Grief Tourism

Travel to areas affected by natural disasters, places where people were murdered, etc.

Gettysburg – The Sacred Ground

15th July 2006

Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania, the scene of the largest conflict ever fought in the Western Hemisphere, is considered by many to be the final turning point of the Civil War.  For three days, the brave armies of the North and South fought against each other, each equally strong in their beliefs, and each reluctant to accept defeat.  In the rolling hills and wooded areas of the battlefield, the Union army gathered their forces atop Cemetery Hill and drove the remaining Confederate soldiers into the Valley of Death.  This was the grim scene at Gettysburg on the first three days of July 1863, where 51,000 men lay dead, wounded, captured, or missing.  As might be expected, the Union soldiers were honored with proper burial soon after the battle and in Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, the National Soldiers Cemetery was dedicated.  Some seven years later, the bodies of Confederate soldiers were moved from burial plots on the field to their rightful place in the Cemetery.  However, within the battlefield area itself, there are only two national monuments in honor of the courageous soldiers of the South.

Immediately after the battle, relatives and friends on the Union side were allowed permission to search for their loved ones; yet, the invitation was not extended to the defeated South.  A few years later, in an effort to bring in tourism, the railroad was extended from nearby major cities and a casino, photography studio, and dance pavilion were built upon the sacred ground.  Overrun by pleasure-seeking tourists, out for a good time, Gettysburg soon fell prey to the prostitutes and the gamblers, the vendors and the barkeepers, each seeking to profit from the tourist trade.  The past, after all, was the past and there was money to be made.  The automobile made it just that much easier and quicker to reach Gettysburg, a chance to get out of the city for a few days.

Through the ongoing efforts of veterans, private citizens, and a few concerned public officials, the preservation of Gettysburg slowly took shape.  Today, there are over 1,600 monuments, plaques, and memorials on the battlefield, the majority of which are in honor of the Union army.  In reality, this over abundance of memorials seems to lose their significance when one considers that the entire battlefield is in itself a memorial.  In 1895, President Cleveland established Gettysburg National Military Park, which is now preserved and maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior.  For a while, the veterans of the Civil War frequently returned to Gettysburg, to express their grief and sorrow for the tragedy, but in time, there were few, and then ultimately, no survivors remained.  The 50th anniversary, which included a reenactment of “Pickett’s Charge,” was a reunion of 40,00 veterans and by 1938, only 1,845 of the 8,000 survivors were able to attend the reunion.  Of these, only 65 had actually fought at the Battle of Gettysburg.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt honored this reunion with the lighting of the eternal flame at the National Peace Memorial on Oak Hill.  Tourism to Gettysburg was revived again in the late 1950’s and the 60’s, as families and tourists took to the road, hoping to recapture one of America’s greatest moments.

Today, Gettysburg, the site of two historic landmarks, Gettysburg National Military Park and the Gettysburg National Cemetery, draws over two million tourists a year, eager for variety and a chance to be entertained.  As we drive through the 6,000 acres of sacred ground, now alive and green, the air is filled with the sounds of music and laughter, replacing the once pungent odor and grey smoke of gunpowder and the battle cries of victory and defeat.  While children fight imaginary battles wearing Union and Confederate caps and wave tiny flags on Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top, adults browse through the bookstore picking up a few of the numerous items for sale including audio-visual recordings, maps, books, games, and collectibles to take back home.  A few moments of reflection, perhaps, on the sacrifices and the purpose of Gettysburg, and visitors are happy to return to the comfort of their homes or nearby accommodations at the end of a hot summer day. 
Entrance fees to the Park are free and the grounds and roads are open from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., November 1st – March 31st.  The Gettysburg National Cemetery is open from dawn until sunset and the Park buildings are closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.  Tourists begin their visit at the National Park Service Visitor Center, with an “Electric Map,” which provides a 30-minute orientation on the three days of the battle, including commentary on the primary participants.  Fees for the presentation are $4.00 for adults (ages 17-61), $3.00 for children (ages – 6-16), and $3.00 (seniors, 62 and over).  Children under 6 are free and group rates are $3.00 for adults.  The Museum at the Visitor Center has the George Rosensteel collection of uniforms, artifacts, and weapons from the Civil War.  The Cyclorama, a 360-foot long panoramic painting by Paul Philippoteaux depicting the famous “Pickett’s Charge” and the end of the battle, is being restored and scheduled to reopen in 2008.

Edward Everett’s Gettysburg Oration on November 19, 1863 carries little significance in history, but the words might well be contemplated as we visit the sacred ground ” no lapse of time, no distance of space, shall cause you to be forgotten. ”  A pilgrimage to Gettysburg seems to be a part of the American way of life, a powerful ritual that must be observed.  The fascination of Gettysburg lies not so much in its historical significance, but in its escapism and excessive commercialism.  While historians and writers examine and reconstruct the battle scene and others reenact the events in elaborate period costumes, tourists arrive by the carload for a chance to “play” at war.  In this curious compulsion and fanfare of tourism, we can only hope that this battlefield will be remembered, as it should be, as a sacred “sepulchre of illustrious men.”

Sharon L. Slayton

2 Responses to “Gettysburg – The Sacred Ground”

  1. James Trotta Says:

    A friend of mine, Bill, just told me something interesting:

    Remember the movie Gettysburg? And the focus of Pickets Charge is the center breaks or The Angle in the union line at the tree? The place where Armitage goes over with his hat held high on his sword but dies just on the other side of the stone fence?

    That tree is still there at Gettysburg. One magnificent sunset with no one nearby at all Bill and his boys crossed the mile of wildflower and long grass fields from Seminary Ridge. They climbed over the fence at the Emmitsburg Road and aimed for the tree up the slope. For them it is a magnificent tree and an amazing holy place.

  2. bjguido2007 Says:

    Where exactly is that tree? I,m going back there in MAy next the history of teh Civil War,, I think I may walk that mile across the field ,but I don’t know where that tree is that you are speaking of ,I would like to recognize it specifially.. I know of the High Water mark and Copse Trees,