The Sacred Blood of Our Fathers: An Exploration of Secular, Pilgrim-like Experiences at Gettysburg

By Lauren Booth

In order to understand the large amount of Americans that make battlefield “pilgrimages” each year, one must explore the preservation efforts, pilgrimage-like activities and ideals presented at sites; as well as the powerful religious language used in reference to and at these sites. Using the example of the Gettysburg Battlefield, the location of a pivotal battle for the Union army against the Confederate army during the American Civil War, this paper analyzes“battlefield pilgrimage” as a pilgrim-like experience. A pilgrim-like experience, for the purpose of this paper, is an experience that mimics and includes the key concepts or practices typically performed at traditional pilgrimage sites. Further, battlefield pilgrimages maintain very similar motives to traditional pilgrimage sites through mimicking activities that (1) give powerful sacred status to a profane space and (2) preserve an ideological tradition. There is a powerful sacred status at battlefields that Americans feel the need to preserve. This comes from the value given to the spilled blood of American soldiers. This “blood acts” sanctify the battlefield. Like traditional pilgrimage sites, battlefield pilgrimage sites highlight spaces where someone has participated in a selfless act of suffering and sacrifice. The ideological tradition that Gettysburg seeks to preserve is one of “orthodox patriotism.”[1] According to historian Edward Tabor Linenthal, “Patriotic rhetoric and monument building are designed to ensure continued allegiance to patriotic orthodoxy. Physical preservation is designed to protect the sanctity of the site itself and to separate sacred space from surrounding secular space”.[2] Using Linenthal’s discourse on battlefields and other scholars of battlefield preservation and pilgrimage, this paper will confirm the ideal of a trip to a battlefield as a valid pilgrim-like experience.

The Battle of Gettysburg occurred over the course of the first three days of July 1863.[3] Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee had brought his troops directly into northern territory, attempting to push the Confederate army further north than they had ever been. The Union Army of the Potomac met Lee’s forces in Gettysburg; a vicious and drawn out battle ensued over the course of those three days. The Union forces, ultimately, were successful in repelling the Confederates back to Virginia and squashing the hopes of the south for freedom from the United States. According to the U.S. military’s website, “almost as many soldiers died in combat at the Battle of Gettysburg than during the entire Vietnam Conflict”.[4] There were 51,112 dead at Gettysburg, both Union and Confederate soldiers and untold numbers of wounded soldiers.[5] At Gettysburg, these soldiers left behind a landscape that was war-torn and devastated, but suddenly imbued with profound meaning.[6] This traumatic event created an almost compulsive need to preserve the new significance of Gettysburg.

