Remembering Gettysburg

Lincoln assured his audience that the world “can never forget what they did here.” First person accounts of the battle and descriptions of the carnage have been written into letters, diaries, pamphlets, official reports, books and poems. Images of these scenes and events have been drawn, painted, engraved and photographed, capturing a little light from darkness.

Other memories were carved in stone or cast in bronze. The Gettysburg National Military Park contains over 1,300 monuments and memorials to honor the states, regiments, and individuals who fought and died there. More than 400 cannons now serve as silent sentinels over this hallowed ground.

Some tried to forget the horrors of this war, while others sought to remember, lest we forget. In post-Reconstruction America, the patriotic fervor to preserve the Union at Gettysburg faded into sentimental reunions for returning veterans—both Union and Confederate—to recount their shared experience. In the Twentieth century, President Woodrow Wilson and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson came to Gettysburg to speak at the 50th and 100th anniversaries of the battle. More recently, the desire to recover the experience of the 1863 battlefield has resulted in the demolition of the modernist visitor’s center that once housed the 360-degree cyclorama painting depicting Pickett’s Charge.

Today the battlefield and cemetery are tourist attractions with the requisite souvenirs, maps and guided tours to remind these sightseers of their visits, to animate the past, and to lead them to Lincoln’s words.

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“More than any other place in the United States, this battlefield is indeed hallowed ground. Perhaps no word in the American language has greater historical resonance than Gettysburg. For some people Lexington and Concord, or Bunker Hill, or Yorktown, or Omaha Beach would be close rivals. But more Americans visit Gettysburg each year than any of these other battlefields—perhaps than all of them combined.”

– James M. McPherson, Hallowed Ground