By Hayden McDonald ’25
Gettysburg is a town filled to the brim with gift shops. At each place, a story–an interpretation of the battle–is told through the souvenirs for sale there. No place, however, spends more time pondering what story their items tell than Gettysburg National Military Park. There, every item for sale aligns with the Park’s interpretive mission for the battlefield. No matter how small or mundane, each item has something to say about the battle of Gettysburg.
In the gift shop attached to the visitor’s center, alongside the fully stocked bookshelves and across from the Gettysburg-themed fudge recipes, stands a shelf full of that most unassuming of souvenirs: Snow globes. These snow globes do not depict Gettysburg, sleepy with the weight of a fresh blanket of snow, nor do they show the battlefield, obscured in a fog of floating smoke. Only the armaments of war are housed within. A miniature cannon sits permanently fixed atop a mini hillock, with a rifle and a sword leaning upon its side. Upon its base flies an eagle, imbuing the piece with patriotic sentiment and pride in our nation’s martial past.
However, despite this explicit Civil War imagery, this piece manages to remain noticeably nondescript. If one was to take off the Gettysburg National Military Park stamping, little remains that directly connects this piece to Gettysburg specifically. The hilltop that the cannon sits upon may be Little Round Top or Culp’s Hill or Oak Ridge, or it might be any hilltop on any Civil War battlefield across the country. The globe features no distinct geographic features or historical figures to distinguish it as commemorating the bloodiest battle of the Civil War aside from the labeling. The contents of the globe capture the essence of the Civil War generally, but not Gettysburg specifically.
But what does this say about Gettysburg National Military Park’s interpretive mission? In the ever-changing intermingling of history and memory, Gettysburg’s myriad tour guides, caretakers, souvenir hawkers, and consumer marketers have frequently aimed to make the historic town and landscape into a memorial not only to the battle, but also to the overall war in which it occurred. Gettysburg, we are told, encapsulates the full range of personalities, conflicts, complexities, and big questions that defined the Civil War. For many visitors, it is their first, and sometimes only, Civil War battlefield visit—a visit which, in one fell swoop, can educate, inspire, and provoke the visitor to contemplate the enduring legacies of the Civil War as a whole. In the same fashion, this snow globe—a snapshot of an iconic symbol of the war, stamped with the name of the war’s most iconic battle—seeks to represent the war and its timeless swaying power in its entirety.
The Park works to keep the landscape as close as possible to that of 1863. In a constantly developing and modernizing world, the Gettysburg battlefield has tried to remain in the nineteenth century as much as possible. The conflict is kept alive through the commemoration and memorialization of the battlefield. In many ways, although Gettysburg National Military Park’s interpretation of the battle is constantly evolving and the historical memory of the battle continuously contested, the park’s hopes for touching the hearts and minds of its visitors through that interpretation and meticulous preservation remain constant, and are much like this snow globe: The landscape—even with its myriad post-war and twentieth-century commemorative monuments and markers—is somehow timeless. It is to provide a snapshot of the Civil War and the nineteenth century as a whole, frozen in time, a living memorial to the battle to ponder with great wonder. It unfolds before the visitor, seductively beautiful, bucolic, and serene, silently waiting for the visitor to come along, to ponder, and to shake it to life.