Immediately after the battle, conservation efforts began to be discussed by people in Gettysburg. The person who first championed the preservation of Gettysburg was David McConaughy. McConaughy was a local Gettysburg attorney, and he began buying sections of the battlefield in late July 1863, less than a month after the battle.[7]  Immediately after the war, Civil War battlefields, due to the immense amount of meaning found in the blood spilt by soldiers, became a valuable presence that many Americans felt the need to preserve and memorialize. In fact, there were monuments erected by soldiers even while the war was ongoing.[8] Gettysburg was one of the first preservation sites of its kind. Because Americans felt the need to memorialize the battlefield so soon after the battle there is a certain gravitas attached to the historic significance of the park. As national park historian Richard West Sellars points out in his article on Civil War battlefield preservation, “Beginning at Gettysburg even during the war and rapidly accelerating in the 1890s, the efforts to preserve the first five Civil War military parks constituted by far the most intensive and widespread historic preservation activity in the United States through the 19th century”.[9] Gettysburg was one of the first memorialized battlefields of its time, and the immense span of conservation efforts gives it singular importance to Americans. The time in which Gettysburg received the most visitation was 1970, with the attendees that year totaling 6,879,400.[10] Since 1970, the park has seen a significant decrease in visitation, registering only 1,020,702 people in 2013. It is impossible to tell how many of these visitors made repeat trips to Gettysburg within a year, or over the course of many years. But it is important to note that at one point, Gettysburg was retaining almost 7 million visitors yearly and still sees a significant number of visitors today.   Modern-day attempts at preservation, aimed at increasing visitors, include the changing of topographical features at the battlefield in order to make the site as historically accurate as possible. For example, many trees are being torn down to return some places to the fields they once were, and many miles of fencing are being put up to reproduce the space of the battle.[12] While aimed at increasing visitation, these efforts are also an attempt to properly portray the atmosphere of the time in which the battle occurred. This is a large-scale attempt by the NPS to validate and recreate this sacred site. Specifically, the use of monuments to preserve and memorialize Gettysburg provides significant meaning to conservation efforts at the park. Monuments are the most striking visual feature of military parks and issue the “chief manifestation of the battlefield’s hallowedness”.[13] The overwhelmingly large amounts of monuments at Gettysburg (more than 1,400) create a sense of importance and validation for the sacred efforts of those that died there.[14] These monuments are also used by current visitors to the sites for the identification and verification of the sacred events that occurred at Gettysburg. Monuments at Gettysburg can be seen as shrines and the ritual visitation to these sites can be translated into mimicry of pilgrimage. This ritual visitation creates feelings that are remarkably religious, giving validation to this battlefield as a pilgrimage-like site. Sellars accurately recognizes that, due to monuments and preservation attempts at battlefields, “the sites became major icons of the nation’s historic past, to which millions of people have traveled, many as pilgrims, and many making repeated visits”.[15] These journeys, which have taken on pilgrimage-like qualities, have become, “ritualistic treks to hallowed shrines,” that allow for visitors to routinely take part in mimicked religiosity at Gettysburg.[16] Preservation efforts at Gettysburg have evoked a sense of sacred ground and perpetuated the ideology of national orthodoxy for those that visit. The battlefield does this through the use of monuments that maintain the sacredness of the space. Because this site has accumulated monuments over time and has been constantly trying to build authenticity through modern park preservation attempts, there has been an added accumulation of significance. The ideology of national orthodoxy, seen through preservation and frequent visitation to Gettysburg, validates the pilgrimage-like experience that can occur for a traveler to the park. As John B. Gatewood and Catherine M. Cameron aptly point out in their ethnographic work on Gettysburg, “The Battle of Gettysburg was fought over ideas that matter, and the enormity of that struggle and those ideas still touches the hearts and minds of the park’s visitors today”.[17] The ideas that the soldiers at Gettysburg spilled their blood for are important and still hold meaning for people today. This importance is proved by the fact that, 152 years after the Battle, preservation of the site continues today. Because there is recognition of the holy nature of the site, one can freely feel the intense emotions and pursue ideological frameworks that are typically reserved for religious experiences or pilgrimages.

While there is a certain accessibility and validity to the pilgrimage-like status gained by Gettysburg through conservation efforts, there is another more important factor that allows for this site to ly mimictraditional pilgrimage. This factor resides in the varying translatable ideals and practices perpetuated at this battlefield. Linenthal points out in his book that, “The evocative power of battlefields had engendered various forms of veneration: patriotic rhetoric, monument building, physical preservation, and battle reenactment”.[18] It is imperative to explore Linenthal’s three main points in order to verify Gettysburg as a valid pilgrimage-like experience. First, he points out that battlefields have engendered veneration. This language is markedly religious and links the idea of visiting a battlefield, like Gettysburg, with religious practice like saint veneration or pilgrimage site veneration.

Second, the patriot rhetoric (along with very religious language in the form of “veneration”) used by various Americans to describe what happened at battlefields highlights the importance of religious language at battlefield sites. This will be explored later in this paper, as well as how patriotic rhetoric reinforces the idea of a patriotic orthodoxy that is perpetuated at Gettysburg. Along these lines, when the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that Gettysburg be preserved as a historical site, Sellars points out that, “To the Court, erecting monuments and taking possession of the battlefield ‘in the name and for the benefit of all the citizens of the country for the present and for the future’ is a ‘public use…closely connected with the welfare of the republic itself’.”[19] This is a powerful argument for the way in which Gettysburg was meant to be used as a site to perpetuate ideologies that supported the “republic” that is America. Because of this goal of perpetuating an ideology, Gettysburg gained a powerful similarity with pilgrimage sites, which continues today. This is because the “patriotic rhetoric and monument building” at Gettysburg are constructed to ensure continuous allegiance to patriotic orthodoxy.[20]

