Over at The Atlantic last week, Ta-Nehisi Coates explained to his readers how he felt about visiting Gettysburg, encountering the narrative themes there, and comparing those themes to his understanding of the war. He came away from the place uneasy about how the site and the themes strayed away from the centrality of slavery in the conflict and what the Confederacy hoped to achieve through battlefield victory. Call him Mr. Outside.
I’m more like Mr. Inside. I had ancestors who were present on Little Round Top and Culp’s Hill. Two of my daughters have a mother who claimed a distant kinsman, Eli Berlin, was killed on Little Round Top, then buried at the National Cemetery. All but the kinsman part works for me (Eli Berlin of the 83rd Pennsylvania was killed on Little Round Top, and he is buried in the National Cemetery: I visit the site when I visit the cemetery), because the kinsman part was a bit sketchy and was not always part of the family history (this compares to my former mother-in-law’s observation as we drove along the Union line on Cemetery Ridge and passed the monument to the 42nd New York: “I didn’t know Indians fought at Gettysburg!”). My wife’s ancestor was wounded during the Pettigrew/Trimble/Pickett charge of July 3, probably near the Emmitsburg Road, probably near the site of the 8th Ohio monument (he would be captured ten days later at Falling Waters). Oh, yes … he was a Confederate (some will call this marrying up). I have visited the battlefield numerous times since 1967, and I know my father visited it when he was young, too; my daughters have also visited the battlefield, and so that’s three generations right there.
I take away different things from each visit, and I note that more and more my visits have a multidimensional aspect to them. I can visit the field to survey the terrain, look at the monuments, walk the streets, sample the stores, lead tours and give lectures and sign books; I’ve also become more reflective over time, which may help explain why I visit the cemetery more than I used to. I wish I’d been there to give Coates my perspective … and to walk him over to another cemetery, not nearly as well know, where African American soldiers from the war are buried. Then I’d walk him down Steinwehr Avenue, where I once found a toy black Confederate soldier for sale, or into the stores where you can find t-shirts from Dixie Outfitters, bumper stickers celebrating Confederate pride, or baseball hats bearing the face of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was not at Gettysburg.
Once I didn’t think much about those things at Gettysburg, although I knew about them from elsewhere. Nor did I think all that much about the black soldiers at the Crater and Forts Gilmer and Harrison when I first visited the area in 1974. I knew about them, and I had read about them, but I had not reflected about them. I’ve been back to the Crater since, but it really is time for me to take a good long trip down there, instead of the relatively brief visits I’ve made to places like Cold Harbor, a place that draws me back again and again. So I knew who fought there, but now I have done a lot more thinking as to why they fought, period. Things change.
And I’d also tell Ta-Nehisi Coates about my experiences at the various NPS Visitor Centers … from the Cyclorama building in 1967 to the Electric Map Museum from the 1970s through its final years (I first visited it when it was in private hands in 1967) to the present museum, and I would point to something in the new building that wasn’t part of the old museums: the discussion of slavery. I’d also tell him that it was in the current museum that I for the first time saw African-American children gather around exhibits and point to the artifacts of slavery, relating to the museum much as I had related to the museum because it showcased a uniform from one of my ancestor’s regiments. I remember being distinctly moved when I saw those kids looking at history the way I had looked at history. And then I’d take him to the string of Confederate state monuments and have him reflect on when they appeared and what they said. And then we’d talk … because Gettysburg is a crossroads town.