Memorials Past and Future: Gettysburg and Ground Zero
by Bruce L. Brager
Memorials tell us more about the designers and builders of the memorial, and the cultural environment in which they operated, than they do about the subject of the memorial. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have the ground on which an event took place preserved, to some degree, as at the Gettysburg National Battlefield Park – perhaps too pretty to reflect the realities of war, as some have commented. We can get some idea of the role the ground played in the Battle, such as how the Confederate charge against the Federal center the last day of fighting, usually called Pickett’s Charge, actually attacked up hill.
More typical is Fredericksburg, where the visitor can stand on Lee’s hill, where Robert E. Lee watched his men slaughter the attacking Federals, and get a clear view of a factory. Ironically, this may be appropriate as the industrial society represented by the North, though it lost at Fredericksburg won the war. In the same way, it is ironically appropriate that the Alexander Hamilton House in New York City, formerly a farm, used to sit next to an apartment building until the Park Service moved the house to a nearby park.
Fortunately, for those who want to learn about what happened, the Park Service usually has good libraries and book stores. Some offer useful, if brief, multimedia overviews of what happened, of why the site, or the person, is important. . Even at Gettysburg, the primary American Civil War memorial, until the last few decades an accurate presentation of the context of the Battle and War was incidental.
Memorials tell as at least as much about the designers and builders of the memorials as they do about the subjects of the memorials. President Franklin Roosevelt would be appalled at the statute, part of his memorial in Washington, D.C., showing him in a wheel chair. But attitudes have changed since Roosevelt’s day. To the extent a disability is no longer something to be hidden, this is good. To the extent that we look at the entire package of a historical figure, the problems they had to overcome as well as the strengths and advantages they brought to the job, this is good. To the extent that a disability is allowed to overshadow a record of accomplishment, to the extent that a modern interest group succeeds in trumping historical context and truth – Roosevelt, rightly or wrongly, wanted to keep his disability hidden – this is bad. But Roosevelt monument reflects the realities of today far more than those of 60 years ago.
The July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg is a good template of how commemoration near the time, before its story is fully played out, can be appropriate for the time –in honoring the dead and inspiring the living -- send a universal message to the future, and leave at least some room for objective history.
Americans started to commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg just a few months after the battle ended, when a committee started planning the national cemetery. They could be optimistic and hopeful, but they did not know what their event represented. Most recognized it is a major victory for North. However, the battle did not immediately seem decisive.
The Battle of Gettysburg ended July 3, 1863. Within a few days, while the town of a few thousand people had to deal with the major immediate problem of thousands of dead and wounded, efforts were underway to commemorate and honor the battle and those who died there. Practical needs first took precedence, finding ways to help the wounded and properly dispose of the dead bodies (and dead horses) for reasons of health as well as of human dignity.
People flocked to the battlefield from all over the North to help the wounded and to properly dispose of the dead. They came for other, equally human, reasons. Edward Tabor Linenthal, professor of religious studies and an expert in commemoration, has written that “There was, and still is. . . a primal attraction to scenes of destructive power, to the shattered landscape and shattered people who bear witness to such events.”
The wounded were shipped out within a few weeks. The dead were usually buried where they fell. This proved to be unsatisfactory, as the over 7,000 bodies were not buried very deeply. Summer rains were washing away the dirt covering the usually shallow graves, exposing the bodies. Farmers had to plant their fields.
David Wills, a local attorney, suggested to Andrew Curtin, the politically powerful governor of Pennsylvania, a plan to purchase land for a cemetery for the Federal dead. (With the war still on, enemy Confederate dead were low priority). Curtin said he would obtain legislative support, and told Wills to proceed. Wills immediately purchased 17 acres on what was already called Cemetery Hill, next to Evergreen Cemetery. (Cemetery Hill had played a major role in the battle.)
At about the same time Wills was arranging for the Gettysburg National Cemetery, another local attorney, David McConaughy, had begun what later became the Gettysburg National Battlefield Park. In fact, Wills obtained the site for the national cemetery from McConaughy. In August 1863 McConaughy helped found the Gettysburg Battle-Field Association. The Association’s public announcement justified efforts to preserve the battlefield by asking, “Shall we not contribute to the preservation of these standing memorials of the terrible struggles of our noble men who fought and conquered or fell on this field of bloody strife? Shall we not pay a just and grateful tribute to the heroic valor and signal triumphs of our army on this ever memorable battle-field?”
