The Wild West of Gettysburg

By Olivia Taylor ’25

One can find apparel and merchandise to suit truly any member of the family while perusing the shops in Gettysburg’s commercial districts. Pictured above are two toy handguns: One “Johnny Reb” and one “Billy Yank.” This photograph was taken in the “Civil War Etc, Etc.,” store at the Gettysburg Outlets, though this exact product can be found in several different gift shops throughout Gettysburg.

Looking at the “Johnny Reb” and “Billy Yank” toy guns, one can imagine the exact scene in which they might be used: Two kids chasing each other around the battlefield, pretending to shoot at each other, while their parents take in the more historical aspects of the Gettysburg battlefield by gazing at monuments and reading interpretive waysides. For children, these toy guns turn the Gettysburg battlefield into a sensory experience, which exposes them to history through play, rather than simply reading or hearing about it. History becomes exciting and engaging–a hands-on “adventure” rather than words in a book or a monument inscription.

That being said, with the exception of “US” and “CS” screen-printed onto the “holsters” of these cap guns, there is really nothing about them that screams “Civil War.” In fact, most soldiers did not even carry a sidearm. If anything, these toys much more closely resemble something out of the “Wild West.” By tying these supposed “Civil War-themed souvenirs” to the iconic imagery of the “Wild West,” the manufacturer seems to be trying to romanticize and dramatize the idea of war; when we think of the “Old West,” we tend to think of noble, stoic cowboys who, through grit and brave determination, stood their ground on the American frontier, pistols ever by their side to intimidate their enemies.  So, too, did the stalwart common soldier of the North and South, the manufacturer wants you to believe, and so can you when you purchase these pistols!

 However, as fun and engaging as these items seem to be on the surface level, it is important to note that they obscure much about the realities of Civil War combat and the experiences of the common soldier on the front lines. The presumably average Civil War soldier takes on the same air as a rough-and-tumble cowboy, an almost lawless gunslinger who is out fighting largely on his own, on behalf of his own interests, as we are often led to believe that the American cowboy of old had. Such fighting is often portrayed as thrilling and glorious. In reality, for the average soldier, combat was nothing glorious; it was dirty, it was painful, and it was terrifying. By eliding Civil War combat with the stereotypical shootouts on the American frontier, the manufacturer is thus encouraging particularly youngsters to imagine Civil War battles—as romantic, stoic fights akin to that of a Western stand-off, and implies that they, too, can re-live the experiences of those soldiers by playing battle with these “authentic” souvenirs of Gettysburg. America, they are led to believe, was thus forged through thrilling and daring adventures, on romantic landscapes, by daring and heroic gunslingers on the eastern battlefields and western frontier alike.

 All that being said, Gettysburg is known as “the town” to visit for a Civil War-oriented family vacation. The sale of products like these toy guns does indeed provide an engaging, fun, and active means for kids to connect with the battlefield on a surface level that does have its own benefits, given that they might not yet be able to fully appreciate the deeper history of the location. These guns sell because they create a playful, albeit sanitized, version of Civil War combat and the soldiering experience that likely reminds young visitors of familiar tropes like the American cowboy of the “Wild West.” Though seemingly mundane, toys like these enable children to build an initial connection with historical events, gaining exposure to topics that they might not encounter in school for many years. For some, fond memories of purchasing the “Johnny Reb” or “Billy Yank” toy gun while on a family trip to Gettysburg and running through their backyards back at home, “re-creating” the Gettysburg landscape might well spark future interest in the Civil War, and prompt an eventual return to the battlefield—a return in which the nuances and complexities of Civil War combat, soldiering, and Gettysburg’s place in the historical record might begin to unravel themselves just a bit more.

Leave a Reply