GETTYSBURG, Pa. — As re-enacted war raged several miles away, tourists strolled a commercial strip of Gettysburg to survey T-shirts, hats and other trinkets to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s pivotal battle.
More than 200,000 people — including thousands of re-enactors — are expected to visit this small south-central Pennsylvania town through Fourth of July weekend to mark the milestone.
And it’s a prime opportunity for vendors to make some money.
Sightseers can pick up one of the many incarnations of “150th Anniversary” T-shirts at stores along about a two-block stretch of the town’s main drag, Steinwehr Avenue, less than a quarter-mile from the Gettysburg National Military Park. One store, in between two shops that promote ghost tours, had “Army of the Potomac” and “Army of Northern Virginia” athletic department shirts among offerings hanging on its porch.
A few visitors said they aren’t comfortable with the consumerism in town.
“I don’t like the commercialism. I think they can do a lot less of it,” said Richard Gow, 65, of Binghamton, N.Y. Dressed sharply in a gray uniform, Gow was portraying noted Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead outside the American Civil War Wax Museum.
Then Gow — himself a U.S. Army veteran who served during Vietnam — looked toward the battlefield, just down the road. That is where the self-proclaimed Civil War buff, who said his family ties trace back to Confederate Major Gen. John Gordon, said visitors can find what’s really important.
“It’s the grounds,” he said reverentially, referring to the fields and hills where up to 10,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in the Civil War’s pivotal conflict. “It’s an honor to be here.”
Federal forces turned away the Confederates during fierce fighting on July 1-3, 1863, ending with the South’s ill-fated Pickett’s Charge across an open field against Union soldiers.
George Lomas, owner of The Regimental Quartermaster store on the busy commercial strip said he’s been gearing up for this week for months. His business primarily attracts re-enactors looking to buy period military jackets, shirts and belts along with bayonets and muskets.
Smaller tables near the front door carried 150th anniversary T-shirts and more kitschy items like a pen shaped like a mini-drumstick inscribed with “Civil War.”
Re-enactors have been streaming in this week. But Lomas said he also sells items for visitors simply in town as tourists.
When asked about people who may think Gettysburg is too commercialized, Lomas said, “That happens. That’s business. I don’t think it’s over-commercialized. Of course, I’m prejudiced.”
He noted how a stretch of road along the actual battlefield actually became less commercialized. He was referring to the Park Service’s efforts in recent years, to rehabilitate major areas of the battlefield to make it better resemble the territory soldiers encountered 150 years ago.
One of the changes involved removing a motel that that once stood across the street from a monument for Ohio soldiers. The rehabilitation process grew out of a master plan in 1999 that didn’t set the 150th anniversary as a deadline — though park officials say it was a welcome and timely coincidence.
Author Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel, “The Killer Angels,” and the 1993 movie, “Gettysburg,” based on the book have been credited with the increased interest in the Civil War battle in recent decades.
Shaara died in 1988. His son, Jeff, himself a bestselling author whose “Gods and Generals” was the 1996 prequel to his father’s classic, was signing books at the wax museum Saturday morning. He said he saw commercialism as a way to help the community pay for the taxes that in turn paid for infrastructure.
Shaara said other scenes in and around Gettysburg this anniversary week had to be taken into account, like lines of Boy Scouts eagerly going through the National Park Visitors Center; or dedicated history buffs wearing wool uniforms on a sunny summer afternoon marching in detailed formations to recreate the fighting.
“There are a myriad of draws of why people come here. The commercialism? We’re a capitalist society. You’re free to open a store and sell whatever it is you want to sell,” he said. “But to me, it doesn’t destroy what’s here. It’s sort of a necessary part of it.”
Many other visitors said modern Gettysburg strikes the appropriate balance between capitalizing on its notoriety and paying reverence to the conflict.
No amusement parks. No roller coasters.
“This kind of brings history alive,” said Dave Gish, 54, a pastor from Wilton, Conn., who took photos of a re-enactment between Union and Confederate cavalry featuring hundreds of horses. “It’s the kind of thing where this is pretty much what you’re coming for.”
Capitalism is at work on the grounds of the re-enactment, as well.
Re-enactors and shoppers seeking authentic trinkets can head 19th-century-style tent city where shopkeepers offer items appropriate for the period or to re-stock the soldiers — just like traveling suppliers did in the 1860s.