These efforts would produce a perhaps inappropriately beautiful national park. They would produce a debate, which still rages, over the proper context for the battle, over what background visitors to the battle site should be provided. Should the Park just tell visitors who shot whom where, or should it provide a history of the war and the issues that started the war? Is there a balance – what the armies did, and why they were there doing what they did? (This writer, perhaps being excessively optimistic, favors doing both.)
Perhaps, though, David Will’s efforts at Gettysburg led to the more meaningful precedent for the future. On October 15, 1863, a contract was awarded for recovery of Federal bodies from where they were buried and their transfer to the central cemetery. This process would take five months. But the committee decided to schedule a dedication cemetery before then, on November 19, 1863. Edward Everett, considered the greatest orator of the day, was invited to deliver the main speech, the Gettysburg Address. President Abraham Lincoln was invited to deliver a “few appropriate remarks.” Everett took two hours to deliver his speech, not unusual for the period. Read in short segments, his speech is pretty good. However, to the modern reader, the quality of Everett’s speech gets lost in the sheer bulk.
Lincoln, one of the greatest users of the English language ever, in less than 300 words, mobilized the language to find a meaning for the ongoing bloodiest war in American history, a distinction it still holds, and for the bloodiest battle in that war – the deadliest event ever in North America – with the exception of a 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas. The people of Lincoln’s time had to continue the work the 8,000 or so dead at Gettysburg (actually the half who died fighting for the North) had begun. The people of the North, to whom Lincoln was specifically speaking, had to continue to protect what, in a previous speech, Lincoln had called the last, best hope of mankind.
This particular idea of Lincoln’s speech is that a vitally important job was not finished. Lincoln refers to being “dedicated here to the unfinished work which they . . . have so nobly advanced. . . to the great task remaining before us. . .” Nowhere does Lincoln state, or imply, that the work of ensuring that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” will even be finished once the war was won.
Though he mentions neither “union” nor “slavery” in his speech, a distinct underlying theme is that however well and bravely they may have fought, the Confederates’ cause was wrong. Had Lincoln been given time to reflect after the war was over, he might have given thought not to just condemning slavery and secession, these should be “givens,” but to trying to understand why the South fought so well and so long for a cause so wrong, to paraphrase Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs. Lincoln might have reflected on why Southerners were in the ranks, and why they fought and took the substantial risk of dying.
Lincoln would have tried to understand, but he would not have seen the need for value-free objectivity. We are all Americans now, he later said, but some of us were wrong Americans. He would have reflected the view that there most definitely was a right and wrong in the American Civil War.
Lincoln did a magnificent job of articulating the issues of the Civil War, and of articulating the situation as it stood on November 19, 1863. He gives us a valuable lesson in how to make a speech that spoke to its audience (something they soon realized), and how to make a speech that gets better and stays relevant, as it gets older. Lincoln’s speech provides the central and most significant reasons for the war and meaning to the Battle of Gettysburg. Lincoln provides us with an excellent argument for simplicity and elegance.
Almost accidentally, New York City has gotten off to the good start in commemorating September 11, 2001. A few hundred yards south of Ground Zero, a few hundred yards north of the tip of Manhattan Island, sits a “temporary” memorial. A sculpture which used to decorate the plaza between the twin towers, shaped like a ball, was found under the rubble in late fall 2001. The ball was battered but still surviving. The ball was moved to Bowling Green, given a small “eternal flame” and some flags. At night it creates a very moving and dramatic effect. Though labeled a “temporary” memorial, efforts are underway to create a permanent home for the ball where it currently sits. This will add an air of quiet eloquence to the final results at Ground Zero.
Show Footnotes and
. Edward Tabor Linenthal, Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields, Urban and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991, page 92.
. “Gettysburg Battle-Field Memorial Association, Announcement,” undated but circa August 1863. Copy in the files of the National Park Service offices, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
. The Literary Works of Abraham Lincoln, Selected, and with an Introduction, by Carl Van Doren, New York: The Heritage Press, 1942, pages 256-257.
Copyright © 2010 Bruce Brager
Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:
About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign
policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty
Published online: 11/07/2010.
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