By Carly Jensen ‘24
Commemorative coins are popular among gift shop visitors of all ages, whether the purchaser is a history buff or the coin just happens to attract them. Sometimes coins are only available in specific locations, and hunters must travel to find their newest piece. Other times, the shiny veneer entices their gaze, and the figure on the coin draws them in. Coins like the ones pictured above may not be valuable, but they are prevalent throughout Gettysburg’s tourist shops. The Harriet Tubman and Donald Trump coins are a great example of Gettysburg’s thriving dual tourism identity: One side is deeply connected with Civil War history, while the other aims to connect significant present-day issues or political figures with Gettysburg’s Civil War past.
Donald Trump is one of the last figures visitors would expect to see in a Gettysburg gift shop. Although the president did visit the military park in 2016, his trip was not particularly memorable. He visited the scene of Pickett’s Charge and presented a speech but left soon after for his next stop on the campaign trail. When tourists visit Gettysburg, they expect to see souvenirs with Civil War iconography on them, such as flags, cannons, and soldiers. Seeing the face of such a recent president with little connection to the town would make anyone look twice. However, for some, this coin appeals to a sense of proud patriotism; Trump was the country’s president and has touted himself as a redemptive figure for a fractured nation and a “true patriot” who can “make America great again” by re-inculcating traditional American ideals within society. For many tourists to Gettysburg, their visit is part of almost a compulsory stop at one of America’s national “shrines”—a place where the founding ideals of the country were contested in one of the most pivotal and largest battles of the war, a place where Abraham Lincoln famously reaffirmed the sacredness of the Union cause and a place to reaffirm one’s own personal patriotism and devotion to honoring our nation’s fallen heroes. Thus, for some, a visit to Gettysburg and the purchase of a Trump commemorative coin thereat is a cohesive ritual in American patriotism, aimed to simultaneously honor the past and ensure that the future of their nation will be “worthy” of that past. While it is true that the casual collector of presidential coins may simply see this item and want to purchase it merely to expand their collection, and others may purchase it out of sheer admiration for the former Commander in Chief, many purchasers undoubtedly open up their wallets due to what they see as Trump’s modern-day embodiment of the patriotic ideals for which thousands of men fought and died at Gettysburg—the ideals of Lincoln’s Republican Party that they see reflected in Trump’s. Thus, the coin represents a truly unique type of Gettysburg tourism.
The Harriet Tubman coin aligns much more closely with the expected Civil War niche of Gettysburg tourism. Tubman was an escaped slave who made several trips back into the South to rescue about 70 enslaved people using the Underground Railroad. Although Tubman never made the journey to Gettysburg, her story is essential to the broader Civil War story. Numerous locations within Gettysburg and Adams County purport to have been “stations” along the Underground Railroad. Tubman’s famous rescues and usage of the Underground Railroad have made her a household name; she is the subject of movies, books, and even children’s stories. It makes sense that her photo would be on a commemorative coin, though some might wonder why such coins are sold here. Despite her lack of a Gettysburg connection, her status as a hero in the Civil War would certainly attract visitors and prospective purchasers to her coin, and the town’s fame as a border town during the war and home to many stops on the Underground Railroad somewhat justify the inclusion of such an item in the gift shops.
Because Gettysburg is the site of the bloodiest Civil War battle and frequently the first and/or only battlefield that tourists visit, increasingly, both the town’s museums and souvenir shops have striven to address the entire history of the Civil War. Thus, Harriet Tubman’s coin has a few layers; it not only represents Tubman’s personal story but also serves as a reminder of the price of freedom and equality—a price exacted on the fields of Gettysburg as well as in other critical battles. Additionally, in an attempt to appeal to a wider and more diverse set of tourists, many souvenir stores (like the museums and National Park Service) seek to provide stories and tangible items that speak to a broader cross-section of the American public by featuring the stories of those who, in the past, were often relegated to the shadows of history. In purchasing this coin, visitors thus might not only see their personal history more inclusively represented but will also be reminded of the ties between the causes of the war and the battlefield that they just visited.
The placement of the Donald Trump and Harriet Tubman coins is intriguing. During President Trump’s term, there were several pushes to replace President Andrew Jackson with an image of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. However, all of these attempts failed under the Trump administration. The redesign of the currency has since been accelerated after President Biden’s election but has yet to have a current implementation date. President Trump’s refusal to place Tubman on the $20 is political, as he did not want to bend to the will of the Democratic Party and his predecessor, President Obama. However, the juxtaposition of the two commemorative coins does not seem circumstantial; the politically charged legacy of President Trump and his connection to the debates over Harriet Tubman’s monetary image may make visitors more inclined to buy one coin over the other. For instance, supporters of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill may purchase her coin after seeing it next to President Trump’s as a way to support her memory. Others who admire President Trump and support his political partisanship may buy his coin as another keepsake of his term and his political vision for the country. However, some collectors or buffs may still buy both.
Gettysburg has a complicated history. On the one hand, it is a Civil War town that tries to preserve the legacy of the war for the future generation. However, it is also a town in 21st-century America that has to keep up with the politics and social issues of the modern era. As a “pilgrimage” site for a true cross-section of visitors from all over the country—and all around the world—Gettysburg is perpetually navigating the fine balance between past and present, the unique and the universal. The juxtaposition of the Harriet Tubman and Donald Trump coins perfectly illustrates these tensions; President Trump’s controversial governance also reveals the ways in which the present often informs public understanding of the past. While some Gettysburgians wish to focus the visitor’s gaze squarely on the past, others are much more rooted in yoking that past to the present in an attempt to shape the future. There are promises and perils to each. For those involved in the business of “selling Gettysburg,” it means a constant juggling match as they compete for visitors’ minds and money.