The Gettysburg Casino: How Profits May Come at the Cost of the Sacred
On Labor Day, I made another visit to Gettysburg, my sixth of the year. I have found that the two-plus hour drive from Philadelphia has gotten easier, as leaving at 6:30 AM helps me avoid the traffic. For this trip, I brought a coworker and his fiancé. She was Canadian and knew very little about the Civil War, let alone the Battle of Gettysburg. My goal was to spend some time at the Peach Orchard to get a better understanding of the approach employed by Union General Daniel Sickles on the second day of the battle. I wedged that in between guiding my friends through all of the other major sites. Six trips are probably far more than I needed to make, but not as many as I wanted. I have managed to bring someone new on each excursion, and with these two, my total reached thirteen. Along with friends and family, I have had the privilege of bringing friends visiting from Australia and from India, giving my trips an international flavor.
This time, I passed the proposed casino site, which sits between Route 15 and the less-traveled Emmittsburg Road. It was tougher to find the site than it was to find the several “NO CASINO” signs I saw throughout the town and on private property. Those coming from the Pennsylvania Turnpike will most likely never see the casino. It is south of the “auto tour” and few people, unfortunately, know what occurred in that area of the field. Even fewer visit it. However, anyone coming from the south, as I have done in the past coming from Antietam, will surely pass the site. You can only see the property from Emmitsburg, though, as the Route 15 side remains covered with trees. However, once that spot is lit up with ten thousand blinking lights and enough traffic to man the 600 slot machines and 50 gaming tables, those coming from the south will not be able to miss it. If the casino tears down the trees to get better access to Route 15, then the size of the casino will not matter – no matter what, you will be afforded an excellent view of thousands of blue hairs ready to work out their right arms and pursue the American dream of shouting “BINGO!”
What harm can the casino actually do? Personally, I find it hard to ignore the “hallowed ground” argument that many have already made and others have mocked. Some dismiss the idea, but in my experience – especially my experience with teaching those who have little knowledge of America or of the Civil War – it is a potent argument. My Australian friend was ignorant of the concept of a battlefield park and he had never heard of a reenactment. He saw it all as a uniquely American tradition that he could not help but be awed by. My coworker from India was unaware of any preserved battlefields in his country. While there are numerous ancient and medieval forts and palaces, no battlefields are preserved to his knowledge, and I have been unable to find any. In our discussions, he surmised that as India gained its independence through peaceful protest and suffering instead of war and suffering, they did not place the same value on such ground. The Indian rebellion of 1857 failed miserably and afterward, the people of India primarily sought independence through non-violence. America, on the other hand, was born in warfare and remains steeped in it – we gained our independence from the British, ended chattel slavery, and formed our American identity through armed conflict.
Yet despite the gaps in our cultures, my visiting coworker greatly enjoyed the trip to Gettysburg. From an observation tower on the southwest side of the field, I explained Sickles’ advance, Longstreet’s attack, and Chamberlain’s bayonet charge. He snapped shots of Little Round Top and then patted me on the shoulder, smiling as he said “thank you for bringing me here.” That night, he posted about 30 Gettysburg photos on his Facebook page. He was only in the States for three months, but upon his return, he has told me that he wants to revisit the battlefield, and he has offered to show me around India when I am able to make the trek out there. Despite coming from a democratic nation heavily influenced by western traditions, my friend is one of the most non-American people I have brought to the battlefield. Still, he saw something sacred at Gettysburg, something that is certainly cross-generational and appears to be cross-cultural. He understood the importance of the ground and he understood how the events there accumulated into forming a new nation, as Lincoln originally recognized. More important to this discussion, he recognized the value in preserving it for future generations.
The presence of a casino would have cheapened the experiences I have had over the past year with my wife, dad, brother, coworkers, and friends. I dread to think of my friend heading back to India to tell his family about Gettysburg and then mentioning that a casino bearing the name of the battle was close by. I would be embarrassed as I tried to explain away the tackiness, how American capitalism springs up in even the most inappropriate places. Do not get me wrong – I am a gambler myself, I love playing poker, and I even venture out to Atlantic City on occasion. Yet, that is not why I go to Gettysburg. When I head there, I am not in the mood for frivolous entertainment. Like the moneychangers in the temple, sometimes you just do not want certain behavior in certain places – especially when you are trying to ensure that those on a journey into America's past understand the importance of what they are seeing. The importance of this battle to America's existence in the form it is now cannot be understated. At its zenith, the Army of Northern Virginia put forth its most aggressive effort to destroy the Army of the Potomac, but failed. The battle remains the largest on this continent and the bloodiest in American history. Afterward, Lincoln issued an address that declared his aspiration for the birth of a new nation to match the price that the men at Gettysburg paid. Had there been no battle, our country would not be the same place it is today. It was that fundamental.
I am sympathetic to the plight of southwest Pennsylvania. I understand the lure of jobs and the tax revenue a casino can bring, but it still saddens me to see the same town that this battle brought to prominence consider shifting its economic focus toward an industry that even its consumers recognize as being unseemly. An industry tarnished by its own addictive qualities – the same qualities that make it successful. Every casino inspires images of retired seniors mindlessly pumping quarters into a slot machine in hopes of hitting the triple cherry. Sure, the casino may create jobs, but are they worth the price?
Once Gettysburg issues this license, they cannot take it back. This casino will be there permanently. Part of the deal for the casino provides that it will only occupy an existing lot and remain smaller than bigger gambling joints. Yet, what if the casino is wildly successful? Will the owners not naturally seek to expand their business? Will other casino operators not want to compete? It is naive to believe that giving one inch to one casino will be the end of it. The more logical conclusion is that one inch now will result in a mile of casinos – the Gettysburg Strip.
In the past year, Gettysburg has impressed upon thirteen different friends, family members, and coworkers something unique about the history of the United States. Each took away something different. All were in awe at the audacity of Lee to press forward 12,500 troops at the Union’s center, others were overwhelmed by the bravery of the 20th Maine on Little Round Top, and the rest intrigued at Sickles’ thinking in the Peach Orchard. Each was a small piece of fighting in a battle that decided the fate of the war and of the country, but each became a large memory in the minds of those who visited.
The importance of Gettysburg as a sacred site to Americans has been self-evident since the early days following the battle. While Lincoln may have been the first President to speak there, he was not the last. FDR gave two speeches there referring to “the presence of those spirits who fell on this ground.” After World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower hosted numerous world leaders at the battlefield, including Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and Nikita Khruschev. Each year, the spot still draws two million people seeking to understand what happened there and how that has shaped a nation. The site has become a pilgrimage destination not only for Americans, but also for those wanting to understand America. A casino would irreparably damage the value of the destination, taking away attention from its true meaning and debasing it into yet another example of American decadence. In a world where America has been redefined from a beacon of hope and liberty to the land that gave us Big Macs, Paris Hilton and reality TV, we simply cannot afford to cheapen any more symbols of the promise of America.
Author’s Note: Dawn Manning, my wife, provided the impetus for recognizing secular sites like Gettysburg as sacred pilgrimages. In “Tourism as Sacred Experience” (bachelor’s thesis, WCU, 2009), she presents the concept of how in a world becoming increasingly secular, tourists have converted non-religious sites like battlefields and ancient ruins into sacred experiences. She will be presenting the paper this November at the 109th American Anthropological Association Meeting in New Orleans.