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  • "A Shell and What Became of It":Missile Narratives and Commemorative Trajectories at Gettysburg
  • Kristen Treen

[On] Friday, my mother said she would take the feather bed to the garret where the others were neatly packed away. She went up to get the place ready for it and came down to get some one to help carry it up; while she was down there was a loud crash and a shell came tearing through a fifteen inch brick wall, striking a beam that supported the roof, split it in two, broke out a rung from the crib in which we had slept when children, and having spent its force rolled down the stairs to the first landing.

—Elizabeth McClean, Gettysburg Compiler

Gettysburg's missiles have notoriously long trajectories. in July 1908, Elizabeth McClean helped the Gettysburg Compiler mark the battle's forty-fifth anniversary with her remembrance of a shell that had traveled from the fray into her family's home ("The Rebels Are Coming!"). The intrusion took place in the midst of the intense push that marked the battle's final day. Until that moment the McCleans, tucked away on central Baltimore Street, had seen little of the action, although stray bullets flattened themselves against their wall. The shell was another matter altogether, for its impact lasted far beyond its moment of collision. Elizabeth didn't just preserve the story of that day: her family, who had initially been too afraid to handle the shell, decided to keep it. They preserved the damage it had done, too. Writing for the same newspaper a year later, her brother Robert recalled how "a broken piece of timber struck out by the shell on its course through the garret was driven through the side of a crib standing there, leaving an opening unrepaired to this day, as a memorial of the battle" ("A Boy in Gettysburg—1863" 2). The impulse to memorialize seized others. The next owner of the McClean house had "another shell put in the wall where the first one came though" (E. McClean 2). Another family embedded a three-inch Reed shell in their shot-riddled wall alongside a cluster of bullet holes. At least nine buildings in Gettysburg remain studded with traces (authentic or makeshift) of the battle's impact— [End Page 453] traces that visitors still seek out, intent on an engagement with the past that monuments up at the Soldiers' National Cemetery don't seem to yield.1

Indeed, these vernacular memorials explode the workings of public monuments altogether, and I want to take that explosion as a starting point for a reevaluation of the commemorative practice that emerged at Gettysburg. It seems inevitable now that the Soldiers' National Cemetery, Abraham Lincoln's brief remarks at its dedication, and the unveiling, in 1869, of the Soldiers' National Monument should have become mythical points of origin for the war's commemorative inheritance. In 1863, the battle represented an important geographical turning point in the war's progress; coinciding with the Federal triumph at Vicksburg a day later, on July 4, Gettysburg appeared to reaffirm the consonance between the Republican cause and the foundational aims of the Declaration of Independence. And while the battle's appalling casualty rate alarmed those who flocked to Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, and Devil's Den, the battle hastened on a commemorative endeavor that, in its urgent need to honor the fallen, would set the standard for commemorative acts to come. With time, Lincoln's words became a blueprint for the nation that would arise from the rubble; we know that story. But its inexorable narrative trajectory, bolstered by symbolism and shored-up by hindsight, obscures this project's messy beginnings.

Commemoration, I want to suggest, started with souvenir gatherers like the McCleans who, with thousands of civilians and soldiers, collected objects that helped them to tell this event. Historical accounts of the battle's aftermath and Gettysburg's commemorative endeavor have generally cast this popular activity as a fundamentally separate, "unofficial" act of remembering.2 At the very least, souvenir gathering provides background noise to the official commemorative efforts of state officials and federal agents. At most, it is...