It is a beautiful today in south-central Pennsylvania–a perfect day to spend some time on the Gettysburg battlefield. This morning we took ten students from my Pennsylvania history class to Gettysburg. We have been reading Jim Weeks’s book Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine and exploring the way the battlefield has evolved since July 4, 1863. I have given a lot tours of Gettysburg focused on military history, but until today I had never done a Gettysburg “memory” tour.
We have been focusing on how Gettysburg became a shrine of American civil religion–a destination for patriotic pilgrims. We arrived at 7:30am for “devotions” at the Gettysburg National Cemetery. I read Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and stressed the religious nature of the speech. We talked about what Lincoln meant by the use of words such as “consecrate,” “hallow,” “devotion,” and “new birth.” We discussed the blood sacrifice necessary to the consecration of such sacred ground. And, since I teach at a Christian college, we talked about the difference between civil religion and Christian faith.
After our devotion in civil religion we headed to the Visitor Center. Most of the students ended up in the bookstore. Some of them bought souvenirs to remember their pilgrimage to this sacred site of American nationalism. Others noted the way this sacred site is connected with the marketplace. We even got our pictures taken with Lincoln, the great prophet of U.S. civil religion.
We spent the rest of the tour on these topics: race and the 1913 and 1938 reunions of Gettysburg veterans, with an assist from David Blight (at the Eternal Light Peace Memorial); the meaning of the Robert E. Lee statue (on Confederate Avenue); the Eisenhower Farm and Gettysburg as a Cold War site; the tension between battlefield authenticity and environmental concerns; the influence of popular culture (Jeff Schaara and Ted Turner) on the battlefield (at the monument to the 20th Maine on Little Round Top); and the role of Daniel Sickles in promoting the bill that brought the battlefield under control of the U.S. War Department.
Here are some pics: