Movies based on history have been popular since the rise of film in the entertainment industry. Transporting audiences to a different place and time period is something that film has always had the ability to do and often does very well. Though many films that are based on historical subject matter are carefully researched and try to be as historically accurate as possible, many historians take issue with their historical inaccuracies. There are countless opinions out in the world about the importance and role of historical accuracy in film. Most of these opinions fall into one of two camps: those that argue films should try to be more historically accurate if they are portraying a specific event or time period and those that argue that films should be allowed to take creative liberties with historical accuracy.
Historians will often argue, with good reason, that films that do not take historical accuracy seriously run the risk of giving audiences false impressions of historical events or even time periods as a whole. Films are often guilty of idealizing or romanticizing history at least to some degree, which can give the audience a false impression of the history behind the film. History is not black and white; there are often many different sides to a story and lots of gray areas, which can sometimes be difficult to convey in a film.
Films are intended to reach a wide audience, which can be both positive and negative when it comes to the issues of historical accuracy. Films are almost always made with the intent of making money for the studio by drawing in as large an audience as they possibly can. Most historians point out that Hollywood frequently collapses several characters or situations into one or a few to simplify a story but that those changes are acceptable if they aid general understanding. Films are made to be appealing to an audience that is not just comprised of historians, so it only makes sense that sometimes filmmakers must simplify events in order to have the plot make sense to audiences.
Historians recognize that films contribute to the public’s interest in history, but they often find serious shortcomings in Hollywood’s storytelling. The movie Gettysburg is among the best examples of this. Since its premier in 1993, Gettysburg has increased public interest in the Battle of Gettysburg, but it has also given the audience a simplified version of what occurred during the battle for reasons of concise storytelling. It would be next to impossible for any film to cover all of the events of the battle while still allowing time for character development and other key elements that make for a good film, which is why the filmmakers chose to include certain key events from the battle and left out others.
While film can be a great medium to aid in our understanding of past events, it is by no means perfect. Films must adhere to certain structures and conventions in order to tell the stories they aim to tell effectively, which often comes at the expense of history. Some films do succeed at representing history to the best of their ability, but no film will ever be able to replicate history exactly as it happened.
Many music and art students at Gettysburg College would recognize the name Schmucker as their building, or affectionately their ‘home,’ on campus. Alumni might even remember Schmucker Hall as their library. However, if asked who founded Gettysburg College, most students and alumni would probably not know his name. Fortunately, our campus is celebrating Founders Day this week to remember those, including our founder Samuel Simon Schmucker, who helped make our college #Gettysburgreat.
Samuel Simon Schmucker was born in 1799 in Hagerstown, Maryland to German immigrants. His father, John George Schmucker, was a pastor in Hagerstown before moving to York where he continued his ministry. Samuel Simon Schmucker attended the York County Academy before going to the University of Pennsylvania and then the theological seminary at Princeton. In 1820 he was granted membership in the Lutheran Synod and, by the next year, was ordained as a minister by the Maryland and Virginia Synod. As part of the Synod he was elected to a committee in charge of planning a Lutheran theological seminary. Gettysburg was chosen as the location for the seminary, perhaps because there was a large population of German Lutherans in the Gettysburg area and in Adams County. Classes opened at the Lutheran Theological Seminary on September 5, 1826, but after a year, Dr. Schmucker came to the conclusion that many of his students were not prepared in the manner they should be to continue theological studies. He devised creating a preparatory school to solve the problem. On June 25, 1827, the Classical Preparatory School opened and shared the same building as the Seminary. Due to financial problems, Dr. Schmucker bought the property in 1829 and changed the name of the Classical School to the Gettysburg Gymnasium. As both schools grew, there became a need for the Gettysburg Gymnasium to once again reestablish itself. Dr. Schmucker drafted and proposed a bill to make the Gettysburg Gymnasium into a college “for the education of youth in the learned languages, the arts, sciences, and useful literature.” On November 7, 1832, Pennsylvania College was “opened for the reception of Students.”
If many current students are not aware of the college’s origins, they are familiar with the college’s role in the Civil War. Still, it might come as an interesting surprise to learn that Schmucker was a strong opponent of slavery throughout his life. He first publicly spoke out against the peculiar institution at a Synod meeting in 1824. Theologians and religious leaders were split on their opinions of slavery. Not all supported it, but not all opposed it, either. While extremists on either end existed, Schmucker was a moderate. He lived for six years in Virginia where he became an opponent of slavery, but later in 1825 he became a slaveholder himself through his second marriage to Mary Catherine Steenbergen. He was forbidden to grant manumission to his slaves and thus treated them kindly, more as servants, and provided a religious and elementary education for them. When he moved to Pennsylvania in 1826, he took some of his slaves with him to be free. In his 1834 publication Popular Theology, he wrote:
“Himself a native of a slave state, and for many years resident among slaves, the writer is convinced that those who advocate entire, immediate abolition, do not understand the subject. This great work has its difficulties. But it is feasible. . . . The work, in justice to the master, and in mercy to the slave, must be gradual; but its commencement ought to be delayed no longer.”
He continued, that no matter who is guilty for bringing slavery to America first, both North and South should work to see its abolition.
