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Civil War History 50.2 (2004) 175-191

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A Different View of Gettysburg:

Play, Memory, and Race at the Civil War's Greatest Shrine

In August 1899 two Philadelphians sponsored a watermelon-eating contest at a park in Pennsylvania. Offering a prize of $2.50 "to the colored gentleman" who could devour a watermelon in the shortest possible time, the hosts recruited eight black males. A large crowd gathered around the line of contestants, each of whom received a Georgia watermelon cut into slices. According to a newspaper account, the competitors who tore into the melons "were in bliss" because "they were eating their own favorite fruit, with a prize in view." In just four minutes a Virginian named George Smockes finished his last slice to claim the prize. "Some of the spectators laughed at the funny spectacle until they cried," the paper reported. Such racially demeaning amusement was hardly unusual near the turn of the twentieth century. At great fairs and amusement parks, symbols of the era's new commercial leisure, "coon dunks," hitting the "coon" with a baseball, watermelon-eating contests, or performing "darkeys" were common. In a nascent mass culture, new white-collar and working-class Americans of diverse European backgrounds were bonded by a feeling of white superiority through racially demeaning entertainment.1

The watermelon-eating contest cited above occurred neither at Luna Park nor at a great fair's midway, but at Gettysburg, a site sacred in American memory. By 1899 veterans had transformed the scene of slaughter into a [End Page 175] genteel memorial park that served as the nation's meeting ground for Blue-Gray reconciliation. Although foreign papers such as the British Northern Whig commented that "the tablets at Gettysburg commemorate one of the most significant events of the present century—the death of slavery and the dawn of civil liberty," this recognition was rare in American observations about the battle's significance. As historians such as David Blight have noted, the Civil War's seminal issue and continuing racial challenges were overlooked in the interest of national unity at the "Mecca of Reconciliation," especially at Gettysburg's monumental fiftieth anniversary reunion. Although first-person accounts describe black veterans attending the spectacle, the ceremonies and official pronouncements disregarded racial matters altogether.2

Slavery and its legacy not only were ignored at Gettysburg's sacred performances—solemn gatherings, parades, or speeches—but were also separated from the war's memory by the festivities held there. Like other shrines, Gettysburg has served as an oasis for expressing social extremes of veneration and play. Play, defined here as release from work and responsibility through amusement, existed at the shrine in both traditional and modern forms until the traditional disappeared after the turn of the century. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both black and white visitors to Gettysburg brought the spontaneous, communal revelry characteristic of traditional or premodern play, while impresarios of modern commercial culture operated a variety of controlled, rational diversions. Memory is organic and continually revised through new experience, so play at a site of memory can affect the thing being remembered as powerfully as commemorative rituals. This essay argues that both premodern and modern forms of play at Gettysburg have served commemorative purposes that contributed to the exclusion of African Americans from the war's larger meaning.3

Historically the Gettysburg neighborhood offered a chilly cultural climate for engaging racial issues. Gettysburg's own black community lived on the edge of town in substandard conditions. The town's Democratic paper continually stirred racial animosity for townspeople who showed little sympathy [End Page 176] for black equality. No hostelries welcomed black tourists, and not until well after the turn of the twentieth century did a boardinghouse open expressly for African Americans. Antics of visiting black groups received detailed coverage and censure in the local press, yet black tourists also served as a source of amusement for whites. White locals and tourists, for example, enjoyed chuckling over black jittering and cakewalks...


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