“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.