In The Christian Pulpit, Schmucker vehemently attacked slavery, calling it a national sin. He exclaimed:
“As a patriot and a Christian, I feel bound to bear my testimony against the unjust laws relating to our despised and often oppressed colored population. . . . some of the laws on this subject are direct violations of the laws of God. . . . Until we have used our utmost efforts to purify our own statute book . . . we must stand guilty at the bar of heaven of participation in this sin.”
While Schmucker knew the process needed to be gradual, he was uncertain how to solve the slavery question. He was originally an advocate of sending slaves back to Africa, having joined the American Colonization Society. However, he also believed it was not the only way to abolish slavery. Throughout his career Schmucker continued to encourage antislavery views. As soon as he founded the Gettysburg Theological Seminary, he encouraged students to form the Society of Inquiry on Missions. The society’s goal was “the uplifting of the colored population in the United States.” Yet Schmucker remained moderate in his views, always advocating for gradual change, thus withdrawing from the Colonization Society when its actions became too extreme for his ideals.
During the war, Schmucker’s antislavery and abolitionist sentiments were well known throughout the South because his textbook on theology was widely circulated, and especially because many of his students at the Seminary were from the South. Dr. George Diehl reported that many soldiers in Lee’s army wanted to arrest Schmucker. Diehl himself had heard this from these soldiers during their invasion of Maryland and sent word to Schmucker who fled just in time before the Confederates invaded Gettysburg. His house was occupied for all three days of the battle and his belongings ransacked, not to mention the three cannonballs that went right through his house.
Schmucker was devoted to achieving his goals of founding a Lutheran seminary and a college. He financially supported the formation of a liberal arts college, buying up the property when money became tight. He also took risks in proclaiming and publishing his antislavery views. This Founders Day, take a moment to recognize the great work Schmucker and other key figures did to found Gettysburg College. #DoGreatWork
Anstadt, Peter. Life and Times of Rev. S.S. Schmucker, D.D., First Professor of Theology in the Lutheran Theological Seminary, at Gettysburg, Pa. York, PA: P. Anstadt & Sons, 1896.
The Papers of Samuel Simon Schmucker and the Schmucker Family, Special Collections, Gettysburg College.
Schmucker, S.S. The Christian Pulpit: The Rightful Guardians of Moral, in Political No Less Than in Private Life; A Discourse Delivered at Gettysburg, November 26, 1846, The Day Appointed by the Governor for Public Humiliation, Thanksgiving and Prayer. Gettysburg, PA: H.C. Neinstedt, 1846. The Papers of Samuel Simon Schmucker and the Schmucker Family. Special Collections, Gettysburg College.
Wentz, Abdel Ross. Pioneer in Christian Unity: Samuel Simon Schmucker. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.
When it comes to symbols of emancipation, President Abraham Lincoln is king. No other person is more associated with the abolition of slavery than “The Great Emancipator” himself. This holds true in Gettysburg just as much as it does throughout the country. Only last September, Gettysburg College erected a statue of Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in the hope that it would “promote the discussion of race relations in America today.” Yet when it comes to commemorating and remembering the struggle for emancipation, Lincoln is far from the only face that we should look to in our historic town.
The borough has a long and rich history of both slavery and liberation. The first African Americans to arrive in Gettysburg did so as slaves to Alexander Dobbin, the Presbyterian minister who founded a classical school in the soon-to-be-incorporated town. The Dobbin House, today a colonial tavern and eatery, was built in 1776 by Dobbin’s slaves. James Gettys, the borough’s founder and namesake, also owned a slave named Sydney O’Brien. For reasons unknown, Gettys freed O’Brien and gave her a house in the southwest corner of the town, close to the Dobbin family home. Thus was born Gettysburg’s free African American community.
Despite an early history rooted in slavery, Gettysburg would soon become a bastion of resistance. Only a few miles from the border with Maryland (a slave state), Gettysburg was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. African Americans in town were crucial to the anti-slavery efforts, despite living in constant fear of being kidnapped into slavery under the Fugitive Slave Acts. Their fears were well founded, too. In 1845, Catherine Paine, an African American woman who lived in nearby Bendersville, PA, was taken by slavers and brought back south of the border into slavery.
In spite of the dangers, black Gettysburgians worked hard to bring their enslaved brothers and sisters in the South up through their town and into the North and freedom. Jack Hopkins, the custodian of Pennsylvania College (now Gettysburg College), was part of a network that brought runaways from Thaddeus Stevens’s iron furnace in Caledonia along an unfinished (actual) railroad that led to Gettysburg. Hopkins worked closely with the Beta Deltas (also known as the “Black Ducks”), an unofficial anti-slavery fraternity at Pennsylvania College, alerting them of newly arrived runaways. Members of the fraternity then hid them in a makeshift cave on the summit of Culp’s Hill.
Hopkins was not alone in his efforts. Mag Palm, who successfully fought back against a group of men who attempted to enslave her, was an incredibly active agent with the Underground Railroad, known in Gettysburg at the time as “Steven’s Railroad.” Basil Biggs also helped, providing shelter for fugitive slaves in the McPherson Barn and his own house. In an ironic twist, one of the places used to hide fugitive slaves in Gettysburg was the Dobbin House, the very same structure built by slave labor in 1776.
