Archives For Gettysburg

July 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg. There has been a great deal of preparation to commemorate this event, and last September (2012), I heard the following brief story on National Public Radio (NPR) Morning Edition:

Good morning. I’m Steve Inskeep. This may be the closest you can ever get to owning your own Civil War battlefield. Generations of tourists saw a map at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania – 29 feet on each side laid on the floor. This relief map features electric lights to show the battle. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette says after building a new visitor’s center, the National Park Service is auctioning off the old map. Not one person has made an offer, though bidding started at $5.

What? I was shocked! The Gettysburg electrical map was for sale? For $5.00?

The electrical Gettysburg Map had been the highlight of our family vacation to Gettysburg Battlefield National Park in Pennsylvania in 1970. The Visitors Center’s map covered a huge portion of the floor and the electrical lights depicted troop movements during the three day battle that had raged in and around the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,N from July 1–3, 1863. Different colored lights separated the positions of the Union Army of the Potomac from the Army of Northern Virginia. We watched the lights change and understood how the generals manuvered their troops during this turning point of the Civil War. My father had paid the admission, an unusual treat, so that we could watch the lights on the topographical recreated hillsides flicker as they had in the evenings that hot July. Countless tourists had also paid to see the electrical map before it was retired in 2009, packed up, and indignantly placed on the auction block. As I listened to the NPR story, I thought that putting the map up for sale on EBAY seemed an anathema.

My family had camped for two nights that summer at Gettyburg, our campfire mimicked the lights of campfires that had lit the late night troop encampments a century earlier. The Carpenter’s rendition of “Close to You” had played on the car’s radio repeatedly during the day, but at night, when my father strummed “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” on the guitar, the area seemed haunted as we imagined the lives of the soldiers who took part in the deadly battles of the Civil War.

By day we travelled from monument to monument in our ’68 VW van. When we arrived at Seminary Ridge, we saw the expanse of fields where Major General George Pickett led his troops the last day of battle. Because of the electrical map, we knew exactly what had happened to the soldiers who had advanced under heavy fire from the Union’s artillery. We tumbled out of the  van and ran out into the field, imitating Pickett’s Charge, the high-water mark of the Confederacy. We fell as so many soldiers did in that last ditch effort to break through the Union Army’s lines.

Walking Pickett's Charge

Walking Pickett’s Charge…

standing at Pickett's Charge

or standing at Pickett’s Charge.

Years later,  I took my own two sons to Gettysburg, and I tried to have them rush the field, recreating Pickett’s Charge just as my family had done years earlier. Instead my sons casually walked out into the open.
“Come on!” I encouraged, “You have to run to charge!” But they would have none of that behavior.
Discouraged, I walked them back to the car.
As I closed our car door, a van drove up into the parking lot next to us.
A tumble of bodies spilled out of the side door; several boys and girls raced out from the parking lot.
“Pickett’s Charge!” they yelled out in unison and were soon sprinting out onto the field.
“You see?” I turned to my boys who watched dumbfounded, “That’s the family I want to be with!”

My boys did love the electrical map, however, seeing the lights in action. When we returned home, they were inspired enough to build a map of their own. Listening to the NPR report, I grew concerned. If the map was not sold on EBAY, would it be destroyed? What could possibly replace such inspiration? Apparently, I was not alone with my concerns. When the map was dismantled and placed in storage, a website Save the Electric Map sprang up. There are pages were people posted their own memories of their visits. The history of the map, additional photos, and petition forms to save the map (and to drop admission fees) are also linked on the site.

Happily, the map was purchased for a little over $14,000 in October of 2012 by another map enthusiast Scott Roland. He has enlisted the help of the Gettysburg Campus HACC college student volunteers to complete the necessary electrical updates and controller programming. The Hanover Evening Sun reported on 6/14 that the map will again go on display for visitors. The article Electric Map Owner Partners with Gettysburg HACC Students for Renovations had an interview with Tom Lepp, mechatronics instructor in the industrial technologies department, to explain how the repairs will be made:

“The decision was made to refit the map with new electrical components rather than repair the existing wiring and lights due to the condition of the existing components, which are over 50 years old. The electrical system also suffered significant damage when the map was sectioned for removal and throughout the process of moving. This left the aged wiring in need of serious repair and damaged a number of lights. The original lights are difficult to service, repair, and source parts for. Many lights and lenses for lights are severely damaged or missing. The replacement lights, while providing ease of service, will preserve the aesthetics of the original lamps.”

There will be other families on summer vacations who will sit around campfires after touring the Gettysburg battle sites. There will be other families who will spill from their cars and spontaneously recreate Pickett’s Charge. And I am happy to report that the Gettysburg electrical map that was rescued from destruction will continue to illuminate the troop positions and visually tell the story to future generations so they may better understand the significance of this battle in our nation’s history. You will still have to pay an admission, but these memories are priceless.

Here is an educational policy riddle: How much background knowledge does a student need to read a historical text?

According to New York Engage website: None.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are being implemented state by state, and there is an emphasis from teaching students background knowledge to teaching students skills, specifically the skill of close reading.

The pedegogy is explained by The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC):

Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. (PARCC, 2011)

There are many lessons that strongly advocate the use of close reading in teaching historical texts on the website, including a set of exemplar lessons for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address promoted by CCSS contributor and now College Board President, David Coleman. The lesson’s introduction states:

The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading–that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.

