Monday, July 28, 2008

Gettysburg Visitor Center comments

I'm hearing some negative comments from some folks regarding the new Visitor Center and museum up in Gettysburg.  They have by no means been significant in number, but uncanny in their similarity.

Complaint 1 - "They tell too much of a story, this should focus on Gettysburg, not the entire war and aftermath."

This comment invariably comes from individuals with a great deal of prior knowledge about the war and the battle, authentic campaigners, authors, actual or self-styled content experts. 

I can certainly see their point, they are, after all,  specialists with a keenly focused and abiding interest in the three day struggle at Gettysburg.

What I generally point out to those folks is that the vast majority of Gettysburg visitors have neither the background nor the expertise on the subject that the specialists do, and that for most people a trip to Gettysburg is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and perhaps the only opportunity - ever -  to lay out for them the entire story of the war from A to Z.  After all, it seems I am always hearing laments that "schools today" aren't teaching kids enough about the Civil War etc.  Well, here then we have it, a clear and complete exploration of the entire war, its causes, and outcomes for that vast majority of visitors.  Perhaps not what the specialists desire, but an educational windfall to students, teachers, and to those whose casual interest, and Gettysburg visit,  may lead them yet into a lifetime of further learning about the war.

And that's a very good thing.

Complaint 2 - "They don't have enough artifacts".  

 I think they have an incredible number of superb artifacts on display and in a context to do a first-rate job of educating the public, again for many of whom, this is their first brush with the subject matter.

Gettysburg is not a private club for connoisseurs, it's one of our Nations most prized possessions, owned by all of the people of the United States and enjoyed by people of all nations on this globe.  And nearly all of them seem very happy with the place.

And that's a very subjective thing.

Complaint 3 - "They spend too much time talking about slavery and reconstruction."

Hmmm.  I think that complaint tells me a whole lot more about the complainer than it does the content of the museum.

And that's a very chilling thing.



Anonymous said...

I was at the visitor center this past weekend. I was very impressed.
I saw the movie and enjoyed it.
You are correct when you say this is designed for people who are new to the battle and battlefield.
Most of the negative feedback comes from people who know about the battle and felt that because 30,000 artifacts are not on display, the museum is lacking. The film, rightfully, explained to us that the Civil War was a war to prevent the spread of slavery. A novice needs to know why such a great battle was even fought.
All in all, it was a great experience.

Anonymous said...

I hear the same complaints. Your comment "I think they have an incredible number of superb artifacts on display and in a context" was driven home with me during a recent visit to the Old Court House museum in Winchester VA. Most of the artifacts had no context. It was just a bunch of stuff.

I don't agree with your assumption on the motives of people who complain about the focus on slavery. They aren't all bigots if that is your point.


Anonymous said...

I just remember when the whole concept of a new VC was to get the Rosensteel collection out of storage and on display. Too much of what I remember from the old VC, even prior to the NPS acquisition, is relegated to storage now. It would be nice to see the motherload of Gettysburg collections on display in one place. The "whole" story was very well conveyed in the movie "A New Birth of Freedom" and could/should tackle the job all on its own.
Other complaints involve the highly reflective glass of the display cases and the annoying shadows cast by poor lighting arrangements.
Just my humble thoughts.

Mannie Gentile said...

Note, I have withheld the name of this commentor in deference to his or her employment with the NPS

---------comment follows---------
It seems like every couple of days we receieve a comment sheet from somebody that wants to tell us that slavery wasn't the cause of the war. I'm always surprised by this. Usually the complaint is that the museum is "politically correct", but the real problem is that the museum is historically correct and it difficult for older people to accept that the history they thought they knew had actually left some things out. I grew up in the segregated Deep South in the 1960s, but I at least learned even then that slavery was the cause of the war, (although I was taught that everything that went wrong was due to Reconstruction, which was a period that seemed to be compared to living in Occupied Europe during WWII). It seems like most schoolkids now know that slavery was the cause of the war but their parents still don't. I suppose that this is the reason that the National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, VA still has not begun construction. If the little bit that is shown at Gettysburg upsets people, then I think it will be a long time before most Americans really udnerstand the issue of slavery and the role it played in the history of the United States.

Disclaimer: My opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of Gettysburg NMP, The Gettysburg Foundation, or the National Park Service.


Anonymous said...


I have given your post a lot of thought. Your response comments seem to speak as much about the responder as it does about the "complainer." Why would a seemingly valid objection (to the objector) about a battlefield's displays diverging too far away from the story of the battle lend you weight to imply something dark, something racist about the speaker? Perhaps this is another attempt by what seems to be a new breed of "interpreters" at our National Battlefields to turn the story of the Civil War into a myopic focus on the modern social interests of the war rather than the war itself and the reasons why the men themselves fought. Rather, comments such as these seem to reveal that your intent for posting at all is to convince the world why you would have fought. As relevant as you may find that in your own mind, that is not why people go to Gettysburg - they go to find out why those men fought.

