CRM Journal


Coming to Terms with the Civil War at Gettysburg National Military Park

by John Latschar


Established in 1895 and transferred to the National Park Service in 1933, Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania preserves and protects the resources associated with the Battle of Gettysburg and the Soldiers National Cemetery and provides understanding of the events that occurred there within the context of American history.(1) Within the second half of that mission statement—to provide understanding of the events that occurred there within the context of American history—lurks a challenge and an opportunity inseparably intertwined with that "most peculiar institution" of American history—racial slavery. As President Abraham Lincoln mused in his second inaugural address in March 1865, "All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war."(2)

All may have known it then, but Lincoln would be saddened to know that all surely do not know it now. Therein lies the challenge as the National Park Service seeks to provide understanding of the significance of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War era's lasting impact on the development of the nation.

Generally speaking, the National Park Service faces two related, yet distinct, challenges. The first challenge is educational. Many park visitors are devoid of a basic understanding of American history. They are not aware that the Civil War era was "the most momentous era in American history;" that the Civil War defined the United States as a nation, both then and now; and they are unsure what beliefs are held to be "self-evident." Most know that the Civil War was important and that Lincoln was a great President, but they cannot explain why.

Simply put, during the Civil War era, the United States underwent fundamental changes that transformed the country forever. Before 1861, Americans grappled with the permanence or impermanence of the Union as a major political and constitutional question, with respected public figures taking opposing sides. The Civil War decided the question of union or disunion. Although arguments about states' rights did not end in 1865, discussion about the permanence of the Union halted abruptly. After 1865, only fringe groups talked about the legitimacy of breaking up the Union.

High-Water Mark of the Rebellion Monument (a cannon and shot).

The High-Water Mark of the Rebellion Monument at Gettysburg National Military Park, a detail of which is shown here, marks the farthest point reached by Confederate infantrymen during their July 3, 1863, assault on Union positions on Cemetery Ridge. Known as "Pickett's Charge," the failed attack on Union positions marked the end of the Battle of Gettysburg and Confederate general Robert E. Lee's campaign into Pennsylvania. (Courtesy of the National Park Service.)

In 1861, racial slavery kept four million people in bondage. Slavery claimed the protection of the Constitution and was legal in 15 states and the District of Columbia. This "peculiar institution" based on human property shaped the economy, society, politics, and ideology of a substantial portion of the Union and influenced all of it. In 1857, the United States Supreme Court even ruled that black Americans—whether slave or free—could not be citizens under the Constitution.

The Civil War decided the question of slavery once and for all. The 13th amendment to the Constitution prohibited slavery, while the 14th and 15th amendments defined and nationalized citizenship for former slaves and banned race as a reason for disfranchisement.(3) Repealing any of these amendments, or returning to an un-free labor system, is unthinkable today.

Viewed in these terms, the Civil War era saw not only the nation's greatest military struggle, but its greatest social revolution. Granted, Americans still struggle after 140 years to define this concept of citizenship and to meet Lincoln's challenge of a "new birth of freedom."

Today, both adults and children habitually repeat the phrases "one nation" and "with liberty and justice for all" without necessarily thinking about the vast sacrifices in blood and treasure that were required to achieve Lincoln's dream of a "new birth of freedom." Furthermore, rarely do Americans contemplate how different their development as a nation—or nations—would have been had the outcome of the Civil War been different. The Civil War was truly a turning point in the nation's development, and Gettysburg was a turning point in the Civil War. Providing that understanding is part of the park's educational challenge.

As powerful as these thoughts are, there is another aspect of the Civil War era that is astounding to contemplate: the level of involvement, the depth of commitment, and the scope of sacrifice that the citizens of the 1860s were willing to endure in the pursuit of their beliefs—

  • In 1860, the total population of the United States was 31.4 million;

  • 3.8 million men—12.4 percent of the total population—were enrolled in military service;

  • 620,000 lost their lives (2 percent of the total population) in the war.

If there were another Civil War today, and those same percentages held—

  • Today's population is 301.1 million;(4)

  • 37.3 million people would be enrolled in military service;

  • 6 million Americans would die.

Another way to illustrate this point is that the death toll at Gettysburg, measured as a percentage of the nation's population, was 21 times that of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. In fact, measured as a comparative percentage of the American population, there were 42 Civil War battles in which the death toll exceeded that of September 11th, or almost one a month, for four long years.(5) One cannot even begin to comprehend how the nation could cope with such a horrific and prolonged struggle today.