Our sixteenth president was undoubtedly an incredibly important figure in the destruction of America’s “peculiar institution.” Yet it is important to remember that he was not the only figure in this struggle. In many communities, such as Gettysburg, he probably was not even the most important figure in that struggle. President Lincoln spent a matter of minutes in our small town promoting emancipation, yet black Gettysburgians had been working for decades to actively liberate themselves and their fellow African Americans. In many ways, Gettysburg has more black history than Lincoln history.
Creighton, Margaret S. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to observe one fact about Mars: it has a lot of rocks. While each is typically given a name based on protocols of scientific classification, many are known by informal, often humorous names like “Grandma” and “Space Ghost.” And now on Mars, there’s a rock for fans of Civil War history—“Chamberlain,” named of course for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top.
Aileen Yingst, the NASA scientist who named the rock, is a resident of Brunswick, Maine—the southern Maine town where JLC notably spent most of his adult life. And to this day, his presence there is inescapable. In Brunswick’s old town center, one can find pictures honoring him in numerous nearby restaurants, including one explicitly named for him. A local ice cream store reminds visitors to recycle their dishes because “Joshua Chamberlain would.” A bronze statue of him stands in a highly visible location close to the gates of the local Bowdoin College—the institution which Chamberlain attended as a student, taught at as a professor, and later served as president.
Bowdoin College also serves as the traditional summer home of the Maine State Music Theater, the organization which commissioned and premiered a musical based on Chamberlain’s—Chamberlain: A Civil War Romance. While only staged once more since then (in 2014), the show served to raise Chamberlain’s local profile even higher. Chamberlain’s Brunswick residence, a location featured in the musical, is within spitting distance of Bowdoin’s campus as well. Today, it is lovingly preserved as a museum by the local Pejepscot Historical Society. Avid followers of Civil War news may recognize that name—it was to the PHS that Chamberlain’s rediscovered Medal of Honor was donated in 2013. While a modest organization, the PHS makes a strong effort to make sure Chamberlain’s legacy is remembered, hosting a week of Civil War events each August to entertain and educate the public. The week is affectionately known as “Chamberlain Days.”
And even to this day, Brunswick remains Chamberlain’s home. He is buried just east of the college’s campus, in the somber Pine Grove Cemetery. The grave of his wife, Fanny, rests just next to his. Every so often, small flags are placed by the headstone out of respect—a fitting tribute, in my view, to one of the many men who we can thank for the fact that there are a full fifty stars on it.
Now, Brunswick is no Gettysburg. Despite all this, you won’t find Chamberlain’s face staring down at you from five different angles as you walk down the street. But for a small town in small state, geographically far removed from the Civil War’s actual events? It doesn’t do too badly. “Chambermania” isn’t monopolized by Brunswick, either. His birthplace of Brewer, much farther north in the state, also maintains his original homestead and a memorial statue. And to Mainers from across the rest of the state, he remains a heroic figure whom they can be proud to call their own. And honestly, is it any wonder we’ve latched on to him with such reverence? Only so many people of note have risen out of Maine—and I wouldn’t count on James G. Blaine or Oliver Otis Howard becoming overnight celebrities anytime soon.
Still, we cannot lay full claim to him. Since the massive success of Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel The Killer Angels and its 1993 film adaption Gettysburg, Chamberlain has attracted a wide national following. As one of the principle characters in both the novel and the film, each helped to popularize the story of Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, as well as his personal character, among Civil War buffs. Also to be credited is Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary The Civil War, which too prominently featured Chamberlain, and helped usher in a resurgence of interest in the Civil War era. Altogether, it’s why I would bet it’s thanks to these materials that I don’t actually need to explain Chamberlain’s story here—his defense of Little Round Top has become one of the classic and enduring tales of both the Battle of Gettysburg and the war itself. It’s perhaps for these reasons as well that Dr. Yingst was a Chamberlain fan even before she moved to Brunswick and sent him to Mars.
On the whole, it’s completely unsurprising that the Chamberlain story has become as popular as it is. It has all the makings of a good story: a professor turned amateur officer risks it all going to war to protect his country for high ideals. In doing so, he becomes an underdog in one of the most dramatic moments of one of the war’s most dramatic battles—fix bayonets!—and by many accounts, saves the day in one of the most critical battles of the war. It’s a romantic story that’s perhaps a better fit for a novel than the actual pages of history at first glance.
But while history is not a literary novel, it can still occasionally produce storybook moments. Chamberlain was not the perfect man. His frequently inflated ego, marital troubles, and difficulties adjusting to a non-military life are well documented. While his imperfections may frequently be drowned out by the mania surrounding his heroism, they are far from forgotten. And this is not strictly a bad thing. No historical figure is free from imperfection, but that shouldn’t prevent us from celebrating their heroic moments and virtues. It remains a job of responsible historians, meanwhile, to ensure that historical memory is not twisted and warped by these celebrations.
Detractors may say that the Chamberlain case has descended into that territory—it seems an exaggerated claim, for instance, to say that it was his actions that determined the Union army’s fate at Gettysburg. And yet, even this sort of distortion does not significantly damage the narrative of history, such as Lost Cause movements do. Rather, it only inflates the importance of one man, who as truth of fact did play an important role. Thus, it may be the responsible route of historians to remind people of the complexities surrounding such moments in history. Yet, even such a complex understanding would not diminish the pride and reverence felt by the citizens of Brunswick, Maine, and Civil War buffs towards Chamberlain. To us, he would still remain a hero, fully deserving of the honor of lasting celebration.