Photo of Lincoln delivering Gettysburg Address- (

Photo of Lincoln delivering
Gettysburg Address- (

The lesson plan is organized in three sections. In the first, students are handed a copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and perform several “cold” readings, to themselves and then with the class.

Lesson Plan SECTION 1 What’s at stake: a nation as a place and as an idea

Students silently read, then the teacher reads aloud the text of the Gettysburg Address while students follow along.

  • Students translate into their own words the first and second paragraph. 
  • Students answer guiding questions regarding the first two paragraphs

Please note, there is no mention of any historical context for the speech. Students will come to this 273-word speech without the background knowledge that the Battle of Gettysburg was fought from July 1 to July 3, 1863, and this battle is considered the most important engagement of the American Civil War. They will not know that the battle resulted in “Union casualties of 23,000, while the Confederates had lost some 28,000 men–more than a third of Lee’s army” ( They will not know how the Army of Northern Virginia achieved an apex into Union territory with “Pickett’s Charge,” a failed attempt by General George Pickett  to break through the Union line in South Central Pennsylvania, and that the charge resulted in the death of thousands of rebel soldiers. They will not know how the newly appointed Major General George Gordon Meade of the Army of the Potomac met the challenges of General Robert E. Lee by ordering responses to skirmishes on Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, and in the Devil’s Den. They will not know that Meade would then be replaced by General Ulysses S. Grant in part because Meade did not pursue Lee’s troops in their retreat to Virginia.

Instead of referencing any of this historical background, the guding questions in the lesson’s outline imagine the students as blank slates and mention another historical event:

A. When was “four score and seven years ago”? B. What important thing happened in 1776?

The guiding responses for teachers seem to begrudge an acknowledgement that keeping students bound to the four corners of a text is impossible, and that, yes, a little prior knowledge of history is helpful when reading a historical text:

This question, of course, goes beyond the text to explore students’ prior knowledge and associations. Students may or may not know that the Declaration of Independence was issued in 1776, but they will likely know it is a very important date – one that they themselves have heard before. Something very important happened on that date.  It’s OK to mention the Declaration, but the next step is to discover what students can infer about 1776 from Lincoln’s own words now in front of them.

In addition, there are admonishments in Appendix A of the lesson not to ask questions such as, “Why did the North fight the civil war?”

Answering these sorts of questions require students to go outside the text, and indeed in this particular instance asking them these questions actually undermine what Lincoln is trying to say. Lincoln nowhere in the Gettysburg Address distinguishes between the North and South (or northern versus southern soldiers for that matter). Answering such questions take the student away from the actual point Lincoln is making in the text of the speech regarding equality and self-government.

The lesson plan continues:

Lesson Plan SECTION 2  From funeral to new birth

  • Students are re-acquainted with the first two paragraphs of the speech.
  • Students translate the third and final paragraph into their own words.
  • Students answer guiding questions regarding the third paragraph of the Gettysburg Address.

Please note this does not provide the context of the speech that was given that crisp morning of November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the National Cemetery on a damp battlefield that only months before had been dampened red with the blood of tens of thousands of soldiers from either side. The students would be unaware that Lincoln had taken the train from Washington the day before and was feeling slightly feverish on the day of the speech. There is some speculation that he may have been suffering from the early stages of smallpox when he delivered the speech reading from a single piece of paper in a high clear voice. The students would not know that Lincoln’s scheduled time at the podium followed a two hour (memorized) speech by Edward Everett, who later wrote to Lincoln stating, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” The students would not know that many of the 15,000 crowd members did not hear Lincoln’s two minute speech; the 10 sentences were over before many audience members realized Lincoln had been speaking. The students would not know that this speech marked Lincoln’s first public statement about principles of equality, and they would not know that he considered the speech to be a failure.

Lesson Plan SECTION 3  Dedication as national identity and personal devotion

  • Students trace the accumulated meaning of the word “dedicate” through the text
  • Students write a brief essay on the structure of Lincoln’s argument

The lesson provides links to the five handwritten copies of the text, in the “Additional ELA Task #1: Comparison of the drafts of the speech” so that students can see drafts of the speech and the inclusion of “under God” in the latter three versions. There is also an additional Social Studies task that incorporates the position of respected historian Gary Wills from his book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Worlds that Remade America. This activity suggests students use excerpts from Wills’s book and an editorial from the Chicago Times (November 23, 1863) to debate “Lincoln’s reading of the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution”. One excerpt from Wills’s book includes the statement,”The stakes of the three days’ butchery are made intellectual, with abstract truths being vindicated.” Finally, here is information about the battle itself; the battle lasted three days and soldiers died.

The enterprise of reading the Gettysburg Address without context defeats PARRC’s stated objective of having the students “arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole”. The irony is that in forwarding their own interpretation of the speech, David Coleman and the lesson plan developers have missed Lincoln’s purpose entirely; Lincoln directs the audience to forget the words of the speech, but never to forget the sacrifices made by the soldiers during that brutal conflict:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Lincoln wrote and delivered the Gettysburg Address to remind his audience “that these dead shall not have died in vain”. Analyzing the language of the address isolated from the Civil War context that created the tone and message is a hollow academic exercise. Instead, students must be taught the historical context so that they fully understand Lincoln’s purpose in praising those who, “gave the last full measure of devotion.”

“It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

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