Historical Society presented the DiMenna Children’s History Museum’s interactives and stressed the value of working with a professional game designer, how museums should be collaborating more often with this sector (i.e., “No More Chocolate Covered Broccoli: Collaboration Between Game Designers and Historians is Key”). The most interesting project for me was at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Indiana, presented by the director of exhibits Brian Mancuso; it was a completely “analog” experience, no new media component. The park embraces an “Opening Doors” approach to the past. The gaming revolves around a given identity—cook, farmhand, housekeeper, a merchant, criminal, etc.—that the visitor chooses from a set of cards; the cards present a series of tasks to accomplish in the village, ensuring that each participant visits several different spaces or buildings, engages with at least a few of the “village residents” (the costumed staff enactors), and learns a set of new skills, feeling themselves become a part of the 1836 community. Instead of simply viewing the historical village as a bystander, gaming in this set up ensures active participation and identification. It is apparently hugely popular.

As interesting as these panel discussions were, the best part of the trip to Gettysburg was the opportunity to explore the battlefield, which I hadn’t seen in over a decade, and to visit the new (2008) visitor’s center.

Gettysburg Cyclorama
Richard Neutra’s 1962 Cyclorama, as it appeared on March 15, 2013. Photo by the author.

I was there in time to pay my respects to the remains of Neutra’s Cyclorama building— epitome of Park Service Modern—reduced to rubble in the days preceding the conference. (Watch the demolition video here.)

The presentation of the restored Cyclorama, the 1884 in-the-round painting of Pickett’s Charge, was excellent, as was the introductory film, “A New Birth of Freedom,” narrated by Morgan Freeman. The National Park Service has extensive programming scheduled for the 150th anniversaries of both the battle (July 1-3) and the Gettysburg Address (Nov. 19).

Trees along West Confederate Avenue, March 15, 2013. Photo by the author.

Touring the battlefield, I was captivated by the idea of “witness trees”—elements of the landscape that were there 150 years ago, our last living links to the battle. The National Park Service has gotten some negative press in recent years for the wanton destruction of some of these trees. In 1999 the NPS approved an environmental impact statement and management plan, which focuses on battlefield rehabilitation. Their work is compellingly structured around figuring out how the landscape was used over the course of the three-day battle and which features proved significant to the outcome, tying the restoration work closely to their interpretation development. The challenges are great: the landscape of 1863 had some 860 acres of woodlands, while by the 1990s that number had grown to close to 2000 acres. Conversely, the 230 acres of orchards of 1863 had been reduced by the 1990s to just 18 acres. Components of the plan include restoring historic view sheds, fence lines, lanes and trails, replanting missing historic woodlots, and removing non-historic vegetation; there is no specific mention of witness trees.

It makes sense that the NPS is focused on a large-scale managing of the landscape in order to establish a vista akin to one a soldier might have experienced in 1863. But it’d be nice not to forget the trees for the forest! One of the legislated purposes of the Gettysburg National Military Park is the preservation of natural features that were significant to the outcome of the battle. And the public cares about “the real thing.” They want to be able to look at a tree, ideally one that’s been marked and protected, and know that it was there, that it saw the battle. Some individuals seem to be tackling this on their own—one local resident has tagged a number of trees within the national cemetery grounds and published a small guide to them. Another has been compiling a website catalogue, a project that currently lacks a map and needs some graphic design help to make the site’s information more legible. Let’s hope the Park Service takes advantage of this landmark anniversary to establish a public-oriented program to preserve and celebrate individual witness trees. There won’t be the same opportunity at the 200th.