Being a PA resident, I’ve been to Gettysburg three or four times, including on a few school trips as a boy. This weekend, I drove two and a half hours to return to the city for a poetry reading at the Ragged Edge Cafe. I’ve traveled all around the northeast, U.S. for various poetry readings, but this trip felt especially meaningful in the context of our current moment in history.
Gettysburg is a town that makes so much of its money recounting and re-enacting those three days in July of 1863, from the ghost tours and battlefield tours, to the countless gift shops selling everything from pocket-sized copies of the Gettysburg address to toy cannons. There was something especially noticeable to me upon this visit regarding the shops on Baltimore Street. They had more Confederate memorabilia than anything else, including shirts with large Confederate flag images that read, “If at first you don’t secede, try again,” and “Heritage Not Hate.” This was especially striking to me, considering the thousands of men that died in Gettysburg and the fact that the battle was a turning point for the Union. I don’t know enough about the politics of Adams County, PA to say if the town swings conservative or liberal, but I assume the merch is selling, or, otherwise, the shop owners would not stock it. There were moments walking those cobblestone streets when it felt like the South actually won the war and was not driven out after three bloody days. Perhaps, though, the national debates about the Confederate flag have merely spread to Gettysburg, but the Confederate memorabilia did seem more visible since I was last there in 2013 for another reading.
The countless ghost tours are nothing new, and one historian who attended the poetry reading commented to me, “There were no ghosts in Gettysburg until 1985,” citing the proliferation of interest in the paranormal. She admitted that she doesn’t disbelieve in ghosts, but she does have a problem with the monetary aspect of the paranormal tours. I have to confess that the last two times I was in Gettysburg, I went on ghost tours. This time, however, my girlfriend and I researched tours and found one that was praised by historians for being accurate and not relying on gimmicks and cheap tricks. Our tour guide used the idea of being “haunted” to frame the tour and confessed to us that he was an ex-NY firefighter who witnessed 9/11. He recounted the stench of rotting flesh and compared it to the millions of pounds of flesh that rotted on the Gettysburg battlefields. 9/11 is what haunted him, just as civilians who witnessed the battle would always be haunted by it. He told us stories of real people killed in war and showed us the famous bullet-marked brick facade of the Dobbins Inn. People on our tour drifted towards the building to touch it, closing their eyes and breathing deep while doing so, as if they could inhale the gunpowder. He then showed us one of the only still living trees on Baltimore Street that was there during Lincoln’s procession to dedicate the National Cemetary and give the Gettysburg’s Address.
My trip to Gettysburg this time was more profound and certainly more haunting. The town’s history is impossible to escape. It stares at you on every corner and in every gift shop. To quote Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This country’s long-standing ghosts are still haunting us and very much still shaping our politics.