Two Sides to Every Coin: Donald Trump’s and Harriet Tubman’s Complicated Relationships with Gettysburg

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.

 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.