Why must otherwise valid objections about too much focus on slavery at the greatest battlefield in the western hemisphere open the speaker to implied (and let's be honest, very openly implied) charges of racism?

If you answer the question honestly, it may actually reveal something of your motivations for your post.

Very Best,
Cory W. Newby

Anonymous said...

The Union was fought to save the Union. Again, we see folks trying to participate in some revisionist history. If one reviews the northern posters and handbills from the early days of the war, they invite young men to join a regiment to "Save the Union" through a variety of slogans and banners.

Even the executor of the war, Lincoln said:

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause."
- Lincoln in a August 22, 1862 letter to noted abolitionist, Horace Greeley.

First of all, "why the war was fought" is an incredibly broad question. I imagine that if fine granular answers are sought, there are as many different answers as there were soldiers, Generals and Presidents in the war. However, here is the man who directed the war for the Union declaring in a private letter to an abolitionist why he was fighting the war within months of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation (a military edict).

It is curious to read that because children today are taught that the Civil War was fought over slavery that suddenly that is evident truth and the author of the previous post is left bewildered by the fact that this is not universally believed. Curious. History is the noble effort to gain understanding of why actions were taken. Integral to that process is a commitment on the part of the learner to immerse one's self into the rituals, social norms and circumstances that made up the environment in which men and women acted in accordance with those forces. Rather, we are failed by those who insist on attributing history to the causes best fitted to modern social forces. We see attempts to revise motivations of historical figures because the selected motivation is now considered more magnanimous or attractive to the modern mind than was perhaps the actual reasons for a war or the actual reasons for an Emancipation Proclamation. How much better a people we are to take to the battlefields in millions to free and enslaved people! But the historical record from the first year or so of the war show an entirely different motivation. It was nearly invariable: Save the Union. As the war dragged into its later years, the draft became the driving force for why men to went to war and even there, we have an insight into how it was received (e.g., New York Draft Riots of 1863).

To appreciate why these men fought the Civil War, read the words of the men who were motivated by the preservation of the Union to answer the handbills, leave their farms, families, young wives and children to pick up rifles and defend the right - to defend the Union. It is an act of Orwellian self-denial (and perhaps narcissism) to attempt to change history to make it into what we wish it would have been.

Respect the men who fought and died for for the preservation of the United States by not attempting to manipulate their reasons to an end that is perceived to better suit modern political tastes. It is a misuse of history.

Very Best,
Cory W. Newby

Mannie Gentile said...


I think you need to start your own blog.


Anonymous said...

While men joined the army for a variety of reasons, (and I would probably say as many joined in 1861 and 1862 because their friends and neighbors were joining rather than either to preserve the Union or protect slavery), without slavery the war would have never happened. Slavery dominated all political discussions. Any discussion of other causes of the war, (states' rights, secession, the tariff, etc.), will eventually lead back to slavery. The Deep South secedes because they believe that Lincoln will free the slaves if elected, (something that he believed the Constitution would not allow him to do). Most people in the North, with the exception of some abolitionists in New England, don't call for an end to slavery, they just don't want to see it expanded into the territories. Many in the North and South, (Lincoln included), believe it will die a natural death. Without slavery, there is no reason for any state to secede.

I used to believe that you could separate military events from everything else but the more I study history, the more I discover that nothing operates in a vacuum and what happens off the battlefield definitly impacts what happens on it and vice versa. For most people Gettysburg will be the only Civil War battlefield they will visit. The museum is not only for the people that have studied every part of the battle down to its smallest detail, (if it was the museum would be bigger than the battlefield itself), it is also for the large majority of the people that come to the site of the largest battle fought on the American continent that know nothing about the Civil War, Gettysburg, or the causes or results of the war. A survey of college students several years ago showed that a large number of college students thought we fought the Germans during the Civil War. A recent book by a college professor began with a conversation overheard between what appeared to be two young college educated businessmen. It went something like this: 1st businessman, "9/11 was worse than Pearl Harbor." 2nd businessman, "What's Pearl Harbor?" 1st businessman,"Its when the Vietnamese bombed a harbor." The museum at Gettysburg is for those people.

Anonymous said...

Now back to those toy soldiers!

Mannie Gentile said...

Back to those toy soldiers indeed! (and not a moment too soon).

The latest installment of Toy Soldiers Forever! (I love that exclamation point!) can be viewed at:

I'm showcasing the far ends (almost) of the spectrum of quality and including some antique paper numbers that will knock your socks off.

So keep an extra pair by your keyboards.