My Trip to the Gettysburg “Barn”…or… WHERE’S GENERAL SHERMAN WHEN YOU NEED HIM?

I recently visited the new National Park Service Visitors Center at Gettysburg, which opened in April 2008. From the outside, the place actually looked like a barn – one that is in desperate need of an expert barn-burner! (Anyone got General Sherman’s cell phone number?).

The inside featured a display area laid out in a confusing, maze-like fashion where you go to see not only a timeline of the battle, but a timeline of the events covering the antebellum period, the war itself, and the war’s aftermath. There are interactive video stations, there are some of the artifacts which were in the old Visitors Center, and there are several small movie screens for watching short movies. A friend of mine who lives in the area said that her son, who has a degree in architecture, told her that if he had designed such a confusing maze when he was in school that his professors would have expelled him. I concur, as I found myself wandering in circles at times.

The building features a full movie theatre which charges an $8 fee for watching a 15 minute film narrated by Morgan Freeman. I passed on seeing the movie.

There are also two classrooms, which I don’t think are in use yet. I would guess that they will eventually be used to “educate” unsuspecting tourists.

There’s an overpriced cafeteria. But don’t worry about the prices. Just go see the exhibits before you eat and you will soon find your appetite has vanished.

Slavery of course, is the cause of the war. And slavery is "brutal and immoral" (a direct quote). However, they do say at least once that "the north was racist too"…. (also pretty much a direct quote). And of course, no exhibit on American slavery would be complete without a pair of manacles being on display. Oh Hab’ mercy’!

The way the actual war started goes something like this: The South fires on Fort Sumter – period, end of sentence. Kind of sounds like the Southerners woke up one morning and on the spur of the moment said, “Hey! Let’s go blow up Fort Sumter!?” I guess the Park Service folks didn’t have time to mention that Jeff Davis had sent a couple of emissaries to Washington in hopes of avoiding war?

The bookstore and gift shop were much larger than the old one. I did not see the bobble head dolls that I saw when I visited the Tredegar Museum gift shop in Richmond. No Lincoln, Lee, Grant or Davis dolls, and thankfully, none of those hideous looking Harriet Tubman bobble head dolls either!

As I expected, there was no telling of the largest black story at Gettysburg; namely, the several thousand black men who marched up to Pennsylvania with the Army of Northern Virginia, and then back again of their own accord. Much to my surprise, there was also no telling the story of the free black community near Gettysburg that went running for its life when the Confederates came up. Some members of this community turned out to be runaway slaves and were taken back to Virginia by the Confederates. Much has been made of this in recent years and I really expected the NPS would play this story up as "Lee’s Great Slave Raid.” Both stories were ignored, however.

The final 5-10 minute movie is what really seals the deal however, with a quick overview of the war’s aftermath, of Reconstruction, and beyond. There is much praise for the "biracial democracy" of Reconstruction, and much criticism of the planter class which fought to preserve its power over the blacks and the po’ po’ whites any way they could. These planters, you see, were werry werry bad!? The movie quickly takes you through the Reconstruction, through the post Reconstruction era, the KKK, Jim Crow, Plessy vs Ferguson, and then into the glorious civil rights era. The man for whom more streets are named for in America than any other individual also makes a brief appearance in the movie…. Martin Luther King.

There is much moaning and groaning about the post Reconstruction era, which was described as a time of “reconciliation” between North and South, but a “reconciliation” which excluded the black man. I suppose that I was expected to sorrowfully climb up on my guilt stool, suck my thumb, twirl my hair, and express remorse for this horribly insensitive “exclusion”, but the Park Service didn’t see fit to provide any stools to sit on so I took a pass.

The movie claims that the only blacks at the 1913 Gettysburg reunion were the black men who cleaned the grounds and waited on the white folks. That’s strange because somewhere in my research on “black confederates”, I do remember seeing a story about a group of them who showed up unannounced at that reunion and who were taken in by their white comrades. Unfortunately, I read this many years ago before I started taking research notes, and I can’t remember where I read it. If anyone can point me to a documented source where I might find this story, I’d appreciate it.

Reconstruction is glorified as a time when black people became heavily involved in the political process. Of course, no one in the movie ever explains how so many freedmen can so quickly go from being illiterate field hands in 1865, to being state legislators, sheriffs, judges, and other public officials in 1867? Such a leap of progress is unheard of in the annals of world history. You can check for yourself to see if it’s ever been genuinely accomplished over the last 7000 years. Yet miraculously, it seems to have occurred during Reconstruction!? I guess the slaves must have all been Einsteins in chains waiting to be free in order to display their superior intellects? Too bad most of these “Einsteins” couldn’t read or write!? It is a question that no one thinks to ask….. How did the freedman make advances in 2-3 years which normally take 2-3 generations for most groups to accomplish?

When I think of my grandparents, I think of how little time they had on their hands to participate in the political process. After arriving in this country from Italy, my grandfathers barely had enough time to learn rudimentary English and become citizens. Giving stump speeches, campaigning, becoming involved politics, running for political office, were all out of the question. There was no time for such things even if they had miraculously acquired the ability. They were too busy working their butts off to support the large families that they were raising.

So the question begs then, where the hell did the ex-slaves find all this free time and expertise?? The potential answers to these questions could fill a book. But you won’t find them addressed in the new Visitor’s Center.

I guess that after reading this you won’t want to go to the Visitor Center the next time you’re in Gettysburg. Can’t say I blame you. But you SHOULD GO! You need to see this first hand and perhaps get sick to your stomach. You need to get angry, and you need to become aware of what’s going on; because this is only the tip of the iceberg. Wait until the 150th anniversary “celebrations” start in 2011. As Randy Bachman would say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

The Negro’s first disillusionment came when he tried to grasp in tangible form the benefits which the new dispensation was expected to confer. Stories are told of his coming to town with a sack to carry back the franchise which was to be given him, and of his confusion of the “Freedmen’s Bureau” with the well known article of furniture. “Whar’s dat bureau? Was sure to be the first question”, Virginia Clay wrote. “Whar’s all dem drawers what got de money and de sugar and de coffee? God knows I neber see no bureau t’all, and dat man at de book cupboard talked mighty short to me at dat.” "The Southern Tradition at Bay" by Richard Weaver, First Regnery Gateway Printing, Lanham, Md., 1989, PP. 249-252

Bill Vallante
Commack NY
SCV Camp 3000 (Associate)
SCV Camp 1506 (Associate)
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