The Many Meanings of Gettysburg are Based on Infirm Foundations

McLean House - Oak Ridge (800x600)
The McLean House at Oak Ridge. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, arguably one of the most important battles in entire American Civil War. The internet has exploded with a plethora of well-written articles, essays, and blog posts that have attempted to place the battle within the context of the entire war. Many of these postings have also reflected on how the battle has been remembered over time and what it means for us today. There are too many to name, but I particularly liked essays by Kevin Levin, John Hennessy, Yoni Appelbaum, and a series of posts by Steve Light.

I must admit that I am still relatively new to the field of Civil War history. I did not grow up with a particular interest in nineteenth century American history (I was a World War II enthusiast) and my knowledge of the Civil War was fairly limited. I still don’t know a whole lot about the Battle of Gettysburg, especially the fine details of Union and Confederate battle strategy. Yet my experience working with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic site in St. Louis, Missouri, in 2010 sparked my intellectual curiosity and inspired me to push that much harder for a career in history education.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit Gettysburg for the first time. While there I purchased Thomas A. Desjardin’s 2003 book These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory. I have not finished the book, but I can safely say that what I have read has been some of my favorite Civil War reading ever. Part of the reason why I like it so much, of course, is that it covers the battle of Gettysburg. But I also think this book is extremely important for the insight it provides us for understanding the study of history. If I were teaching a class on historical methods, this book would be on the syllabus, perhaps even the first book I’d have my students read. I would do this because during my years in High School I was taught that history was a factual recollection of “what actually happened.” When we study history, I was told, we studied “what actually happened.” Such notions of history pervaded education legislation throughout the country when I was in high school and continue to do so today. Take, for example, a 2006 law passed in Florida (see page 44) which stipulated that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable…” Thomas Desjardin smashes these notions within the first 15 pages of These Honored Dead.

In chapter one (“The Many Meanings of Gettysburg”), Desjardin reflects on Gettysburg as a symbol for creating new myths and legends about the battle and American history in general:

Wrapped in mystery and mythology, steeped in symbolism and meaning, Gettysburg is now a catch-all of ideas, representing and demonstrating nearly any principle or cause imaginable. This status results from decades of struggle among those who held decidedly vested interests in shaping the story in one fashion or another, intent on ensuring that those who followed after would see Gettysburg in a particular way. Based on the deeply flawed memories of the participants and other eyewitnesses and then expanded through decades of social and political debates, the story of Gettysburg has become a flexible, dynamic mythology, reflecting nearly anything Americans see as positive.

This process began with the foundation blocks–the “facts” as many see them–that sprouted from the deeply flawed memories of the eyewitnesses…The mountain of information that they left to posterity provides more opportunity for misinterpretation than most other Civil War events. The more accounts that are published about a given aspect of the battle, the greater the opportunity for citing some part of the battle as significant in its meaning. Before long, there was an account somewhere that helped support virtually any argument, idea, or symbolization. Peeling back these layers of recollection, however, historians alert to avoid being drawn into the hyperbole and high drama will discover that these accounts cannot all be true. These historians might later come to conclude that  most of what the veterans stated as fact cannot be true and that they were fully conscious of their inability to remember and write the truth.

If Americans can never really know which parts of the Gettysburg story are true and which are at least partly false, then the story is as malleable as clay to anyone who wants to create meaning and wrap it in Gettysburg symbolism…This is how human beings create mythology and it is how Gettysburg has become such a critical and ever-present symbol in our society. (8-9)

In chapter two (“Infirm Foundations”), Desjardin gives us a view of history that complicates the definition of history the Florida legislature utilized in their 2006 education legislation:

History is created. It is a construction borne of people’s desire to make sense of the past. The heart of the issue is that history is not necessarily a record of the facts but rather a reckoning of the stories of past events arranged so that they make sense to those who do the reckoning. There is no “what really happened” of Gettysburg, only a multitude of different versions of events drawn from a myriad of sources, each with a different perspective and a different set of goals in mind when they made their record. In large part, people who were not there wrote the history of the Battle of Gettysburg. Much of what has filtered down as a historical record was assembled by eloquent and ambitious men who were not soldiers, were never in battle, and only set foot on the field of battle weeks, years, even decades after the shooting stopped.

If the men who fought the battle had assembled on the field on July 4, 1863, to record a collective account of what happened to them in the preceding seventy-two hours, many of the pages would have been left blank. One of the most prevalent themes among soldiers who did record their thoughts in dairies and letter around that time is confusion. Men were stupefied by the experience of battle–the deafening noise, the whirlwind of pain and death, the numbness of shock and horror–and had no idea what just happened…In many cases the men who had most adamantly denied the human ability to comprehend the experience were the very same people who wrote histories decades later…The result is not what  really happened, but what we have come to agree that we think or hope happened, and that “truth” changes as often as the years. (14-15)

History is not really a study what actually happened. Rather, it is a study of what people believed to be true and the mechanisms they used to construct a reality for themselves. Constructing those realities involves a complex intersection between history, myth, memory, tradition, hindsight, and ideology. Seen in this light, we can begin to understand crucial events like the Battle of Gettysburg not as discombobulated factoids on a multiple choice test, but as ever-changing symbols that help us construct meaning in our lives. Gettysburg has its significance in American history not because it was important to those who fought in the battle, but because we the people 150 years later believe it is important to our world today. When we engage in commemorations of past events like the Battle of Gettysburg, we do so to promote our interests just as much as the interests and memories of those who are now dead.