A Sweet Serving of History

By Hayden McDonald ’25

In the days, weeks, and months following the Battle of Gettysburg, journalists and newspaper editors feverishly attempted to recapture the full details, implications, and meaning of the massive fight that had transformed one small, formerly obscure, south-central Pennsylvania town into a household name. While some reporters struggled to ascertain the exact facts of the battle amidst the chaotic aftermath, others wrote with clear political agendas intended to sway the hearts and minds of their readership and, in turn, bolster their respective side’s support for the war effort. Still others searched for meaning in the aftermath through the prisms of religion, world history, and other lenses.  In this mini-series, students will explore the myriad ways that 19th-century newspapers, throughout the North and South, “re-fought” the Battle of Gettysburg, its factual components, and its larger significance in print in the immediate aftermath of the fighting.

Imagine a small-town ice cream shop– a local place on the main drive through town. It’s small and welcoming, with brightly painted walls and today’s special flavors exhibited on a chalkboard out front. It’s a spot to stop in and enjoy some quality ice cream with the family, somewhere to get out of the sun and enjoy some sweets, a place to relax and enjoy your vacation.

 It’s a place like Cone Sweet Cone, situated on Baltimore Street, in historic Gettysburg. However, like many other places in Gettysburg, this ice cream shop serves up its sweet treats with a side of history. When you walk through the doors, on your right you’ll see a glass display case with photos and memorabilia relating to aviation during the Second World War–some for sale, others for decoration only. A table stands across from this display, just a few feet from the ice cream bar. On this table lie a plethora of unassuming wooden pieces, each one stamped with the name of an historic location within Gettysburg. The way the shop is situated, your eye is inevitably drawn to them as you wait in line for your ice cream. Your stop for a sweet treat now is imbued with a distinctly historic association—an association authenticated by a slip of paper lying next to the wood fragments that explain the significance of the objects, their historic credence, and why they are for sale in this shop.

The fragments are from a tree that witnessed President Abraham Lincoln’s procession down the same street that the ice cream shop stands upon on November 19, 1863, while en route to the newly created Soldiers National Cemetery to deliver his famed Gettysburg Address. Clearly, these are no ordinary bits of wood; rather, they are tangible pieces of the past—hand-held witnesses to some of the most important events in Gettysburg’s, and the nation’s, history. Surely you must take one home with you!

These pieces of wood, like much of historic Gettysburg, offer an “authentic” and tangible connection with the town’s history which, when held in one’s palm, seem to offer an immediate transplant to the past–an avenue of escape from the modern, commercialized present into the dramatic historic events that transformed the town into a national icon.  People who are standing in line waiting for ice cream will suddenly find themselves thinking not about what flavor to get, but about the trees which stood just opposite where they are now, and what great events they bore witness to. The casual visitor who might think they had “left the past behind” when exiting Gettysburg National Military Park is now reminded that, in fact, the battle’s history surrounds them wherever they go in the town itself.  Suddenly, their carefree ice cream purchase has taken on an entirely new and specialized meaning, which they can remember and share with others through the purchase of one of the storied wood fragments; in turn, their unexpected encounter here with history is thus associated with the enjoyable sensory experience of ice cream eating at Cone Sweet Cone in particular—the historical and the commercial thus reinforcing each other.  

The store’s blending of an offer of historic authenticity with the light-hearted consumerism inherent in visiting an ice cream shop is brilliant. The majority of people who stop by this ice cream shop will be tourists, and many will, in their travels throughout the town, be looking to take home something with them to remember their trip and their encounter with one of the nation’s most cherished historic sites. What better commemorative item to purchase, then, than a piece of a real witness tree?! In a town filled with t-shirts, mugs, and snow globes, the authenticity of this historic piece of wood is all the more enticing and thrilling.  Furthermore, with so many different historic stampings to choose from on the various wood fragments, why not collect them all?  You may walk into this shop hoping for ice cream, but you might just walk out with a piece—or two or three–of Gettysburg’s history in your pocket.

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