Fighting a new Gettysburg battle

June 11, 1998|By George F. Will

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- "For every Southern boy fourteen years old," wrote William Faulkner, "not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863 . . ." It is July 3, with Pickett's brigades poised for a long walk across a field of fire and into legend.

There is again conflict here, this time swirling around a proposed use of private money to replace the visitors' center with one better able to preserve and display artifacts and to attract and educate visitors. There are ringing denunciations of alleged plans for "selling off" American history and for building a "mall" on hallowed ground.

Such overheated rhetoric is partly local merchants' commercialism gussied up as patriotism, and partly reflects a dogmatic presumption of philistinism in the National Park Service. That presumption is not groundless. In 1974 the Park Service permitted the building of a privately owned 310-foot observation tower, a wicked blight on the battlefield vista.

Disrespect for the national patrimony of Civil War battlefields should be a hanging offense. But the inconvenient fact is that Lee's and Meade's armies collided not in a bucolic setting but at a crossroads town, which was not then preserved, like a fly in amber. It went on growing.

Stirring interest

The 1993 movie "Gettysburg" (based on Michael Shaara's novel "The Killer Angels," of which there are 2.5 million copies in print) caused the number of yearly visitors to surge 400,000, to 1.7 million, the current rate. The visitors' center, built in 1921 and added to 14 times, can display only 7 percent of the artifacts and cannot store the rest in conditions that prevent decay.

The new center (which also would replace the Cyclorama Center, which houses, inadequately, the huge 1884 painting of Pickett's Charge) would be built on ground that during the battle was a staging area, where no clash of arms occurred. The old center would be demolished and the land (including parking lots beneficial to nearby businesses) would be restored to croplands and orchards, as in 1863. Local merchants resent that there will be food services and relevant shops at the new center, as there are at, for example, Washington's National Gallery.

With his gray-flecked sandy beard, Gettysburg Park Superintendent John Latschar, 51, could have stepped from a Mathew Brady photograph. He has a doctorate degree in American history from Rutgers University and he regrets that the current visitors' center is "a curator's museum," holding artifacts in place -- rifles and other stuff behind glass. He aspires to build an "interpretive museum" that, using interactive media and other teaching devices, will explain why the war came and why men walked through fields of fire.

The Park Service receives just one-tenth of 1 percent of the federal budget, but this ludicrous Congress will not fund the $43 million improvement. (It is busy larding hundreds of billions in spending into this year's highway and tobacco bills.) So the Park Service proposes, in effect, to borrow the money, allowing a private, nonprofit foundation to build and operate the center, which will offer no long-term profit-making: It will revert to the Park Service within 25 years.

The park was begun in 1864 by a private Pennsylvania group and still is a work in progress. One thousand of the 5,000 acres within the park's boundary (it did not have a congressionally defined boundary until 1990) are privately owned, and a private group just purchased for the park some acres on the shoulder of Little Round Top from which Company B of the 20th Maine launched Joshua Chamberlain's countercharge, celebrated in "The Killer Angels."

Fast food blight

Pickett's Charge passed through what now are parking lots of Howard Johnson's and Hardee's. But before the Park Service began consolidating the pertinent land, there was a Stuckey's restaurant in the middle of the second day's battle, where Longstreet attacked through the peach orchard and wheat field.

Confusion is common about, as well as in, combat. One visitor here -- a senior military officer, no less -- said he had also visited battlefields at Antietam and Chickamauga and wasn't it amazing that so many important battles had occurred on Park Service land. Another visitor expressed skepticism about a guide's description of the fierce fighting because there are no bullet marks on the monuments.

Given that the vast majority of Americans have never heard a shot fired in anger, the imaginative presentation of military history in a new facility here is vital, lest rising generations have no sense of the sacrifices of which they are beneficiaries.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/11/98

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