Third, battle reenactment creates a strong sense of ritual action that directly links practices at Gettysburg to religious ritual actions, which, in turn, gives a sense of authenticity and inclusion to “pilgrims” at the site. The importance of authenticity at any religious site, or a site like Gettysburg that mimics religiosity, is vital to perpetuating the sacred emotions evoked by the site. Brian Black points out in his article “The Nature of Preservation: The Rise of Authenticity at Gettysburg”, that, “a society decides that a site is worthy of this sacred status and then makes a decision regarding its representation”.[21] The importance of visitor participation at any historic or pilgrimage-like site cannot be emphasized enough. Not only do those that maintain these sites need to authenticate the space, but Americans and park-goers must also play a role in the sacred representation of a site. So, by using the ritual of battle reenactment, Gettysburg and its visitors effectively mimic a religious ritual in order to give authenticity to the site. Battle reenactments bring to mind a ritual in which the amount of blood shed for America is venerated. An interesting fact about Gettysburg battle reenactments is that they do not even occur in the park itself.[22] These reenactments are put on by the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee, founded in 1995, and are completely separate of the NPS. Because the GAC is separate from the NPS, they cannot perform reenactments in Gettysburg National Park. The Gettysburg Anniversary Committee (GAC) is made up of an assortment of “local community members” and represents the involvement of civilians and patrons in preservation efforts at Gettysburg.[23] The GAC frequently uses funds generated by the annual battle reenactment of The Battle of Gettysburg to support different foundations that aide the preservation of the battlefield.[24] It is interesting that participation in the preservation of the memory of Gettysburg occurs even outside of its own space. What is striking about battlefield reenactment is the emphasis that those at Gettysburg place on the sacredness of the blood shed on the day of the battle. This narrative of ‘sacred blood’ can only bring to mind ideas of the Blood of Jesus, spilled for the entire world to attain salvation. This idea of blood as a sacrilizing agent at Gettysburg Battlefield can be seen as early as President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In his famous speech, President Lincoln states, ““we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract”.[25] Here, Lincoln highlights the suffering and sacrifice of the soldiers at Gettysburg, evoking the suffering and sacrifice that Jesus Christ Himself went through. By using powerful religious words like ‘consecrate’ and ‘hallow’, as well as pointing out that there is no greater power than the sacrifice the soldiers made, Lincoln is utilizing words that are imbued with religious meaning that separate Gettysburg from the profane. In his use of religious language, he also consecrates the ideals that the soldiers fought for American ideals.. Through stating that none can consecrate the ground of Gettysburg more than those that died there creates a forceful image of the power of the blood spilt for the American cause. In sum, the analogous language of blood at Gettysburg highlights religious parallels that create a sense of pilgrimage at this site and validate the pilgrim-like experience of visitors.

The next most important factor that creates a pilgrimage-like experience at Gettysburg is the pervasive religious language used in order to describe the site. This language can even be seen on the National Park Service’s website describing Gettysburg. In his letter about the management at Gettysburg, Ed W. Clark, Superintendent of the park, uses religiously motivated language to describe the park and its maintenance as well as language that sustains the ideologies that the park wishes to perpetuate. First, the language Clark uses to perpetuate the idea of patriotic orthodoxy states that Gettysburg is, “a place where people contemplate our war torn past and its lessons for our future….Since 1993, the National Park Service has committed itself to preserving…[Gettysburg] as a symbol of America’s struggle to survive as a nation”.[26] This is a clear example of the self-aware management perpetuating the ideal that this site attempts to present and gives more strength to the idea that Gettysburg is akin or mimicking a traditional pilgrimage site. As Linenthal points out, “This is the language of conservation; it asks people to preserve, protect, perpetuate, reawaken, revitalize, and rededicate themselves to the ideals for which sacrificial warriors died”.[27] This language of perpetuating an ideology as well as this “language of conservation” is the driving force behind places like Gettysburg that are traditionally secular, as well as behind traditional religious pilgrimage sites. Later in his letter, Clark cordially invites “you” to, “wander the battlefields and the surrounding area to understand the central role this hallowed place played in our nation’s history”.[28] One can see how visitors to the park are encouraged to encounter aspects of the sacred on the “hallowed” ground of Gettysburg. This narrative creates an air of religiosity that translates strong moods and experiences to the battlefield at Gettysburg and transforms it into a place where pilgrimage-like experiences can be had. It is interesting to note that Linenthal points out that, “Like visitors to the sacred natural sites of the nation, visitors to battlefields often use religious language to express their awe, having stood on ground sanctified by ‘the blood of our fathers’,” and that sometimes this expression of awe elicits statements that equate the paths of soldiers at Gettysburg to that of “the path of the Savior of the world”.[29] It is highly significant that the religious language of Gettysburg has elicited religious feelings that can equate the sacrifice of American Civil War soldiers to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Responses like this one and the religious language that led to it further reinforces the strong parallels that Gettysburg maintains with the idea of traditional religious pilgrimages.

