Having recently completed my third year as Chair of the Gettysburg Foundation and my seventh on the board, I think back to the questions asked of me when I first became a Director.
Why did you agree to join the board? Why is Gettysburg important to you? Why do you think anyone still wants to visit a (then) 150-year-old battlefield? In other words, “Why Gettysburg?”
In response, I made a short list, probably much like the lists kept by my fellow Directors.
- Cathedral: vast, stunning, and sacred.
- Classroom: for history, leadership, the environment, and art.
- Challenge: a reminder of our “unfinished work.”
- Crucible: a place where conflict still swirls over conservation, reconciliation, and how we define ourselves and our republic.
It seemed like a good list, even pleasingly alliterative.
Not counting the one gaping hole.
The mission of the Gettysburg Foundation is to partner with the National Park Service (NPS) to preserve Gettysburg National Military Park and the Eisenhower National Historic Site and to educate the public about their significance.
The board and staff embrace this mission. We operate a world class Museum & Visitor Center. We have conserved and now showcase the majestic Cyclorama. We teach leadership to groups from around the country, and we have launched our innovative Gettysburg Revisited. Of all the activities we perform, however, our work with the NPS in preservation is first, the bedrock on which our other initiatives depend.
Since the days of the battle, preservation at Gettysburg has taken many forms. The guns had barely cooled when attorney David McConaughy began to purchase and preserve portions of the battlefield. The following year, the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association was founded, its work to preserve the battlefield folded into the War Department in 1894 and the NPS in 1933.
Along the way, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that preservation of the Gettysburg Battlefield was “so closely connected with the welfare of the republic itself” that it allowed the government to remove a trolley line that desecrated the southern part of the battlefield around Devil’s Den. This decision was a signature win for preservation.
But there has also been backsliding and losses. In 1939, the Gettysburg Times lamented the “automobile dumps, miserable shacks, tourist camps and hot dog stands” that had encroached on the battlefield. In the years leading up to the 1963 Centennial, preservationists opened a “Second Battle of Gettysburg” to counter the restaurant and souvenir shops proliferating in and around the battlefield.
And many readers will remember the controversial rise (1974) and fall (2000) of a nearly 400-foot observation tower near Cemetery Ridge that Gettysburg Foundation Director George Will called “an affront to the living as well as the dead.”
A new organization, the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, was formed in 1989 to continue the work of preservation on the battlefield. From painting fences and tending orchards to removing nonhistorical structures and burying overhead power lines, its success has been remarkable. Its merger with the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Association in 2006 combined one of the largest Friends groups in the country with the vision and muscle to build what the Civil War Traveler would call “simply the best Civil War museum in the country.”
Nevertheless, preservation at Gettysburg is fraught, often short of funds and at odds with commercial or political interests. Sometimes it sprints ahead, as it did when the NPS approved a historic public-private partnership with the Gettysburg Foundation—one that has been called the “gold standard” of partnerships at the NPS, combining the educational, interpretive, and preservation expertise of the Park Service with the philanthropic, educational, and entrepreneurial skills of the Foundation.
Sometimes, preservation falls behind, as it had in the decade before this partnership was formed when the Park’s Superintendent described “holding the old place together with duct tape and chewing gum” in “a juggling act of survival.”
As each generation completes its works and fades away, we are all subject to the same test, the same question asked by our successors: Did we leave the battlefield better off than we found it?
We couch our work in preservation at Gettysburg in philanthropic, sometimes even noble terms. We are justly proud of our progress and highlight it in magazines, create picture calendars, author books, give speeches, and hold galas.
Yet, as I think back over the last seven years, and certainly over the battlefield’s long history, there’s something more going on, something that speaks to the item that was missing from my original “Why Gettysburg?” list.
“In times of change and dangers, where there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning,” novelist John Dos Passos wrote, “a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present and get us past the idiot delusion of the exceptional.”
What describes America better in 2020 than “a quicksand of fear”? Fractured politics. Trade wars. Battles over immigration. Stock market collapse. Nuclear threats. Global pandemic. “We are facing another crisis,” historian Jon Meacham wrote recently, “and we are hungry for whatever the past can teach us about how to survive moments of great stress and strain.”
What we need, these writers suggest, is a lifeline, something that gets us past the idiot delusion of the exceptional. Yes, it’s hard—of course, it’s hard. But it’s always been hard.
America fought a bloody civil war, yet Gettysburg endured, and the country emerged stronger and more resilient. The U.S. fought a world war and survived an influenza pandemic, yet Gettysburg endured, and the country emerged stronger and more resilient. America weathered a paralyzing depression and fought a second world war, a cold war, and wars in southeast Asia and the Middle East. We watched planes fall out of the sky on 9/11.
Gettysburg endured, and the country emerged stronger and more resilient.
This idea is what was missing on my “Why Gettysburg?” list. What’s the right word? Lifeline? Touchstone? Promise?
- Covenant. How about Gettysburg as covenant? It suggests that we are in a reciprocal relationship with the battlefield—that even when times are hard, if we are faithful stewards, Gettysburg will endure and we will emerge stronger and more resilient.
This idea completed my (now, fully alliterative!) list: cathedral, classroom, challenge, crucible, and covenant.
Gettysburg as covenant is the real reason we spend so much of our time, treasure, and talent on preservation, why the Foundation’s partnership with the NPS is so important. Our generation will come and go. But if we act as good stewards, the battlefield will remain.
We think we preserve Gettysburg. In reality, Gettysburg preserves us.
Eric B. Schultz
Past Chair, Gettysburg Foundation