How did Civil War era Americans cope? Never before or since have the American people been so thoroughly engaged in such a monumental struggle. For each of those nearly four million men enrolled in military service in the 1860s, there was a home affected by his absence. For the homes of those 620,000 who lost their lives, the impact was both permanent and tragic. The Civil War was a dramatic national conflict that touched the lives of every American alive then, and it affected every aspect of American life—economic, political, and social. Providing an understanding of this astounding level of commitment is part of Gettysburg's educational challenge. Understanding what people of that time lived through helps gives perspective to the issues and struggles of today.

The second challenge the National Park Service faces in interpreting the Civil War and its impact relates to the nation's collective cultural memory of the era. In order to understand the cultural challenge faced at Gettysburg and other Civil War sites, one must understand the historical struggle for the memory of the Civil War era in the United States. The first 100 years of that struggle for memory—or roughly from the end of the war in 1865 to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—is aptly summed up by the adage, "The North may have won the war, but the South won the history," or, in this case, the memory. Generally speaking, the defeated typically spend more time analyzing their losses than the victors spend analyzing their success. One need only to follow football coaches and political parties after a defeat to observe this phenomenon in action. In the American case, the North tended to move on to other issues, such as the settlement of the west and the expansion of industry, whereas the South tended to look back in search of a way to understand and cope with what it took to be an unprecedented tragedy.

The Southern version of memory that had emerged in the aftermath of the Civil War prevailed for almost a century. Classically labeled "The Myth of the Lost Cause," it explained that the Civil War was a struggle over "states' rights," (slavery was not a cause of the war, in other words), that the Confederacy was defeated only because of the overwhelming industrial and manpower advantages of the North (thus, defeat did not mean dishonor), and that slavery was a benign institution necessary for protecting the well-being of an inferior race.

Over the last 40 years, the "Myth of the Lost Cause" has been systematically challenged and thoroughly discredited within the academic world; not so in the collective memory of the nation, where it persists. For example, the Immigration and Naturalization Service exam for prospective citizenship includes the question: "The Civil War was fought over what important issue?" Either of two answers—slavery or states' rights—is accepted as correct.(6) The popular debate continues unabated, whether it is about the propriety of a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Richmond, Virginia, the new state flag for Georgia, the "Lost Cause" overtones of the movie Gods and Generals, or the purpose and content of National Park Service interpretive programs at Civil War battlefields.

Historian David Blight's book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American History, has helped the park understand how the nation's collective memory of the Civil War era evolved. In his exhaustive account of the shaping of American memory of the Civil War era between 1865 and 1915, Blight describes how—

Three overall visions of Civil War memory collided and combined over time: one, the reconciliationist vision, which took root in the process of dealing with the dead from so many battlefields, prisons, and hospitals…; two, the white supremacist vision, which took many forms early, including terror and violence, locked arms with reconciliationists of many kinds, and by the turn of the century delivered the country a segregated memory of its Civil War on Southern terms; and three, the emancipationist vision, embodied…in the politics of radical Reconstruction, and in conceptions of the war as the reinvention of the republic and the liberation of blacks to citizenship and Constitutional equality.(7)

Reading Blight's book was both an intellectual and an emotional experience because what he wrote rings so true in those parts that touched upon the development of Gettysburg as the symbol of commemoration and reconciliation. His work speaks directly to the park's current interpretive challenges, for there is no doubt that the park is dealing with some of the problems of the history of memory about which Blight has written so eloquently.

In 1995, the park celebrated the 100th anniversary of its creation as a national military park with a symposium examining the history and development of the park. Being relatively new to the position of superintendent, I accepted an invitation to speak on the topic of "Gettysburg—The Next 100 Years."

In my remarks, I suggested that it might be a mistake to assume that Gettysburg National Military Park would still exist 100 years hence and that anyone would care about the battle of Gettysburg, or the Civil War, in the year 2095. It was not meant to be a doomsday prediction but to question the presumption that Gettysburg or the Civil War would always be relevant to the American people. Indeed, all one had to do to question that relevance was to look at the profile of the American public that visits Gettysburg.

Park visitors are predominantly adult white males. Males far outnumber females and white visitors far, far outnumber black visitors and all other minorities. If the park is going to survive as a public institution supported by taxpayer funds, I suggested that it might want to appeal to a broader cross-section of the American taxpaying population.

Generally speaking, Civil War parks have failed to appeal to the black population of America. A portion of this failure may be the fault of the parks themselves. In an effort to honor both the Union and the Confederate forces that fought on the battlefields, park interpretive programs had been avoiding discussions of what they were fighting about. For African Americans, I suggested, it has always been abundantly clear what the Civil War was about. In their view, both then and now, the sole purpose of the creation of the Confederate States of America, and the sole purpose of the Confederacy's attempt to withdraw from the Union, was to protect and preserve the institution of slavery.

