A recent visit to the civil war battlefield at Gettysburg Pennsylvania has me thinking about the way landscapes are able to contain memory, how they are able to preserve and convey past events. The idea of preserving the battlefield as a memorial to the fallen soldiers is an appropriate one. But does the landscape itself tell us anything about those distant events?
As a photographer I am interested in how visual signs convey meaning, how the landscape and objects in the landscape can tell the story of the battle. If I were to rely on visual clues alone, would I be able to get a sense of the events that occurred at Gettysburg?
On my first visit I came cold, no research, no reading about the battle beforehand, I just showed up and started driving around taking photographs. I was able to understand the site on one level, the present landscape. But I didn’t understand the significance of the landmarks and topography. Prior to my second visit I read up on the war, and the Gettysburg battle in particular, so that the landmarks were familiar, names recalled events, places had meaning beyond their physical appearance.
I found that the landscape itself does not convey much about the battle. The trees, even the largest oak trees, were saplings when the battle occurred 146 years ago. There is little to differentiate this group of fields from many other farm fields in Pennsylvania, aside from the hundreds of monuments that have been added to the battlefield. I kept looking for a reference point on the battlefield which would connect me to the event, some physical evidence that a battle had occurred here. There are no earth works from the battle, there are no bunkers, no shell craters, no bullet holes to give a direct visual link to the battle. The only direct sign I saw was a canon ball hole in Trostle\’s barn, a site of terrible fighting on the second day of the battle. The landscape is scrutinized and puzzled over by visitors. It is observed from a hundred points around its circumference.
The topography has not changed much since the battle, some of the stone walls are still there, and key points in the battle occurred near significant landmarks, like the round tops, the angle, devil\’s den, the wheat fields, peach orchards, and a few of the houses and barns that existed during the battle.
What becomes obvious is that a narrative about the battle is necessary, that the landscape itself is fairly mute about the battle until you understand the story. People who are visiting are telling each other the stories about what happened at important landmarks. It becomes a landscape upon which stories are projected. The battlefield is largely empty, a void, a beautiful landscape of fence lines, wheat fields, wooded areas, and unique rocky outcrops. It is an empty slate on which to imagine the events of the battle.
Gettysburg is an important place to visit. But do some reading before you go, and spend time at the visitors center watching the introduction film and seeing the cyclorama before visiting the battlefield. Then the topography will become familiar, and the landscape will release the terrible memories that lie just below the surface.