I had no plans of writing a blog post this week. I said my piece on ghost tours last year. This Halloween, it was the next generation’s turn to share their opinions on the matter. Jules and Jen both did a spectacular job on the subject, and I commend them even though our perspectives differ. But when I learned that my stance had come under fire from another blog, I eagerly leapt from the comfort of my editing armchair and returned to the front lines to compose this piece.
Now, I should clarify that I’m not rejecting folklore as a valid form of making sense of suffering. I firmly believe that it is a core component of Gettysburg’s heritage. I am only rejecting ghost tours as an authentic expression of folklore. It is true that spiritualism has long predated the emergence of the ghost tours industry. But I believe it is problematic to confound folklore with the stories told by ghost tours.
Let us for a moment distinguish between folklore and ghostlore. Ghostlore, I would argue, is merely one element of folklore. It is flashier, more marketable, and more prominent on the streets of Gettysburg than other forms of folklore. It is not the folklore of yesteryear—stories told to help people explain what we don’t understand. Gettysburg ghostlore is a commercial appropriation of as tragedy spread industrially. Can we really call this an “homage” to suffering, when profit is made from the exploitation of others’ sorrows?
Moreover, although the Sundance Kid seems to be convinced that ghost tours are in need of defending, Gettysburg’s ghosts are far from endangered. The same holds true for its Civil War history. But what about Gettysburg’s connections to Thaddeus Stevens, the legendary Radical Republican? What about Camp Colt and the town’s mobilization during the First World War? What about Mary Jemison, a white woman taken captive by Native Americans not far from town and who found a new family with her captors? Gettysburg’s folklore is very much a valid expression of the past, but it should include so much more than the ghosts that haunt it.
Ghosts have become just as much a part of the mainstream narrative that dominates all else as Lee and Lincoln. There is too much history and too much folklore already being left out of the Gettysburg narrative even before ghost tours are factored in. There are so many stories not being told that it grieves me that the ones that are told are told to death—and for profit.
I should mention here that I myself have taken part in a ghost tour. As a naive young first-year student, I roped Civil War Club into giving ghost tours to some of my classmates. I gave one myself. We didn’t stop at ghostlore, however. We covered it, for sure, telling stories of the Blue Boy, Penn Hall basement, and a few rumored suicides from the early twentieth century. But we didn’t seek to bring these stories to life so much as to explore their existence in context. Our fundamental goal was to convey the tragic history of Gettysburg College. If nothing else, we wanted my classmates to understand that our campus was part of the battlefield, even though it doesn’t look like it today. And, might I add, we weren’t charging money. This was campus lore being passed from student to student for the sheer joy of understanding the past. There was no economic incentive to spice things up a bit. That’s how folklore should be passed.
Folklore is a part of history, and history is a part of folklore. But although closely interwoven they are not indistinguishable, and to treat them as such can preclude a more nuanced understanding of each.
I like my folklore the way I like my art: with a good helping of perspective and historical content so that it can actually be understood. Framing the past with smoke and mirrors, I feel, detracts from understanding both folklore and history. Appreciating both with a nuanced mind is so much more rewarding than appreciating them superficially.
That’s not to say I don’t believe that history should be fun. But I think we should be aware of the temptation for fun, dark, and exciting stories to eclipse a meaningful understanding of any topic. I’ll concede that crusading for the truth likewise risks ignoring that which is most wonderful and exciting about history: the stories. But history is like no story ever told. It is the Story. It can’t be constrained by the popular dimensions of what makes a good tale.
In conclusion, I suppose the title of this post is wrong, because I am afraid of ghosts. I am afraid of their imagined presence in Gettysburg dominating this town’s historical landscape and further obscuring stories equally or more worthy of being told. I am afraid of them appropriating genuine folklore and perpetuating myths that obscure the past. I am afraid of them contributing to a sense that there is one way to experience Gettysburg: battlefield tours at day and ghost tours at night.
But, of course, ghost tours aren’t going anywhere in the near future. Business is good for them, and there’s no point in hoping that the public’s interests will change overnight. As such, I consider this blog post little more than a rhetorical exercise, albeit a fun one. The truth is that I don’t want the ghost tour industry to go anywhere. As Jules observed, with the end of the sesquicentennial, and with the restoration of the Lee’s Headquarter’ssite, the town’s economy can’t afford to lose such a powerful draw. But I do wish their overbearing dominance would end, to give the town an opportunity to become more economically and historically robust.
One final word: I would remind my critics that if rejecting ghost tours is to whitewash the past, then embracing them without a healthy dose of skepticism is to ignore their complex implications for public engagement with history. Gettysburg is more than its ghosts.