In their ethnographic study of battlefield pilgrims at Gettysburg, John B. Gatewood and Catherine M. Cameron explore language used by those who visit the site by presenting a survey. A significant result of this survey is a chart (see Figure 1) depicting the answers that visitors gave when asked about how accurate certain adjectives were when used in the phrase “Gettysburg is…”. Words falling under “Strongly Agree” include: meaningful, authentic, and emotional. While not directly linked to religion, these words are reminiscent of the feelings that people experience when at a religious site. There is a strong sense of power connected to the use of these words and many visitors to the site, through their agreement with the statement “Gettysburg is: Meaningful / authentic /emotional”, prove that there is a strong use of religious language and significance at the site. Again using Gatewood and Cameron’s ethnographic fieldwork, there is a strong connection between religious language, meaning and repeat visitation of the site. They found that:

On average…return visitors find Gettysburg significantly more meaningful than do first-time visitors to the site…Thus, return visitation is correlated with the extent to which individuals regard Gettysburg as a meaningful site (meaningful, emotional, spiritual, enriching, interesting, relaxing, serene, and historic). The more visitors perceive Gettysburg as a meaningful site, the more likely they are to return.[30]

To summarize Gatewood and Cameron’s findings, one can see that there is a strong correlation between the religiously motivated language that is used by visitors and the site, which creates a higher chance of people making repeat pilgrimage-like trips to Gettysburg. The use of words like ‘meaningful’, ‘spiritual’, and ‘emotional’, are words that arise out of religious background and the idea of sacredness. Religious language plays an overall large role in the perpetuation of Gettysburg as a pilgrimage-like site by creating the impetus for return as well as evoking strong emotion that connects visitors to the site.

The suffering and sacrifice that occurred at Gettysburg has gone a long way to create the site that now mimics traditional pilgrimages. Through the parallels of the sacrifice of the soldiers to Jesus Christ and the strong imagery of sacred blood, Gettysburg inhabits a liminal space between the secular and sacred.   For both the Americans that visit, as well as scholars of battlefield sites, there is a constantly changing definition of what type of “pilgrimage” travel to Gettysburg constitutes. But, there is no question that the powerful sacred status of this profane space has been gleaned from the copious monuments and historic preservation efforts that continue to shape the ideology of Gettysburg today. Not to mention, the strong ties between veneration of the monuments, the patriotic rhetoric that links the site to both the preservation of an ideology and the religious language that creates sacredness and unity at the site. Religious language and comparisons at Gettysburg are easily the most obvious link to traditional religious pilgrimages. The striking comparison of Jesus’ path and the path of soldiers at Gettysburg and the almost transcendental experiences that visitors often have at the site is encouraged by the maintenance and preservation of the site itself. In sum, Gettysburg is a compelling example of a secular pilgrimage-like experience that exists in the liminal space between the sacred and profane.

This was a good revision of your draft. I liked how you incorporated more secondary studies and thoroughly defined your terms. You should be proud of this essay! Well done!

Essay grade: A 95/100

Course grade: A 92.8

Figure 1[31]

Works Cited

Black, Brian. “The Nature of Preservation: The Rise of Authenticity at Gettysburg.” Civil War History Vol. 58 No. 3, September 2012 p. 348-373.

Clark, Ed W. “Management: Gettysburg as a Symbol of Ourselves.” National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/gett/learn/management/index.htm (Accessed April 9, 2015)

Gatewood, John B. and Cameron, Catherine M. “Battlefield Pilgrims at Gettysburg National Military Park”. in Ethnology Vol. 43 Iss. 3. University of Pittsburgh, Department of Anthropology, Summer 2004.

Gettysburg Anniversary Committee. “About GAC.” http://www.gettysburgreenactment.com/about-gac/. 2004. (Accessed May 5, 2015).

Linenthal, Edward Tabor. Sacred Ground: Americans and their Battlefields 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

National Park Service/U.S. Department of the Interior. “Frequently Asked Questions.” National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/gett/faqs.htm (accessed May 5, 2015).

National Park Service/U.S. Department of the Interior. “Gettysburg NMP: Total Recreation Visitors” National Park Service. https://irma.nps.gov/Stats/SSRSReports/Park%20Specific%20Reports/Annual%20Park%20Recreation%20Visitation%20Graph%20%281904%20-%20Last%20Calendar%20Year%29?Park=GETT (accessed May 5, 2015).

