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Battle of the Gettysburg Ghosts

Res Publica

August 2010

by Kevin Kearns

When I think of ghost tours I tend to think of the same things that most other Americans would think of. The tour is led by a guide who takes a group of people who all have the same desire — to hear ghost stories and experience the supernatural. These tours can take place anywhere so long as there is a market for them. I, however, have a unique experience with ghost tours.

My junior year of college I spent the fall semester at Gettysburg College studying the Civil War. Very soon after my arrival I recognized that ghost tours were a big business for the town of Gettysburg. On any given night I could walk down the street and see people standing in black cloaks holding a single lantern offering to take me, my friends, or anyone else who happened to walk by on a ghost tour. It makes sense that ghost tours would thrive in a town where tens of thousands of men gave their lives. Also, Gettysburg is the most visited battlefield and one of the most visited national parks, so there certainly is a market for the tours.

As time passed, I noticed there was a feeling of disgust amongst my fellow students and professors for the tours. They saw the ghost tours as mindless diversions from the true purpose that Americans should have when visiting the town. The tours ruined history that should be taught purely without the taint of fabricated legends. The ghost tours were not allowed onto the battlefield. However, I began to notice more and more that these people not only wanted to rid the town of the ghost tours but everything that could divert a tourist’s attention from history.

The conflict is a fight for the soul of the town of Gettysburg. On the one side there are the people who use tourism as their livelihood, who I will refer to as commercialists. The commercialists use the battle through ghost tours, restaurants, hotels, or gift shops for economic gain. They understand the town to be their own. Their families have lived there for generations and have a legitimate stock in the welfare of the town, apart from the battlefield. They see the battlefield not as a specimen that needs to be preserved, but rather as a tool that needs to be utilized in order that the town will grow and prosper.

The other side of the conflict is a group of people who study and teach about the battle who I will call academia. But there is even a split within this group. There are those who properly understand the battle and those who have an incomplete understanding. Academia includes the college and the National Park Service. The line between these two divisions is differing perceptions of the purpose for studying the battle. Both take historical research very seriously. They have an aversion to anything that seems to promote historic lore, rather than true research. So when a ghost tour goes to certain buildings around the town and tells the ghost stories, both find the tours more at fault for making up stories than for the tours in and of themselves. There is another reason academia find the commercialists at fault: battlefield encroachment. Gettysburg does not necessarily have the problem that other battlefields have, mostly because of its fame, but certain battlefields, such as Fredericksburg, have seen almost all of the battlefield developed into gas stations and strip malls. Academia will do anything and everything possible to preserve the battlefield.

These two divisions within academia may unite in their cause against the commercialists, but they conflict with each other in how to understand the battlefield. The incomplete academics have a historicist understanding. The battle is important because it was big and it was historical. They focus on preserving historical artifacts like muskets, cannon balls, and minie balls. This division fails to make the connection between the battlefield and American principles. It is the complete academics who make that connection. Instead of filling the new visitor center with muskets, the complete academics use the opportunity to educate Americans on why the battle was important not only historically, but because of what it means to the American soul.

This battle over the soul of the town is probably something that most small towns would love to have. Even other battlefields do not have the conflict to the same extent or it just is not as important. Gettysburg is particular because of what it means. Most Americans do not know what Cold Harbor, Perrysburg, or Shiloh are or if they have heard of these battles, do not know their importance. When Americans think of the battles of the Civil War, they think of Gettysburg. There is something about the nature of the battle itself that signifies the nature of America. It has held the public mind since July 4, 1863. It was the war’s northern-most battle and is considered the turning point of the war. The battle also boasts Lincoln’s understanding of the purpose of not only why the men fought, but why men would have to continue to fight and die for the Union. Lincoln articulated this when he said, “Now, we are engaged in a great Civil War, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war.” The battle is an example of the war that almost tore the nation apart forever. It means so much to Americans because the battlefield shows us that the American regime has endured to this day and will endure. The fight over the soul of the town matters because the faction who wins will control the memory of what it means to be an American. If the commercialists won control of memory, the battlefield would turn into an amusement park. If the incomplete academics won control, no one would be allowed onto the battlefield because someone might step on a blade of grass. The complete academics, however, have the best and fullest understanding of why the battlefield needs to be conserved and understood apart from the ghost tours.

Lincoln also said in his Gettysburg Address, “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggles here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Which of these three divisions has the closest understanding to Lincoln’s address? The commercialists certainly use the town to better their condition just like any good Whig would do. However, their understanding is incomplete. Lincoln said that the battlefield cannot be any more consecrated than by the blood of those who fought there, but the commercialists forget that the battlefield should be respected. The incomplete academics are focused on preserving historical artifacts because these artifacts are historical. These people forget the reason why Americans need to understand the battlefield properly, outside of staring at minie balls. The complete academics have the closest understanding to Lincoln’s address. The battlefield should be used for the education of Americans. By walking the ground of Pickett’s Charge, standing atop Little Round Top, and looking at the graves of those who gave their lives to create a new birth of freedom, Americans will learn something about what it means to be an American. This cannot be done through ghost tours or minie balls.

Kevin Kearns is a senior from Concord, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and History.

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