|By Barbara and Ken Beem
GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Before those pivotal three days in the summer of 1863, Gettysburg was much like any other flourishing small city of its time. It was home to two colleges and a number of public and private schools. Its citizens read three local newspapers. The community was linked to Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia by major roads and enjoyed the benefits of train service.
Not by the design of any battle strategist, however, the south-central Pennsylvania city was forced to bear witness to intensive fighting when Union and Confederate armies clashed there on July 1-3. Many say the outcome of the war and hence, the state of the Union, were dramatically altered in those few days. All would agree that Gettysburg was changed forever.
As the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg draws near, the focus of Civil War enthusiasts on what happened there continues to intensify. Today, souvenirs of the upcoming anniversary fill gift shops, and visitors pick through the offerings, looking for a remembrance of the time and hoping to secure tomorrow’s collectibles.
All the while, area antique dealers have refreshed their own shelves with artifacts from years gone by, mementoes commemorating the battle in particular and the town in general.
Souvenirs of Gettysburg are nothing new, and neither is the public’s thirst for them. No sooner had the fighting ceased than people began streaming into Gettysburg, according to Becki Powell. An assistant at the Rupp House History Center, which, among various key sites, is supported by the Gettysburg Foundation, Powell noted that there were a number of reasons for this influx.
Many came to Gettysburg to assist with the task of cleaning up after the battle. They came to nurse the wounded, or they came to collect the bodies and possessions of loved ones who had fallen on the battlefield. Many came just out of curiosity.
“Tourists began coming here almost immediately,” she said. “Things never went back to normal.”
Indeed, there has never been a shortage of souvenirs, according to Charles Rhodes, who, along with Sandy Wright, owns Rebel’s Roost Antique Emporium in Gettysburg. Days after the battle, relic hunters, including children, were spotted on the fields, seeking objects to save or to sell.
Those who didn’t scramble around battlefields in search of remnants of combat saved copies of publications such as Harper’s Weekly, Rhodes noted.
The dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in November 1863, less than five months after the battle, marked the first formal recognition of the importance of Gettysburg. Before cleanup of the carnage had been completed, public attention was drawn to this ceremony by the presence of President Abraham Lincoln, who delivered several heartfelt remarks on the occasion.
His words became known as the Gettysburg Address, and the significance of that memorial service was etched on the nation’s psyche forever. What ensued was yet another flurry of artifact collection.
As early as 1869, memorials were erected on the battlefield to honor both the Union and Confederate troops that clashed here. According to information compiled by the Gettysburg Foundation, the first such memorial was a white urn emplaced just six years after the battle in recognition of the losses sustained by the 1st Minnesota Infantry on July 2. Nearly 1,400 statues and sculptures, markers and tablets would be erected; today, the Gettysburg National Military Park preserves one of the world’s largest collections of outdoor sculpture. The unveiling of many of these monuments resulted in the inevitable reunions, bringing veterans and their loved ones back to the battlefield.
And then there were the anniversaries of the battle, which brought together men who, in their youth, had encountered each other on opposite sides of the field. In the earliest years, many returned to offer an outstretched hand to their former foes.
Civil War buffs, however, agree that the most significant of all of the commemorations was the one held in the centennial year, in 1963. Rhodes said that the centennial celebration is the one that will long be remembered. At the time, the battle was distant enough in time to have been romanticized, but close enough that enthusiasts would say, “Granddad’s granddad was here.” Once again, with each landmark anniversary, there was yet another round of commemorative items, even more souvenirs.
For today’s collectors, the range of Gettysburg memorabilia is broad. On the top tier are authentic relics of the battle. The 100-year celebration of the Civil War sparked a generation of collectors that are sometimes called “centennials,” according Ross Kelbaugh.
Kelbaugh, also a longtime collector and author of Maryland’s Civil War Photographs: The Sesquicentennial Collection, said, “What you could buy in the 1960s for $10 or $15 is now $300 to $400 to start.” When “centennials” grew older and began earning more money, he said, many chose to spend their discretionary funds buying Civil War relics. As a result, prices took a sharp leap in the 1970s and 1980s.
Rhodes, echoing that observation, noted that motion pictures made in and about Gettysburg helped to introduce wealthy collectors with Hollywood ties to the mix. Just as Kelbaugh recommends purchasing from reputable dealers, Rhodes cautioned that the provenance of many Civil War objects is now difficult to verify because of the passage of the relics from one collector to another.
Fortunately, as a result of Gettysburg’s popularity through the years, there are less expensive options for those hoping to build a collection. There is a seemingly endless supply of ephemera available to enthusiasts, with prices less than $5. Postcards, turn-of-the-century photographs depicting visitors to the battlefield, and commemorative magazines are available. Fine china and glassware pieces dating to the early 20th century, as well as whatnots and gewgaws of lesser quality, still hold appeal.
A quick inventory of what is being offered for this year’s celebration includes shirts, tote bags and caps, as well as spoons, shot glasses and mugs. Plates (made in China) and pocket watches, blankets and magnets fill the shelves of gift shops. Salt-and-pepper shakers, chocolate cookies, and key fobs are also available. Asked what he recommended speculators buy and save, Rhodes said even mass-produced postcards and commemorative booklets are worthwhile.
“It all goes into the archives,” he said.
Rhodes does not expect prices to dip on vintage Gettysburg memorabilia after the current anniversary celebration is over. Furthermore, he noted that today’s collectors continue to treasure even the most insignificant objects saved from another time.
Eventually, he concluded, tomorrow’s collectors will look back on objects from the sesquicentennial commemoration in the same way. Rhodes added, “After all, Gettysburg is the mecca of Civil War battlefields.”
The authors thank Rebel’s Roost Antique Emporium and the Rupp House History Center for providing many of the items photographed for this story.