Commonplace Book #96

A key future of heritage over history is the substitution of image for reality that turns illusions into authenticity.  The power of images lies in their evocation of feelings regardless of historical facts.  Public interest in the battle’s narrative had been met by vendors through a wide variety of mediums since the battle ended.  But with Gettysburg’s historical meanings largely gone, the quest to experience the original event became more urgent.  Moreover, images could shore up the pitiful inadequacy of monuments, the electric map, the cyclorama, or bird-eye battlefield views.  Beginning in the 1970s, “living history” demonstrations, large reenactments, realistic art, and other mediums attempted to tear through the veil intervening between present and past for a clear view of 1863.

New forms of graphic art, fiction, and popular history disseminated fresh and beguiling images of what the days of ’63 really looked like.  Realistic artists–two of whom eventually established studios in Gettysburg–painted seemingly endless interpretations of select battle scenes, with careful attention to minute details but not, thankfully, real carnage.  As pessimism deepened during the denouement of Vietnam, Michael Sharra’s The Killer Angels championed the military through the lens of Gettysburg.  Sharra, a career soldier, wound together the fates of select officers at Gettysburg in a fictional tribute to bravery, self-sacrifice, and American character while ignoring the Civil War’s seminal issues.  The book proved extremely popular and won the Pulitzer Prize.  Its skillful character development generated new American heroes, the Confederate General James Longstreet and the Union’s Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, for a society in need of heroes. 

Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine, 175.