A Gettysburg Ghoul: Magnets, Memorabilia, and the Marketing of Civil War History at Gettysburg

Carly Jensen ’24

Who doesn’t love a good magnet? These fun keepsakes are popular decorations for fridges, washing machines, and lockers. Every glance at them is a reminder of a fun vacation. Magnets serve as a tool for memory; they bring a person back to where they bought their souvenir. This Gettysburg ghoul magnet from Gettysburg Souvenirs & Gifts (pictured above) is an adorable and fun reminder for tourists who visit the battlefield. However, it also gestures (however playfully) toward another way for visitors to connect with the repercussions of the largest battle of the Civil War, particularly the shocking bloodshed, death, and grief that resulted in its wake. Exploring a battlefield may not resonate with everyone; however, a material object visitors can take home with them may help to provide a visual and tangible connection to the history they just encountered. Although cute, this magnet depicts a dead soldier, thus reminding its purchasers of the hauntingly gruesome toll that the battlefield they just visited exacted on thousands of men long after returning home.

Gettysburg is well-known for being the site of the war’s bloodiest battle and the historic cemetery where Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address. The town draws people, old and young, interested in the Civil War from across the globe. One popular attraction for families is ghost tours. These walking groups travel around town in search of frightening ghost encounters while the tour guide provides a history of the town and the surrounding buildings. Often led by a charismatic guide in period garb, these tours are the trip’s highlight for families. Magnets like the one pictured above are excellent reminders of that highly sensory connection with history. Visitors can fondly recall the warm summer night they spent wandering the streets of Gettysburg, touring the battlefield, and enjoying an ice cream after their ghost tour. They could imagine that the “glowing orb” that they saw on their tour could have looked like the cute ghost on their magnet. They may even wish to return for another chance to contemplate the bloody battle and maybe even encounter the wandering spirit of one of its long-dead combatants.

The ghost in this magnet is floating above headstones in a cemetery. However, it is unclear where the spirit is; the Confederate kepi bars him from actual burial at the National Cemetery. Perhaps he is there hovering, haunting his Union enemies for eternity. His packs, potentially full of cartridges, hard tack, or letters from home, remain with him in death as reminders of his life cut short by war.

Gettysburg has a unique perspective on tourism. For many, Gettysburg is the first and only Civil War battlefield they visit because of its name recognition. Therefore, it is essential to market the town well as the Civil War experience as a whole. This magnet shows how Gettysburg continues to be haunted by the effects of the most significant 19th-century conflict in American history. The imagery immerses visitors in Gettysburg’s ongoing history; ghosts continue to plague the town even 150 years later. The magnet is a tangible way for tourists to remember the ghost tours, the National Cemetery, and the overall ghastly battle events in a way that continues to spark the imagination long after their return home. Souvenir shops also encourage people to purchase kitschy items like this to remember (and market) their visit; everyone wants a piece of the most famous Civil War town.

Ghost-themed magnets are among many on display at Gettysburg Souvenirs & Gifts and are common to the rest of the town. Gettysburg is full of stores with eye-catching memorabilia, but this magnet stands out because of the ghostly imagery and tactile nature. Children love to play with rubbery and bendable objects, making this a popular magnet choice. It also appeals to the sensationalized idea that tourists visited a “haunted” town. The manufacturer made an interesting choice by creating a Confederate ghost instead of a Union one. After all, the Federals were the victors. The “Lost Cause” narrative of Southerners fighting for a noble cause against impossible odds may inform this choice. The soldier’s body floats above the graves of possible enemies, doomed to mourn forever the loss of his fellow Confederates who fought and died courageously against a formidable foe. Many tourists are particularly fascinated by Confederate history because of popular notions of universally gallant, chivalrous Southern soldiers and their doomed fight for secession new nation. This magnet plays on this romantic appeal and creates a souvenir for visitors interested in Southern history, swayed by the often poignant, sentimentalized portrayals of the Confederate cause.

Ghost tourism and iconography is a huge selling feature for Gettysburg. Many people believe a place with such an incredible amount of violent death must surely be haunted. They crave to glimpse a soldier who fought in a war over a hundred years ago. Many tourists are not Civil War buffs, so ghost tours and stories are ways that they can actively engage with the battlefield and town’s history on a more sensory and imaginative level. Sometimes, this kind of engagement can fuel further interest in unpacking the history and legacy of the battle on an even deeper level. This magnet is a reminder of the soldiers who died at Gettysburg, and the experiences the tourists had interacting with the repercussions of mass death and possibly their own spirit encounters here. Alternately, it can serve as another unique collectible for the individual or family who has made a hobby of historical “ghost tourism” and might collect similar magnets or memorabilia from other supposedly haunted historical sites they have visited.  Whatever the reason behind the purchase, this magnet on a family’s fridge or board will serve as a constant reminder of their visit to Gettysburg, the still palpable legacies of the mass bloodshed that occurred there, and the thrill of the unknown that still enshrouds the historic town and battlefield in mystery.

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