Of course, the people who actually seceded agreed with them. South Carolina seceded from the Union because a "geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery."(8) Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederate States of America, infamously declared that the Confederacy "is founded upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."(9)

In 1995, statements of this kind were nowhere to be found in the interpretive programs at Gettysburg. Nor were there any discussions of the causes and consequences of the Civil War. Unless the park started talking about causes and consequences, it would not make Civil War battlefields relevant to those visitors and constituents who are interested in those issues.

Excerpts from this speech were picked up and reprinted in The Civil War News. When all was said and done, the United States Secretary of the Interior had received 1,100 postcards from the Southern Heritage Coalition, condemning the park's plans to "modify and alter historical events to make them more 'palatable' to a greater number of park visitors."(10) The postcards demanded that the National Park Service "return to its unaligned and apolitical policies of the past, presenting history, not opinions."(11) The reaction was a surprise. After all, the speech only presented the obvious: that slavery had something to do with the Civil War and the park ought to talk about that.

With a new awareness, I started to look at Gettysburg and what the park was presenting to the public. The battlefield itself is a perfect example of what Blight has described as commemoration through reconciliation. The park has more than 1,400 monuments, memorials, tablets, and markers primarily erected by the veterans themselves between the 1870s and the 1920s. These 1,400 monuments describe the order of battle, disposition and movements of troops, and (almost invariably) their casualty lists. The majority of the monuments call particular attention to the bravery, the courage, the valor, and the manliness of the soldiers. A few commemorate the preservation of the Union. Not one commemorates the ending of slavery.

In other words, the monuments of Gettysburg are a physical manifestation of the reconciliationist memory of the Civil War. The park is visible proof of the overwhelming "forces of reconciliation…in the national culture" as "the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race."(12) As a somewhat natural consequence, park interpretive programs in the past have traditionally emphasized reconciliationist topics. The interpretive programs discussed battle and tactics, the decisions of generals, the moving of regiments and batteries, the engagements of opposing units, and tales of heroism and valor. All of this was central to the park's mission and seemed to be what the majority of visitors wanted to hear.

Of course, there are those veterans' reunions for which Gettysburg is so renowned. The story of the famous "hands across the wall" at the 50th anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg in 1913, which symbolizes the reconciliation of the veterans themselves, brought tears to visitors' eyes. Stories directly related to the consequences of that reconciliation—Woodrow Wilson's forced segregation of the federal bureaucracy in 1913, or the 70 lynchings of black Americans that took place that year—might also have brought tears to visitors' eyes, but park interpreters did not tell those stories.

In 1998, the park sought expert advice on how to put the Gettysburg campaign into the context of the political, social, and economic environment of the mid-19th-century United States, that is to say, how to present the story of Gettysburg within the larger story of the causes and consequences of the Civil War.(13) Because the park had traditionally related the reconciliationist version of the Civil War to visitors, its interpretive programs had a pervasive—although unintended—southern sympathy. That is why, the experts pointed out, Gettysburg was most commonly known as being the site of the Confederate major general George Pickett's charge (rather than the Union major general Winfield S. Hancock's defense), and as the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy" rather than "the Battle that Saved the Union."

By emphasizing the heroism and sacrifices of the soldiers without discussing why they were fighting, the park was presenting the reconciliationist recollection of the Civil War to the exclusion of the emancipationist vision. It was presenting that "segregated memory of the Civil War" of which Blight wrote.

Since then, the park has revised its themes. Instead of emphasizing only the battle itself, park interpreters also stress the meaning of the battle that is eloquently preserved in President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The park's new interpretive themes emphasize Gettysburg as the place of "A New Birth of Freedom."

In 1998, the superintendents of all National Park Service Civil War sites met in Nashville, Tennessee, to discuss a mutual "recognition that our interpretive efforts do not convey the full range and context of the stories our sites can tell." On the subject of interpreting Civil War battlefields, the superintendents unanimously agreed to broaden park interpretive stories to "establish the site's particular place in the continuum of war; illuminate the social, economic, and cultural issues that caused or were affected by the war; illustrate the breadth of human experience during the period; and establish the relevance of the war to people today."(14) On an agency-wide basis, the National Park Service made the decision to ground stories of battles and tactics in the larger issue of "causes and consequences."