National Park Service/U.S. Department of the Interior. “History and Culture.” National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/gett/learn/historyculture/index.htm (accessed April 9, 2015).

Sellars, Richard West. “Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America’s First National Military Parks, 1863-1900.” National Park Service. http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/hisnps/NPSHistory/sellars.pdf (accessed April 9, 2015).

U.S. Army. “The Battle of Gettysburg: The American Civil War: Statistics.” U.S. Military. http://www.army.mil/gettysburg/statistics/statistics.html (Accessed April 9, 2015).

[1] Edward Tabor Linenthal, Sacred Ground: Americans and their Battlefields 2nd ed., (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993) 5.

[2] Linenthal, Sacred Ground, 5.

[3] National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, “History and Culture,” National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/gett/learn/historyculture/index.htm (accessed April 9, 2015)

[4] U.S. Army, “The Battle of Gettysburg: The American Civil War: Statistics,” U.S. Military, http://www.army.mil/gettysburg/statistics/statistics.html (Accessed April 9, 2015)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Richard West Sellars, “Pilgrim Places: Civil War Battlefields, Historic Preservation, and America’s First National Military Parks, 1863-1900,” National Park Service, http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/hisnps/NPSHistory/sellars.pdf (accessed April 9, 2015) 30.

[7] Sellars, “Pilgrim Places,” 23.

[8] Sellars, “Pilgrim Places,” 32.

[9] Sellars, “Pilgrim Places,” 27.

[10] National Park Service/U.S. Department of the Interior, “Gettysburg NMP: Total Recreation Visitors” National Park Service, https://irma.nps.gov/Stats/SSRSReports/Park%20Specific%20Reports/Annual%20Park%20Recreation%20Visitation%20Graph%20%281904%20-%20Last%20Calendar%20Year%29?Park=GETT (accessed May 5, 2015).

[11] Ibid.

[12] National Park Service/U.S. Department of the Interior, “Frequently Asked Questions,” National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/gett/faqs.htm (accessed May 5, 2015).

[13] Sellars, “Pilgrim Places,” 31.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Sellars, “Pilgrim Places,” 23.

[16]Ibid.

[17] John B. Gatewood and Catherine M. Cameron, “Battlefield Pilgrims at Gettysburg National Military Park,” Ethnology 43 no.. 3, (, Summer 2004) 213. [This looks like a great source!]

[18] Linenthal, Sacred Ground, 4.

[19] Sellars, “Pilgrim Places,” 46.

[20] Linenthal, Sacred Ground, 5.

[21] Brian Black, “The Nature of Preservation: The Rise of Authenticity at Gettysburg.” Civil War History 58 no. 3, (September 2012): 352.

[22] National Park Service, “Frequently Asked Questions,” http://www.nps.gov/gett/faqs.htm (accessed May 5, 2015).

[23] Gettysburg Anniversary Committee, “About GAC,” http:/www.gettysburgreenactment.com/about-gac/. 2004. (Accessed May 5, 2015).

[24] Some foundations that the GAC supports: The Seminary Ridge Historic Preservation Association, National Park Service Cannon Restoration Fund, Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg, Gettysburg National Military Park Horse Trail, The Civil War Trust

[25] Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address,1863.

[26] Ed W. Clark, “Management: Gettysburg as a Symbol of Ourselves,” National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/gett/learn/management/index.htm (Accessed April 9, 2015)

[27] Linenthal, Sacred Ground, 4.

[28] Ed W. Clark, “Management: Gettysburg as a Symbol of Ourselves,” National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/gett/learn/management/index.htm (Accessed April 9, 2015)

[29] Linenthal, Sacred Ground, 4.

[30]Gatewood, Cameron, “Battlefield Pilgrims at Gettysburg National Military Park,” 203.

[31] Gatewood, Cameron, “Battlefield Pilgrims at Gettysburg National Military Park,” 201.

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2 thoughts on “The Sacred Blood of Our Fathers: An Exploration of Secular, Pilgrim-like Experiences at Gettysburg

  1. Michael Riggs says:

    Two quick points to consider. 1. Your argument about an orthodoxy is interesting, but the monuments that dot the landscape at Gettysburg, push back. It would be instructive to catalog how many are represented from the North verses the South. Confederate flags and T-shirt sales might also challenge the idea of a national orthodoxy. 2. Lincoln would be surprised to learn his address was implying a connection to the death of Jesus. Lincoln, following Washington’s example, used civil religious discourse in public…a practice of all U.S. presidents until George W. Bush.

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