Tag Archives: Gettysburg

News from Gettysburg on Independence Day

From the diary of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, July 4, 1863:

I was called up at midnight precisely by a messenger with telegram from Byington, dated at Hanover Station, stating that the most terrific battle of the War was being fought at or near Gettysburg, that he left the field at half-past 6 P.M. with tidings, and that everything looked hopeful. The President was at the War Department, where this dispatch, which is addressed to me, was received. It was the first word of the great conflict. Nothing had come to the War Department. There seems to have been no system, no arrangement, for prompt, constant, and speedy intelligence.…

The information this morning and dispatches from General Meade confirm Byington’s telegram. There is much confusion in the intelligence received. The information is not explicit. A great and bloody battle was fought, and our army has the best of it, but the end is not yet. Everything, however, looks encouraging.

Later in the day dispatches from Haupt and others state that Lee with his army commenced a retreat this A.M. at three o’clock. Our army is waiting for supplies to come up before following, a little of the old lagging infirmity.

Confederate dead photographed by Alexander Gardner on July 5, 1863. Library of Congress

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Booth on the shelf

By Michael Lynch

We seem to have arrived at a resolution to a brief controversy involving a souvenir item that went on sale at both Gettysburg National Military Park’s bookstore and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum’s gift shop.  The item in question is a John Wilkes Booth bobblehead doll, clutching a tiny derringer in his plastic fist.  (Click here to see it for yourself.)  Both institutions removed the item from the shelves in the wake of an online uproar.

Various commentators, including battlefield visitors and historians, have pointed out that a head-bobbling mini-monument to Lincoln’s assassin is not exactly the most tasteful thing to be selling at the ALPLM or at the place where Lincoln delivered his most memorable speech.  I wouldn’t disagree with that sentiment.  As some observers noted, you wouldn’t expect to see an Oswald gimmick on sale at the Sixth Floor Museum.  That’s the difference the passage of a century makes, I suppose.

I think the inventories of museum and historic site gift shops matter more than most of us realize.  Surveys indicate that people accord much more authority to museums than they do to books or other sources of knowledge.  An inaccurate item sold in a gift shop thus takes on a legitimacy that it would never have in another setting.  I’d like to see every museum and historic site put some sort of vetting process in place for the items they sell.

Having said that, I don’t think the Booth bobblehead trivializes Lincoln so much as it trivializes Booth.  It turns him into a comical little target of laughter and derision.  What we have here is not necessarily a celebration of the assassin or his deed, but the sort of commodification and trivialization of history that’s been going on in popular culture for quite some time.  I’m not sure the sale of a Booth bobblehead crosses any discernible line that souvenir manufacturers haven’t already crossed.  Let’s face it—those of us who work or have worked in public history can’t be accused of being too scrupulous about taste when it comes to stocking our gift shops.

Consider the schlock that we willingly peddle to tourists in an effort to offset operating costs: wooden rifles, felt kepis with pinned-on insignia, candy packaged in the form of musket cartridges.  There are plush Lincoln beards that kids can strap onto their faces, pencil sharpeners shaped like busts of Lincoln, and Lincoln teddy bears.  A few bucks will get you an ink pen filled with water containing tiny Confederate soldiers.  Turn the point downward, and the Rebels charge in one direction; turn it upward, and they retrace their steps.  Is the tawdry commercialization of the death of thousands of Civil War soldiers more acceptable than the tawdry commercialization of the death of only one man?

If we want to be brutally honest with ourselves, the answer is probably yes.  The butcher’s bill of the Civil War was so astronomically high in terms of other American conflicts that it becomes almost meaningless.  You can’t visualize hundreds of thousands of dead, but you can easily visualize one, especially when that individual was such a prominent and sympathetic figure as Abraham Lincoln.

If the Booth bobblehead fracas represents any sort of teachable moment, then hopefully it will prompt us to think about the trivialization and commodification of history as a whole, rather than the Lincoln assassination in particular.  We can all agree that turning political murder into a joke is in poor taste; maybe we should consider whether the frivolous invocations of the past we see on store shelves and in the media are just as inappropriate.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.

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National Park Service may take on stewardship of Gettysburg Address train station

The train station in Gettysburg at which Lincoln arrived on his trip to deliver his famous cemetery dedication speech may become part of Gettysburg National Military Park.  The station is just a short distance from the David Wills House, where Lincoln stayed during his visit to Gettysburg; the NPS took over the management of the house in 2004, and re-opened it to the public in 2009.

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Gettysburg National Military Park receives lock of Lincoln’s hair

From The Washington Post:

On April 15, 1865, as surgeons in the White House conducted the autopsy on Abraham Lincoln’s body, the dead president’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, sent in a messenger requesting a lock of her husband’s hair.

The president’s physician, Robert K. Stone, reached over and clipped a lock from a spot near the head wound that had killed the chief executive and gave it to the messenger. Others in the room made the same request, and other locks were clipped, according to historical accounts.

On Wednesday, one of those specimens — which had been kept in a bank vault for almost a quarter-century — was donated by its owner to Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

The small sheaf of hair is framed along with a faded, stained, handwritten note stating that it was given by Stone to the Baltimore businessman and philanthropist Enoch Pratt.

“This is one of those special objects that gives you the chills when you see it,” said park superintendent Bob Kirby, according to a park statement.

He said it will become part of the collection in the new, state-of-the-art Gettysburg museum later this year.

LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum has a similar item which was on display for many years; it’s now housed in one of the building’s vaults.

 

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