Wednesday, June 15, 2016

For the People: Visualizing Gettysburg

Sunset at the Angle by Buddy Secor.
What new can be said about Gettysburg? One of the most studied military confrontations in human history, the three day struggle and subsequent address by Abraham Lincoln have come to represent epochal transitions of the national ideal. But the story does not end in 1863. This is the story my new book, Images of Modern America: Gettysburg National Military Park, seeks to delve into. Through this visual record, I hope to convey the ongoing history of the battlefield where this momentous clash of the Civil War took place. The book devotes particular attention to the profound role of the National Park Service and its stewardship of the landmark since the 1950s. With this book’s release coinciding with the centennial of the National Park Service, now is a timely moment to reflect upon the people, strategies, and dramatic changes that continue to mold our perceptions of a turning point in history.

My good friend and former boss, Christopher Gwinn, the Supervisory Park Ranger at the battlefield, was good enough to pen an insightful and humbling introduction to my book--which I share below:

"On July 5, 1863, a team of photographers arrived on the still-smoldering battlefield at Gettysburg. They brought with them the innovative tools of their trade—transported in a mobile dark room for the development of fragile glass plate negatives. The three men, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, and James F. Gibson, began the laborious and time consuming process of capturing what they saw—images eventually to be reproduced, distributed, and sold. Altogether they recorded over fifty unique negatives that conveyed the most immediate and visceral testimony pertaining to the Battle of Gettysburg.

By the time Gardner and company arrived, two days had passed since the battle’s conclusion. The once-thriving town and surrounding countryside were scarred by the unmistakable signs of slaughter, chaos, and destruction. Formerly peaceful households were riddled with shot and shell while previously bucolic farms were ruined by the hard hand of war. The wounded and mangled spewed forth from every church, shack, and barn as burial parties embarked upon the task of digging shallow graves. As Gettysburg resident J. Howard Wert recalled, “No pen can paint the awful picture of desolation, devastation, and death that was presented here to the shuddering beholders….It was a hideous and revolting sight.”

Over the ensuing years, Gettysburg struggled to overcome the carnage and devastation inflicted in 1863. In many respects the community never recovered. The photographic record of the enterprising artists of the time permits us to partly comprehend the challenges of soldiers and civilians. These photographs, and others taken over the following 150 years, allow us to describe the indescribable and decipher the indecipherable. The images are simultaneously a bi-product of creative expression and invaluable tools of historical understanding.

Casting light on events and lives of the past, photos allow us to walk in the theoretical footsteps of our predecessors. Photographs capture moments beautiful and transcendent as well as episodes dark and painful. Visual records spare these episodes from the inevitable evaporation that befalls so many historical events through the passing of time.

Much of the 1863 battlefield is today preserved within the nearly 7,000 acres of Gettysburg National Military Park. Contemporary visitors will find little outward vestige of the true horrors inflicted by the armies during the American Civil War. Rather, they encounter a well-maintained park, a quaint downtown, and a hauntingly serene pastoral landscape. Above all else, the battlefield remains a place of pilgrimage and remembrance for millions of individuals from every corner of the world.

Stoic monuments and markers dot the landscape where armed combatants once waged a desperate struggle for the future of a nation. Temporary, muddy graves have been replaced by granite stones in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery to denote the sacrifices. Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln’s venerated words of consecration have been transmuted into bronze. The landscape continues to beckon and inspire modern Americans in dramatic ways. In this sense, photographs from the 20th and 21st centuries serve as significant forms of historical reflection. Gettysburg’s vibrant heritage is a never-ending tale of how we seek to connect with those who have gone before us.

Historian Jared Frederick, himself intimately connected to the Gettysburg Battlefield as a former park ranger, has scoured the park archives and other collections for images of the famous and not-so-famous moments that have defined the present-day battlefield. His efforts have yielded a fascinating collection of photographs and commentary that chronicle the broad scope of the park’s evolution since the bustling tourism days of the 1950s. Analyzing the Baby Boomer era through the battle’s 2013 sesquicentennial, readers will be treated to a visual chronology of Gettysburg National Military Park’s continual transformations. Most importantly, the images on the following pages highlight the ways in which the National Park has been commemorated, celebrated, defined, and redefined throughout the ages.

Chapter one explores various episodes of park history from the 1950s through the 1990s, when battlefield visitation skyrocketed. The second chapter examines snapshots of the visitor experience in more recent years. The book’s subsequent section studies the dramatic changes brought forth through Landscape Restoration while the final chapter marks the 150th anniversary of the battle.

Denoting the contributions and observances of staff and visitors from all walks of life, the visuals presented in these chapters are a mosaic of America’s most-visited battlefield. Much like Alexander Gardner’s 1863 negatives, the photos here elicit the alluring power of Gettysburg and its centrality to our national story. As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, these images serve as a timely reminder of the many meanings and emotions Gettysburg evokes.

My book is now available on Amazon and various stores in Gettysburg itself. For personalized copies, feel free to email me. While hundreds of books have been written on this iconic landmark, I guarantee that this book has some new perspectives to offer.

 Pickett's Charge: 150 years later.

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