Broadening the Gettysburg narrative to interest more Americans has been the purpose behind Gettysburg Revisited, a multi-year educational effort driven by dozens of lectures at colleges and universities, service clubs, and historical societies across the nation, and even the world.
Inspired by the words of President Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, the narrative has focused on themes such as civility and humility, empowering citizens, and strengthening our democracy.
Expanding the narrative to be more inclusive serves our nation in this difficult time.
Simultaneous goals have been to educate the general public, improve the quality of American public life, increase general citizen awareness of the historical significance of Gettysburg, and encourage visitation to its hallowed ground, especially among those less interested in Civil War or military history. I traveled more than 28,000 miles in this effort, aided by Board members and Friends of Gettysburg who delivered Gettysburg Revisited talks; still others provided funding, produced videos, wrote content for other publications, and companion pieces for this blog.
Speaking highlights ranged from presentations at Boys State of Pennsylvania, to the Capitol Hill Rotary Club, to an international museums and battlefield conference held in Gdansk, Poland. Thousands of people reached in person and thousands more on social media, including a Big History blog written for a two-day session we held with high-school teachers around the world.
You might ask: Where's the actual Battle of Gettysburg in this narrative? Where's the largest armed conflict in the history of North America, occurring from July 1-3, 1863? It's always been a part of the Gettysburg Revisited narrative, but less emphasized, because the battle story itself is best left to the professional historians and National Park Service Rangers who tell it for a living with great passion. Division-of-labor in the words of economists.
So why develop this broader Gettysburg narrative? To be more inclusive. While Civil War buffs can and do make the pilgrimage to Gettysburg, often repeatedly, most people are only casually interested in military history. Or they may be interested in other relevant but less emphasized aspects, such as the medical care of the time and post-battle healing, the intellectual history of the Gettysburg Address, or the actions and words of fourteen U.S. presidents delivered on the premises to promote reconciliation between once-bitter enemies. People might be interested in the civil rights struggle, in hearing the words spoken about racial injustices by Vice President Lyndon Johnson on the 100th anniversary of Gettysburg battle in 1963, as precursor to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Based on my travels, service club members are deeply interested in Gettysburg's overarching lesson that conciliation can follow even the most bitter conflict in a troubled democracy.
Broadening the Gettysburg narrative in the years ahead is vital, for change is a constant of life. Future generations will consume the story of Gettysburg more and more on their phones, by augmented or virtual reality, or by other technologies not yet invented, rather than absorbing inscriptions on battlefield plaques and monuments.
More diverse audiences will be looking for narrative and broader meanings that incorporate their families' American experience, demography being destiny.
And symbols change. Many of the battlefield monuments were funded by individual states in honor of their fathers and sons and brothers, completed around the time the generation who fought at Gettysburg was passing into history. Many monuments are artistic treasures. Some, such as the Virginia monument of General Lee astride his horse, are strong statements of authority and courage. Yet, they are also stunning reminders of oppression to descendants of the enslaved, of a war being fought to protect a caste system. Battlefield monumentation may well change, ranging from removal to relocation, from adding context to existing monuments to adding new monuments telling that more inclusive story.
Even remembrance changes. Presidents of the United States are ranked for their performance through surveys of historians or the public. Abraham Lincoln consistently tops the lists, but the historical reputations of other presidents rise and fall as their achievements are reconsidered. President Ulysses Grant keeps climbing up in the rankings more than a century after his death.
The facts of the Battle of Gettysburg do not change much now--157 years later--but the way the struggle is remembered in historical context could change notably in the decades ahead. Public education efforts like Gettysburg Revisited purposefully engage a broader swath of Americans in these important national conversations.