Whether you believe ghosts exist or not, I think most visitors would agree that if they did in fact exist, there would be a whole community of them living in Gettysburg. Upon entering the stores downtown and looking at the merchandise, it becomes very clear that store owners feed this fascination. Any visitor is bound to see the typical “got ghosts? Gettysburg does” t-shirt or similar merchandise elsewhere in town. The Gettysburg Tour Center even features a selection of books ranging from The Big Book of Pennsylvania Ghost Stories to I Met a Ghost at Gettysburg. Just a few aisles over, next to the “Heritage Not Hate” mugs, there are mouse pads, shot glasses, and even snow globes with “Gettysburg Ghosts” printed all over them.
While many historians ardently oppose the ghost tour industry for its inaccurate portrayal of historical events and trivialization of atrocities, paranormal tourism remains ubiquitous in Gettysburg. What explains this industry’s success? I decided to go out into town and ask employees and visitors why they believe it is so successful, for they, not the historians, are the ones fueling it.
My first discovery was the statistic that Ghostly Images of Gettysburg sells 20,000 tickets per season (March to November). However, this company does not deliver the typical tour full of stories of almost-dead soldiers crawling up from the sewers or the stench of bodies wafting through the air. The guides bring their attendees through either the Jenny Wade Home or the town orphanage, telling the story of the history of the sites from the perspective of a contemporary eyewitness, whether it was Johnny Reb who shot Jenny Wade or the orphanage master, respectively. The guides are the ghosts themselves, making the focus more on what they are saying than the paranormal nature of the sites.
While some tour companies do only tell stereotypical ghost tales, many companies clearly make this a point to avoid. A guide of another company articulated her belief that in order to have an effective ghost tour, history must be thoroughly intertwined. She explained, “Gettysburg is not all about ghosts—it’s the history that makes the ghosts.” Without the history, the tour would just be a series of stories told one after the other with little significance and little lasting effect on the visitor. History is the reason why people come to this town, so if visitors desire to go on a ghost tour, the presence of history should certainly be central. I was told of a company down the street that once employed a guide who told the tour attendees that they were standing above what used to be the Underground Railroad, speaking of it as if it were a physical train track underground. Apparently this comment incited laughs among the crowd. This is the type of tour we should be immediately wary of, not the tours that attempt to relate history to another field of interest.
Tour attendees commented on how these tours gave them a chance to escape reality, explore the unknown, let their imagination fill in the blanks, and spend fun quality time with their family and friends. It is clear that there is a whole spectrum of ghost tour attendees. One man said, “I just like the history in them. I don’t believe in ghosts in the sense that some tour companies do, telling stories of figures being seen, but I do believe in ghosts as spirits. However, this difference clearly doesn’t stop me from enjoying the tours.”
Another family told me that the only reason why their son and daughter originally looked forward to these historical trips was because of the ghost tours. They said that though their children are mainly interested in the ghost stories, they always are eager to discuss the history mentioned on the car ride home. The father said his son even asked to visit a different battlefield for the next month after one of these tours in town. Many others explained that they fully believed in ghosts—some even brought their own equipment to do investigations of their own during the tour. Regardless of their reasons for going on the tour, each person contributes to the businesses’ popularity.
In a country based on freedom, is it right to condemn the industry as a whole and say they should not operate? There is a clear demand for these tours—people turn their day trips into overnight stays specifically to accommodate this activity, greatly enhancing the town’s economic prosperity. From a business standpoint, these companies have every right to tell their ghost stories, whether they are founded upon history or entirely fabricated.
In the end, ghosts are always going to be a controversial subject just due to the spiritual assumptions that they require. Like many other things, ghosts cannot be proven or disproven, but that is one of the reasons why many visitors are so fascinated. As a tour patron explained, “Although we may never see ghosts, it is up to us whether we believe or not.” I think this is why these tours are so intriguing—they give the visitors a chance to explore their beliefs. Another man told me how he had a paranormal experience as a child. “I don’t believe in ghosts fully,” he insisted, “but it’s hard to argue with what I saw.” The reason why so many are disappointed with ghost tours is because they don’t have experiences like that themselves, but a guide explained that you cannot go on the tour expecting something supernatural to happen. Rather, you should just see it as a “bonus” if something does happen.
I myself absolutely love going on these tours, for, like one attendee said, “It lets your mind tackle ideas that we are often discouraged to tackle in real life.” And if nothing else, ghost tours are fun! While many tours clearly do misrepresent history and should be condemned for that, the ghost tour industry should not be blamed for those who stray from the truth. If you don’t like ghost tours, then by all means avoid them, but if you do like them, I believe everyone should be allowed to enjoy them without feeling guilty for feeding an industry that is so often labeled as a sham.
Many moons ago, I visited Gettysburg as part of the CWI Summer Conference High School Scholarship Program. One night, though exhausted from our daily lectures and tours, a group of us decided to continue indulging in the history around us in a method only a band of curious teenagers would compile: a self-led ghost hunt of the College campus.
The night served to unite us as we exchanged stories of the Blue Boy and the mysterious basement of Penn Hall. We didn’t have fancy equipment for our hunt, but led one another through the dark, unfamiliar paths, intermingling fact and fiction. We didn’t catch sight of any ghosts on Stine Lake, but we made lifelong friendships.
This anecdote leads to a question: where does the concept of Gettysburg’s spookier past fall in a landscape dominated by history? On that night, that group of kids found a way to incorporate it, innocently and with as much truth as we knew. Why, then, is it so difficult for many to reconcile it with the tales of Lee and Meade that haunt this hallowed ground?
