Opinion: Never Forget, But Stop Misremembering
By Anna Audia, Lead Copyeditor
This July will be the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, but regardless of whether the anniversary year is a rounded-off centennial or ends in a random integer, an anniversary is always an opportunity to discuss the issue of Civil War memory. As members of American society, it is crucial that we use this anniversary to understand the events that took place years ago because they condition the world we live in today.
For the most part, we all know about the fighting and bloodshed that took place at Gettysburg—that’s what makes Gettysburg “cool,” right? On the battlefield, we see monuments plastered with death tolls and covered with words like “honor” and “courage.” However, this isn’t the whole picture. The monuments won’t tell you that more soldiers died of disease than direct gunfire, about the feelings of desperation that caused men to desert, or the duties that enslaved people carried out on the battlefield. We need to improve the narrative that is told about Gettysburg so that it encompasses all aspects of the war, not just the ones that make us feel good. It is obvious that this re-evaluation is necessary because as visitors leave Gettysburg, they pass Confederate flags flaunted in store windows. If the tour guide was right about who won, then why are we still producing and selling this flag one hundred and sixty years later?
To resolve this issue of misremembering, it is important that we promote the study of Civil War memory. Fantasized versions of history come from those who are unwilling to accept the truth — often because they have only been exposed to one version of history. A society that bases its history on fabrications and single narratives can not function properly or morally. When fantasy is accepted as history, it devalues the purpose of the fighting that occurred because it prevents the intentions of the war from coming to fruition. The identity of Gettysburg is highly characterized by Lincoln’s address. Lincoln tells us that it is up to us — the living — to carry out the unfinished work of those who died here. When we neglect to properly remember the War, we throw out the work that has been done.
As students at Gettysburg College, we have the opportunity right at our fingertips to use history to better our society. Our institution is uniquely situated in a place where its students are in direct contact with the space that they are studying. The College should use this year’s anniversary as an opportunity to promote the Civil War Era Studies Department. The CWES Department promotes an educated understanding of the War through professors who are experts in their field with access to incredible artifacts, resources, and field studies. The instruction provided by this department prepares students to solve the issues that our world is facing today — and isn’t that the intent of a “consequential” education?
Regardless of your academic focus, I encourage you to enroll in a CWES course during your four years. Due to the nature of the Gettysburg College curriculum, it is likely that something you learn in a CWES course will be applicable to whichever field you are in. As an Italian major, I am completing my Italian capstone in which I am examining the cultural differences between the United States and Italy that have led to the different ways each country chooses to maintain its controversial monuments. History has shown that the way we choose to remember events sets the tone for the future. It is critical that our way of remembering has a basis in education so that we are equipped to create the best possible version of our society.
This article originally appeared on page 10 of the April 2023 edition of The Gettysburgian’s magazine.