FUOSS: Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg (2020)

Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg by Jared Fuoss. Arcadia Publishing, 2020. Paper, ISBN: 978-1-4671-0485-2. $21.99.

In June 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia launched its summer campaign, which culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg. Most Americans today are aware of the importance of the battle and the Gettysburg Address delivered by President Lincoln that November, but what happened to the 51,000 soldiers who were killed, wounded, or captured is less well known. The cemetery originally dedicated to the fallen Union soldiers evolved into a site of national memorialisation, and this development is reviewed in largely pictorial form by Jared Fuoss, a seasonal interpretive ranger at the Gettysburg National Military Park. Published by Arcadia in its “Images of America” series, this present volume is a sister work to others in the series, such as Arlington National Cemetery (2006) and Vicksburg Military Park (2016).

Within four linked chapters, the author has successfully portrayed the enlargement of the cemetery through photographs selected from the collections at the National Military Park itself and the Library of Congress. His object was not to just produce another picture book, but to capture through the images and his text the transformation of the cemetery and “its meaning to all of us.” Gettysburg, he suggests, represents more than just a battle. It is a lasting symbol—enhanced by its monuments and the experiences of its countless visitors—of “the core values of our society today” (9).

The first two chapters, which concern the original dedication of the cemetery and the commemorative era of the late nineteenth century, are the most detailed and interesting. Whereas the Confederate dead were hastily buried in shallow graves, it became the mission of a local lawyer, David Wills (1831-1894), to create a national cemetery. This was truly a prodigious task, including purchasing the original seventeen acres, engaging William Saunders as architect to design the layout, and working with a committee representing each state who had lost men in the battle—not to mention the gruesome logistics of recovering and identifying the bodies for re-internment, a task for which the civilian burial crews (often African Americans) were paid $1.59 per body. Over a third of the bodies could not be identified; these, in accordance with Saunders’ plan, were buried in the unknown sections flanking the side of the central monument, the Genius of Liberty, sculpted by the expatriate Neo-classicist Randolph Rogers. Veteran organizations quickly became involved in commemorating their service during the battle, from the urn erected in 1867 by the Ist Minnesota Volunteer Infantry to the bronze statue commissioned in 1871 to honor the fallen commander of the Army of the Potomac’s I Corps, Major General John F. Reynolds.

The pace of memorialisation quickened after 1896, when the military park was largely taken over by the US War Department; the seeds of a new era were later laid when the National Park Service took command of it in 1933. By then, veterans of the Spanish-American War and the First World War had been interned in the cemetery; in the 1960s, an additional five acres were added to accommodate further burials. By 1978, however, all available plots had been allocated. Chapter three reviews these developments, while the last chapter briefly discusses the legacy of the cemetery itself. This perhaps could have been expanded, especially as we live in an era when Civil War monuments are increasingly becoming the focus of hostile attention—and when even a statue to Ulysses S. Grant in San Francisco was toppled because his wife’s family owned slaves, and a statue to Lincoln in Portland could be defaced due to his role in the execution of thirty eight Dakota in Minnesota after the Dakota War of 1862. Injustice has all too often been the handmaiden of history; perhaps, then, we should remember the sentiment of Vice President Lyndon Johnson when he visited the cemetery on Memorial Day in 1963. A hundred years ago, he noted, the slave was freed, but one hundred years later, “the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin” (4).

Jarrad Fuoss has made a useful contribution to understanding the symbolism of this cemetery and its place in American memory, but those motivated to explore the topic further would do well to consult A Strange and Blighted Land: Gettysburg: The Aftermath of Battle (1995) by Gregory Coco.

Dr. Rory T. Cornish is Emeritus Professor of History at Winthrop University.

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