Last Halloween, Kevin Lavery ‘16 attacked the concept of Gettysburg ghost tours here on the Compiler. According to Kevin, the tours offered in town are offered by “companies that are willing and eager to exploit the memory of this town’s tragic past for their own gain. They care for neither historical accuracy nor scientific plausibility. They care for what lies within the wallets of their patrons.” With all the respect due to my editor, Mr. Lavery, I disagree.
My first year in Gettysburg, I worked for one of these companies. As a conscientious, hard-working employee, I quickly rose through the ranks, soon training all of the new guides that arrived. My skills as a History/English double major were my strongest assets; I was given responsibilities such as fact-checking and researching and writing new tours. I can’t speak for every group in existence, but in response to those cynics extolling that “Ghost tours spit nothing but lies,” I can tell you from countless hours of experience that this is simply not true.
Research is crucial to the ghost tour business. Not only are the stories checked for documentation, but the background must be provided to supply the whole story. Behind the tales of spectral soldiers and phantom nurses, an entire history must be laid out. Many paranormal enthusiasts are also amateur historians; to these patrons, you must be able to prove your own credibility. Others couldn’t tell you what happened 152 years prior here in Gettysburg; for to these, you must paint a picture glorious enough to provide intrigue, to leave them wanting more, but factual enough that no passerby can deny the truth of your words. Are there ghosts in Gettysburg? Maybe. Was there a real battle here, with real people, and real stories that deserve to be told? Certainly.
Kevin’s depiction of these tour guides as mere “storytellers,” however, rather than “historical interpreters,” particularly in my case—as a CWI fellow, Pohanka applicant, History major, and Civil War Era Studies/Public History double minor—is simply false on many counts. No manager in their right mind, no matter how capitalistically greedy, would allow his or her employees to flounce about town in period attire spouting outright lies; the resulting need for damage control would be debilitating to the company. In fact, even within the community of tour groups (yes, they interact with one another, forming alliances and rivalries like any other companies), those that tweak the truth are known and ridiculed. Historians should remember that this sort of malpractice isn’t restricted to ghost tours: just ask Michael Bellesiles, a disgraced professor of history caught fabricating his sources.
What Kevin and other critics don’t understand is that to the participants of these tours— employees and visitors—this is all real. A shift of is crucial: to someone that believes the spirits of the dead linger behind, particularly if spurned by some tragedy, Gettysburg is amuck with ghosts. The “rational” non-believers make as much sense to these people as atheists do to born-again Christians.
If your argument is instead the straying from fact, should we also discontinue historical fiction? The ever-rising sales of the Shaara books prove quite the demand there as well. Even within academic history, facts are uncertain; about how many “facts” can we claim to be 100% positive? History is not a criminal case, it doesn’t require proof beyond a reasonable doubt; 51% certainty is often enough to get by, at least until someone proves otherwise. History is always changing as new generations unearth new perspectives; little can be maintained as “true.”
If nothing else, these tours are a much-needed aspect of the Gettysburg economy. Post-sesquicentennial, tourist numbers are bound to slowly decline to levels disastrous to this small town’s tourism-based economy. If people want to come to town on Halloween in hopes of seeing a spirit (as many do annually), why not let them contribute to our hotels, gift shops, and restaurants? If you don’t believe, don’t take the tours; don’t travel that section of Steinwehr Avenue or make eye contact with the people handing you flyers. If the spirits have a problem with it, let them tell them.
“I am so sick of hearing about the Civil War every single day.”
“I didn’t expect there to be so many history nerds at this school.”
“I don’t get why so many tourists come to a little place like Gettysburg.”
I hear constant complaints from fellow Gettysburg College students about how tired they get of hearing about the Civil War. What did they expect coming to Gettysburg College, situated in one of the most visited historic towns in America? More importantly, what is so wrong with hearing about the Civil War so often? I decided that I wanted to investigate—why are so many people drawn to this small town in rural Pennsylvania? What draws millions of people to take time out of their busy lives to explore this special place? I’m hoping that my findings will convince college students that it is worth exploring this history-rich town and maybe for once, get them to stop to read the interpretative markers while they’re out jogging on the battlefield instead of simply passing by.
I conducted my whole investigation by walking up to random people I met in town and asking them all the same simple question: “Why are you here?” I expected to get very similar answers throughout all of my interviews and was ready to keep a tally of people visiting because they are either history buffs or because they have never been to Gettysburg before and just thought they should visit and see what all of the hype is about. I was shocked, however, for no two responses I received were the same.
I did my first investigations outside of the Jennie Wade House. Speaking with the first group I met there, I learned they were members of a paranormal investigation group called Paranormal Sightings of PA. This group of four adults comes to Gettysburg three times a year to do paranormal investigations on the battlefield with their high-tech equipment. They were not traditional history buffs, yet they still find great excitement in visiting Gettysburg regularly. If only they could share some of their enthusiasm with the frustrated college students who have the privilege of living here all year.