The new general management plan for Gettysburg National Military Park, adopted in 1999, states—

The enduring legacy of Gettysburg and its place in the nation's history provide a rare opportunity to discuss the social, cultural and political changes that brought about the Civil War and that were occasioned by it. The Civil War was a dramatic national struggle that touched the lives of every American alive then. The war, this battle, and the Gettysburg Address helped define the ideals of freedom that we, as a nation, still strive to achieve today.(15)

The same year, Congress encouraged the National Park Service to broaden its interpretive scope, declaring that—

The Service does an outstanding job of documenting and describing the particular battle at any given site, but…it does not always do a similarly good job of documenting and describing the historical social, economic, legal, cultural and political forces and events that…led to the…war... In particular, the Civil War battlefields are often weak or missing vital information about the role that the institution of slavery played in causing the American Civil War.(16)

As a result, Congress directed the Service "to encourage Civil War battle sites to recognize and include in all of their public displays and…educational presentations the unique role that the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War…"(17)

Constituency Concerns

As Gettysburg National Military Park moves in this direction, it will continue to tell the stories of battles and tactics, illustrated by the experiences of military leaders and individual soldiers. These will always be fascinating subjects. However, Gettysburg and other parks are now presenting these stories within the important historical context of why they were shooting and why it mattered. By whatever measure—the events of September 11th notwithstanding—the Civil War was the greatest disaster in the history of the nation. The outcome of the war—its consequences—was the greatest factor in the nation's subsequent development. If the park introduces its visitors to the story of what the war was all about, it will provide a deeper understanding of why those men fought and died on the fields at Gettysburg.

The introduction of "contextual history" into Civil War battlefield interpretation has made some people nervous. Some military buffs are concerned that any time spent talking about causes and consequences would be time taken away from the true purpose of battlefields, which they define (in clear reconciliationist terms) as "commemorating the battle and honoring the men who fought there."(18) They argue that battlefields were established only to commemorate and interpret individual battles, not to interpret the Civil War. "Interpreting the broader scope of Civil War history" wrote one critic, "was NOT in the 'mission statement' of the battlefields."(19) That sort of stuff, they reasoned, ought to be left to the academic historians.

The park has no intention of downplaying the military history of the campaign. Rather, it wants to make that military history more meaningful to visitors by providing an understanding of the social, political, and economic influences that produced the soldiers and the armies in which they fought. After all, as Sir John Keegan, the most acclaimed military historian of our time, wrote—

an army is…an expression of the society from which it issues. The purposes for which it fights and the way it does so will therefore be determined in large measure by what a society wants from a war and how far it expects its army to go in delivering that outcome.(20)

In other words, in order to understand armies, good military historians must first understand the societies that produced those armies. In order to understand the battle front, they must first understand the home front. In order to understand the significance of Gettysburg, they must first understand what was at stake—and why—as the armies prepared for battle.

Other constituents have expressed a more personal concern about how the memory and honor of their ancestors will fare in this type of contextual history. In the words of one correspondent from North Carolina—

I see the political climate as becoming very dangerous for anything Southern and white. I have never condoned discrimination, I have never denied slavery was A cause of the War. But, slavery was NOT the ONLY cause. And I'll be damned if I will sit idly by and let revisionist historians tell me MY ancestors, who owned NOT one slave…fought to keep them in bondage.(21)

This question of "honor" is still incredibly important to these constituents. How does one approach this subject without dishonoring ancestors? First, do "good history." Ensure that 19th-century events are not interpreted through the lens of 21st-century values. The participants must be understood within the context of the values of the times and the societies in which they lived. The decisions they made must not be judged by the contemporary values of society 140 years hence.

Second, explain, as James M. McPherson has pointed out in his book, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, that the reasons nations and men go to war are often entirely different.(22) By 1863, when the armies clashed at Gettysburg, the Civil War had evolved into a war for union and freedom. Yet, the majority of the 75,000 Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg were not slave owners. Nor were the majority of the 88,000 Union soldiers abolitionists. In the 1860s, a man enlisted under the banner of his individual state, but to assume that he automatically supported the reasons his government went to war is bad history. The truth of the matter is there were a number of personal, familial, and other reasons why a man would have chosen to go to war in the mid 19th century.

In an effort to do good history, Gettysburg National Military Park is introducing questions of causes and consequences of the Civl War into the interpretation of the Battle of Gettysburg. How is the park going to get it done? In part, by using Lincoln's own words from the Gettysburg Address. Phrases from the Gettysburg Address will identify each of the galleries in the park's new museum, scheduled to open in 2008.

