In my Interp at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace one of my central themes is the story of how the house became a historic site. The evolution of 28 East 20th Street under the care of first the Roosevelt Memorial Association, then the Theodore Roosevelt Association, and finally the National Park Service is fascinating. I find that when told the right way people respond to the narrative; it gives them a sense of time and place that they did not have until that moment. Ultimately people visit historic sites for a connection and better understanding of where they themselves fit into the larger picture. My take is not unique. The study of the hows and why of heritage tourism sites has become a cottage industry over the past 12-15 years.
The reason I mention all this is because last night I finally began reading Jennifer M. Murray’s On a Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933-2013. It had been sitting on my shelf for some months and Lincoln’s birthday seemed as good a day as any to dive in. As its subtitle indicates the book focuses on the period when the site came under the management of the National Park Service. In the introductory chapter she provides background on the battlefield’s first eighty years, when it was under the care of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association and the War Department. What struck my eye was that the Congressional legislation authorizing the transfer from the GBMA to the War Department was approved on February 11, 1895. That was 120 years ago this week.
As many of you probably know, Dan Sickles, the American Scoundrel himself, led the charge to transfer the battlefield to the War Department. I have been doing a little digging but have not been able to figure out if the legislation coincided with nearness to Lincoln’s birthday intentionally or not. In 1895 American would have been aware of the significance of February 12. (My current place of work may be the only place in America where one still gets Lincoln’s Birthday as a holiday.) Sickles was not the only Civil War veteran in the Capitol. The Senate had no less than thirty-five members who were veterans of the War of the Rebellion. Note that there were only forty-four states at the time. That’s forty percent. There were sizable numbers of Civil War veterans in the House as well.
Placing Gettysburg under the auspices of the War Department could not have come at a better time. The Spanish-American War was just three years off. The Great War began less than two decades later. Prior to American involvement in the First World War, Army Chief of Staff Leonard Wood used Gettysburg for the first of the Preparedness camps. In 1918 Eisenhower ran his tank school at Camp Colt on the site of Pickett’s Charge. Ike wanted nothing more than to go to France. It was his misfortune to be so good at his job that the higher brass would not send him overseas.
Nothing concerned Dan Sickles more than the legacy of Dan Sickles. Still, it is difficult to imagine how Gettysburg would look today, or how our military would study the military craft, without these living laboratories that are our Civil War battlefields.
(image/Eisenhower National Historic Site)