The visitors I spoke to had various amounts of Civil War knowledge, but clearly every person found a reason to be here. In the Jennie Wade Gift Shop, I spoke to a family who goes camping near the battlefield and visits the historic sites every year. When I started digging into their logic for coming to Gettysburg, it became clear that the campground experience was what they most enjoyed, but the reason that they go to that campground was its proximity to Gettysburg, where, whether it is touring a historic home or riding horses on the battlefield, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
I then moved to a couple standing nearby to ask them the same question and I got a response to which I believe many historians can deeply relate The man explained to me that he had visited Gettysburg since he was a young boy and wanted to share the moving experience with his wife who had not visited in over thirty-three years. The man shared with me his deep interest in history which led him to apply to become a licensed battlefield guide. Knowing how strenuous the certification process is, I asked him how he formed this deep interest in the Civil War. It was then that he replied, “Ever since I was young, I wondered what would make so many young men come into battle, knowing they may die?” Is this not something that we all think about? I believe this man hit the nail on the head, admitting what many do not want to admit. It is easy to visit these battlefields and blankly stare at the shiny guns, but what is not easy is recognizing war’s realities and I believe many people visit Gettysburg to discover this truth and often leave realizing that it is impossible to wholly comprehend today.
I then traveled to the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center. I first decided to ask a worker of the Gettysburg Foundation her observations as to why visitors come. She explained the wide range of visitors she has seen, from the history buffs who are typically older in age to the school groups to the international visitors. She explained that during some weeks, the park has up to 25,000 school children visit in a single week. A few days earlier, forty East Germans visited, and just that day there was a bus of Norwegians. If people travel across oceans to visit the small town of Gettysburg, what is it that college students are missing about this town’s appeal?
I continued on my search for answers. I found a grandmother who explained that her grandson learned about the Civil War in school, so I asked whether he wanted to visit or if she forced him on the trip. She was quick to say that he wanted to, but when she called him over, he quickly disagreed and said that she made him. She told me that he is too proud to admit that he likes history, so I obviously explained to him that liking history is something to be proud of! Of course I had to say that, but I truly meant it and many others in the museum would certainly have agreed with me as well. I also believe this explains why college students are so reluctant to become involved in the historical activities at the college and in town—because history is “not cool.” I doubt many people would say George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Rosa Parks are “not cool,” but all of these big names are as much a significant part of history as the nameless Civil War soldier.
At one point, I asked a man why he was here and he explained that he was here for a football game with his team from Tennessee. He explained to me that he decided to take his whole team to Gettysburg early so that he could give his players an educational tour and then proudly said that everyone was enjoying it. Our stadiums are literally on the battlefield here at Gettysburg College and students still seem uninterested, yet this team arrived three days early from Tennessee to explore.
My last interview left me with chills. He explained that Gettysburg intrigues him. It has a “certain ambience about it,” he explained. “It scared me that all of these men died here.” It is a scary thing and I don’t think the morbidity of this place will ever disappear, even for those living here their whole lives. I recognized that this man has such a deep appreciation for this town and its history and his appreciation made even more sense to me when he revealed that he was in the Air Force. I asked him if his service impacted his outlook on the Battle of Gettysburg and the sacrifice of so many men and he responded, “Absolutely, because you couldn’t even ask me these questions if it weren’t for these guys.”
It is true that “we must never forget what they did here,” but it seems so clear that so many have already forgotten, especially the students of Gettysburg College. How unbelievably sad. It is evident through my investigations that people come here for many reasons from ghost hunting to camping to learning, but every single person I talked to showed great enthusiasm for being here. What a blessing it is to stand on such hallowed ground, yet what a heartache it is to see that it is so ignored on a college campus filled with very intelligent students. Hopefully the new statue of Lincoln positioned in front of one of the college residence halls will be a reminder of how thankful we should be for all of the men who fought for our freedom on these very grounds.
On October 6, approximately seventy people gathered at the Gettysburg Visitor’s Center to attend a public forum discussing the future of the site commonly referred to as Lee’s Headquarters. The property is located on Buford Avenue near the Lutheran Seminary and the Seminary Ridge Museum. On July 1, 1863, the area was the site of several artillery pieces, part of the Union retreat route through the town, and on July 2nd and 3rd, it would serve as Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters. After the battle, the site would serve as one of the first automotive tourist spots for the millions of visitors who traveled to view the first day’s battlefield. Small cottages, motels, and eventually the Quality Inn would emerge to cater to the mass of tourists.
The forum began with information relating to the work and reports that have already been completed regarding the Lee’s Headquarters site. These reports detailed what, if any, adverse effects the demolition of the buildings currently on the site—specifically the old Quality Inn motel—would have on the environment and future archeology. The tentative answer is that the removal of the motel would have no such effects. Representatives from the Civil War Trust, the organization that purchased the land, spoke about their goals for the Lee’s Headquarters’ site. Their mission is to either demolish or remove the buildings on the site to another location in order to restore the view of the first day’s battlefield, replant the orchard that use to be on the site, put in period-accurate fences, and create a simple battlefield trail that will tell the story of the battle, the headquarters, and the tourist industry that thrived in the years following the battle.
After these initial comments, the floor opened up to questions from the audience. One woman commented on how the debate reminded her of the old cyclorama building and how it is now gone. The restoration, she said, would add to the experience of Gettysburg’s approximately two million visitors. Others agreed with this comment, many eager to see the view returned to its 1863 conditions. Another woman called the battlefield the “shining star of the town,” while another expressed concern that the forum remember that the battlefield is what draws visitors to Gettysburg and that restoring the Lee’s Headquarters view would only benefit the town and the tourists.
