On July 1, 1863 Union Army Scouts spied a patrol from General Robert E. Lee’s Army foraging for food at a farm outside a village in south central Pennsylvania near the Maryland border. Lee had finally invaded the north, gambling that the Confederate Army could control Baltimore Harbor and encircle Washington. The battle that ensued turned the tide of the war, decided the fate of the Republic and the name of that then obscure Pennsylvania hamlet is sacred in the annals of American history: Gettysburg.
By dawn on the nation’s birthday, just 3 days after the battle began, 51,000 Union and Confederate Soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. Their blood, sweat and dying screams filled the streets of the town. The locals and camp followers had gathered for picnics while watching the battle. Many disgusted by its wrath trekked through the carnage. They closed their windows in summer’s deepest heat to keep the smell of death out of their homes. In the history of the Western Hemisphere no combat has killed or wounded more soldiers than the battle of Gettysburg. Over 3,500 casualties of the battle rest there for eternity.
Today its evident to any visitor that the economy of the boro of Gettysburg is intricately woven into the battlefield just as the town was part of the battle 136 years ago. Hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and commercial museums touch the edge of the park and this alignment has started the second battle of Gettysburg.
The National Park Service is the errant stepchild of the Federal Department of the Interior, the largest landowner in the United States. While the department has co-opted more than 633 million acres of America’s land, mainly through the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service only controls a relatively paltry 80 million acres with a piddling annual Federal budget of $1.7 billion. Gettysburg’s mere 5900 acres apparently isn’t producing enough revenue for the Feds.
The National Park Service has partnered with a private developer and is trying to over run the boro with a $74 million park management plan. The plan calls for Gettysburg’s visitor center to be destroyed and replaced with a glitzy movie theatre, museum, souvenir super store and restaurants on the opposite side of the battlefield. Preservationists, merchants and the town council are engaged in a bitter struggle over the merits of the plan. Preservationists want the expanded museum but not the rest of the retail complex and local merchants feel threatened. The National Park Service claims it can do whatever it likes.
And the National Park Service wants the money. Funded by Congress to the tune of about $21 per acre, the Park Service’s arrogance appears to be born of desperation. Having been sued by the family that donated more than 38,000 Civil War and Indian artifacts that are rotting away in storage the Park Service is looking for the private sector partner to bail them out, especially since Congress won’t.
Any American who can stand in the shadows of the cemetery where President Lincoln delivered his immortal address and not sense the sweep of Gettysburg’s history has no soul. It undoubtedly belongs to all of us but the people of Gettysburg have had their economic lives wrapped around those 3 days in 1863 for nearly a century and a half. They are the heirs of the battlefield’s history and the National Park service is merely the custodian. Gettysburg boro council should have the final say on the re-development plan. They must cope with the traffic, noise and crowds as well as enjoy or face the economic consequence of any change. Some day if the National Park Service recognizes that fact the concept of government of, by and for the people will have prevailed. If in that decision the preservation of this hallowed ground is at risk, the Congress of the United States can waste $74 million in seconds on nonsense while $74 million invested in preservation at Gettysburg is an investment that generations of Americans to come will treasure.