"Conceived In Liberty?" will discuss the root causes of war. Like Lincoln, the park will compare the promise of the Declaration of Liberty with the imperfect compromise of the Constitution. "A New Nation" will cover growing pains, the mounting tensions between free and slave states, the powder keg of western expansion, the 1860 election, and secession. Covering the period from 1861 to 1863, "Now We Are Engaged In A Great Civil War" will relate how a war to save a Union became a war for Union and Freedom. "Testing Whether That Nation Can Long Endure," "Now We Are Met On A Great Battlefield Of That War," and "A New Birth Of Freedom" will focus on the Gettysburg Campaign, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Gettysburg Address respectively.

"The Brave Men Living And Dead" will focus on the aftermath of battle, the treatment of dead, wounded, and captured, and the impact upon civilians. "The Great Task Remaining Before Us" will carry the story of the Civil War from Gettysburg to Confederate general Robert E. Lee's surrender to Union general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox courthouse in Virginia. "That These Dead Shall Not Have Died In Vain" will address the results of war and how the nation settled the questions of Union and slavery but failed to settle the new question of citizenship. Finally, "Never Forget What They Did Here" will present the preservation of Gettysburg as a place of commemoration, reconciliation, and a new birth of freedom.

If, at Gettysburg, the National Park Service can explain why the North and South went to war, introduce the myriad personal reasons that caused the citizens of both the North and South to support that war, and talk about the consequences of those decisions, then it shall have succeeded in doing "good history" that should dishonor no one. It will have taken a small step forward in reconnecting the cultural memories of the Civil War era in America, including memories of both reconciliation and emancipation. It will also have given visitors a better understanding of the historical context of the events that occurred on the fields of Gettysburg and how those events shaped the future of the nation.

Lincoln once stated that "If we could first know where we are, and wither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it."(23) Therein lays the relevancy of history. If people can better understand the issues, the trials, the sacrifices, and the struggles that past generations endured, they can better "judge what to do, and how to do it" today, and in the future.

If, in the future, after visiting Gettysburg, more visitors understand that the United States has survived great crises in the past, that it has been far more divided in the past than it is today, and that, compared to the issues of the past, today's issues are well within the nation's ability to resolve, then the park shall have done its job. Finally, if, some years from now, Gettysburg becomes renowned throughout the world as the place of "A New Birth of Freedom" rather than the "High water mark of the Confederacy," or the field of Pickett's Charge, then the park shall be pleased.


About the Author

John A. Latschar, Ph.D., is the superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.



1. "Final General Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement: Gettysburg National Military Park" (Philadelphia, PA: National Park Service, 1999), 7.

2. Abraham Lincoln, "Second Inaugural Address," March 4, 1865, Washington, DC.

3. The 14th and 15th Amendments did not initially pertain to Asians and other racial groups.

4. The estimated population of the United States was 301.1 million at the time of writing. U.S. Census Bureau,, accessed January 30, 2007.

5. See, for example, William F. Fox, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War (Albany, NY: Albany Publishing Company, 1889). Confederate casualty data is incomplete for 1864 and 1865. The comparisons above do not include any Confederate losses from the sieges of Richmond and Petersburg, which would undoubtedly increase the number of comparable battles.

6. Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001).

7. David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 2.

8. Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, December 24, 1860.

9. Alexander Stephens, "Cornerstone Address," March 21, 1861.

10. Postcard, Heritage Committee, Sons of Confederate Veterans, to Honorable Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior, January 1996.

11. Ibid.

12. Blight, 2.

13. The team of experts included professors Jim McPherson of Princeton University, Eric Foner of Columbia University, and Nina Silber of Boston University. The Organization of American Historians coordinated the park visit and evaluation in cooperation with the National Park Service.

14. "Holding the High Ground: Principles and Strategies for Managing and Interpreting Civil War Battlefield Landscapes," Proceedings of a Conference of Battlefield Managers, Nashville, TN, 1998 (Washington, DC: National Park Service, 1998), 11.

15. "Final General Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement: Gettysburg National Military Park," 6.

16. Ibid.

17. U.S. House of Representatives, Report 106-406 on Making Appropriations for the Department of the Interior and Related Agencies for the Fiscal Year Ending September 30, 2000, and for Other Purposes [to accompany H.R. 2466], 106th Congress, 1st session, 1999;, accessed February 26, 2007.

18. Jerry L. Russell, "Refighting the Civil War: Park Service Wants to Talk About the Causes," Arkansas Democrat Gazette, October 20, 2002.

19. Jerry L. Russell, "'PC' History?" in HERITAGEPAC E-MAIL ALERT, September 18, 2000.

20. John Keegan, The Mask of Command (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1987), 2.

21. Don Johnson to author, e-mail communication, May 17, 2000.

22. James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1997).

23. Abraham Lincoln, "A House Divided," speech delivered at Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858.