Despite the predominantly positive comments, concerns were raised. The largest concerns were the loss of post-Civil War history that could possibly occur, the concern over the two possible graveyards on the property, and the fear of the loss of tax revenue for the town. For the latter, the Lee’s Headquarters land brings in approximately $13,000 a year in taxes which, one member pointed out, would be balanced by potential increases in tourism. For the graveyards, the Civil War Trust responded that they are already planning archeological searches for the cemeteries and that they need to be identified before going any further.
The greatest concern, however, was for the post-Civil War history that might be lost. The story of the battlefield cannot be separated from the story of tourism, one woman commented, and you can’t freeze time to 1863. The Lee’s Headquarters site was an important space in Gettysburg history, especially for tourism, and some feared that the site’s unique history might be lost through either the demolition of the buildings or by the focusing exclusively on the battle rather than the aftermath. The Civil War Trust representative assured the people gathered that the history of tourism would not be lost and that signs would be placed to tell both the history of the battle and the history of the post-Civil War tourist destination.
The forum brought up many topics that are important not only for Lee’s Headquarters, but for historic sites in general. Here at Gettysburg, we are privileged to have a battlefield where you can step onto the field and, for the most part, see what the soldiers saw. As time passes and the restoration process begins, the Lee’s Headquarters site will help visitors to better visualize the important but often forgotten impact of July 1, 1863. With a view of both the town and the Confederate line, visitors and locals alike will be able to better understand the history of Gettysburg as a battlefield, as a tourist destination, and as a town today.
Most Gettysburg residents took note this past winter when the Appalachian Brewing Company’s branch restaurant near the Lutheran Seminary closed. The Civil War Trust bought the land for its historical value; the structure and an adjacent hotel surround the Mary Thompson House, General Lee’s Headquarters during the battle. From the moment of purchase, the plan had been to demolish the buildings, sow grass, and transfer the four-acre lot to the National Park Service as a prized addition to the park. Most onlookers probably think that the tale is told as soon as the land is bought, cleared, and promised to the park. However, that thinking only pans out in a vacuum. In reality, the results of this purchase—as with any large purchase of land in a community—cannot be foreseen. Too many different actors are involved in and affected by something as simple as the demolition of a couple of businesses and the placing of a conservation easement on a property. And for those who stand to be affected by this purchase, controversy is pervasive and understandable.
Michael Birkner, Borough Council President and Professor of History at Gettysburg College is perhaps particularly positioned to comment on this purchase. With responsibilities toward the furthering of historical understanding as well as to the taxpayers of the borough, he has no choice but to aim toward sustainability in managing the space and resources of the town. However, he also understands that this is a universal conversation that must be had within the town and between the interests that compete for the town’s attention: “I think whether I’m on the Borough Council or not, this is relevant to me because I’m a citizen and a taxpayer of Gettysburg and I’m going to pay higher taxes next year as a result of this.” Indeed, the loss of the Appalachian Brewing Company and The Quality Inn at Lee’s Headquarters represents a further burden upon a town that already has a shrunken tax base. As fellow councilman John Butterfield told the Gettysburg Times on 1 July 2014, “With more than $3 million worth of property removed from the tax rolls, the borough will lose almost $12,000 annually in real estate tax revenue, which will be very difficult to recoup.” This comes on top of the vast swaths of the town that are tax-exempt as part of either the National Park or Gettysburg College, as well as having a number of residents who may not be able to handle heavier tax burdens. However, as Birkner acknowledges, “Is it all one way? Of course not.” Birkner, as well as the majority of Gettysburgians, agree: anything that allows for fuller interpretation of the battle while not destroying the financial infrastructure of the town is wonderful. The average visitor that stops to ponder the fabric of the town realizes instantly that the town and the park are co-dependents. If either one dies, the other will surely follow.
But not everyone shares Birkner’s job description. His responsibilities require him to strike the best balance between the interests of everyone involved, lest the entire house suffer and collapse. Protecting the interests of single organizations is far more common and can lend itself to a vacuum perspective with regards to a player’s actions. There is no room for such thinking in Gettysburg. With the town literally divided up between the park, the college, and the local residents and merchants, the cooperative enterprise of the town must be fine-tuned. With such little room for developing a tax-base, there must be the greatest level of consideration and cooperation between all involved. Gettysburg is not a series of little bubbled-in groups; it is an organism that can grow or can stop breathing. If its historical heritage is left to rot, Gettysburg fails the American people and dies. If it cannot pay for roads or trash pickup, or cannot house the businesses that support the tourist industry, its historical heritage becomes inaccessible and Gettysburg fails the American people and dies. If it finds a middle ground preoccupied with sustainability above all else, it will never die. It is our responsibility as Gettysburgians and as inheritors of Gettysburg’s historical legacy to make sure that we never strain its system to the verge of death. To preserve the town, we will need to adopt an environmental mindset that will allow us to chart out the best path forward together.
Birkner, Michael. Interview by Matthew LaRoche. February 5, 2015.