Frequent reference is made to “small town America”, as opposed to “urban America”, and “suburban America”. When the Main Stream Media does it, they usually find some farm community in Iowa, or someplace like Dixville Notch, New Hampshire.
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, scene of the most horrific battle of America’s Civil War, is small town America, also. It is surrounded by peaceful farms, and abundant orchards, nestled near the famous South Mountain, which protects the east side of the fertile Cumberland Valley.
Adams County, in which Gettysburg sits, has some light industry (publishing, for example), but its economy is based on the delicious apples, peaches, pears, plums, and nectarines grown in Adams County (on 20,000 acres of orchards!), and other agriculture in corn, and wheat, and dairy products. But its economy is also rooted deeply in its history. That history was thrust on it over about a two week period in late June, and early July of 1863, when the Union’s Army of the Potomac turned back the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia, culminating in three days of pitched battles that saw over 50,000 casualties.
The American Civil War was a war which redefined the United States of America, and gave us a national identity on the world stage. It came at the height of the nationalism movement around the world. It was, in the minds of Americans, at Gettysburg that the tide was turned in the war, where Union defeats became Union victories.
The American Civil War, and the Battle of Gettysburg redefined the town of Gettysburg, and Adams County as well, for better or worse, for all time. The worse part was pretty much taken care of over the past 142 years with the ongoing removal of commercial intrusions on the Battlefield, the establishment of the Gettysburg Battlefield National Military Park, and the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Presidential Site. Administered in fine fashion by the National Park Service, GBNMP (for short) is staffed by trained historians, licensed Federal law enforcement officers, and preservation artisans, and a support staff that oils the wheels. They are constantly improving the park, and delving deeper, and deeper into its history, thus providing a clearer understanding of what occurred here, and why.
The Park has become a national shrine, bringing over a million visitors each year. It also brings in millions of dollars to the local economy.
Like it or not, the town of Gettysburg, and GBNMP are inexorably linked. While little in the way of actual combat occurred in the Borough, the battle was fought in the immediate environs of all sides of the town. One civilian was killed while baking bread in her kitchen. Homes were occupied by Confederates, and some were used as sniper positions by the Rebs. Union soldiers nearly captured in the rapid retreat through town on July 1st found refuge in civilian cellars, and sheds, and some of them had their wounds cared for while in hiding. Pennsylvania College, now Gettysburg College, and the Lutheran Seminary, and many of the town’s churches became makeshift hospitals, and the town’s people ministered to the dead and dying of both sides.
Adams County was, originally a Quaker farm settlement, part of a land grant given to a son of William Penn. It quickly became filled with German farmers as well. Eventually, James Gettys developed the area around the many crossroads, and the town of Gettysburg grew up. Adams County was a part of York County until the early 19th century, when it was split off and named for our second president, John Adams. Gettysburg was named the County Seat of Adams County. It became the haven of free Blacks and escaped slaves crossing north of the Mason-Dixon Line up to the Civil War on what is known as the Underground Railroad.
How appropriate that so many Blacks settled here, where, eventually, the greatest battle was fought in the War that ended slavery.
Because of the location of the Battle areas immediately surrounding the borough, the town can never physically grow.
In the statistics of the United States Census Bureau, and those of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, Adams County lags behind, or below the other counties in the state in almost all the categories listed (average education level, for example) but has higher than average household size, higher than average home ownership (single family dwellings), and a substantially higher than average household income (though per capita income is lower than average due to the migrant workers in the fruit industry). The cost of living is lower here, as well.
What’s not to love? While it has changed since the great battle of 1863, the town has not really changed that much. Many of the town’s buildings present during the battle are still present, and in use. The hospital has modernized, the hotel has expanded, and some new businesses surround the “Diamond”, as the town square is called. It has a commercial strip along what is known as Steinwehr Avenue that basically subsists off the tourist industry. In spite of these intrusions, Gettysburg has retained its quaint charm. The train station into which President Abraham Lincoln arrived to deliver his remarkable Gettysburg Address is almost fully restored, as is the house of David Wills, the local attorney with whom Lincoln stayed the night before he delivered his address dedicating the National Cemetery.
It is a small American town steeped in American history. Freedom didn’t start here, but America’s claim on Liberty was renewed and expanded here. The freedoms outlined in the Declaration of Independence were here won for those to whom those freedoms had been previously denied.
There really is no other place in the country as deserving of the title, “America’s Town”.
Say it. It rolls so smoothly, and sweetly off the tongue, it feels right, and, indeed, it is right. “Gettysburg - America’s Town”.
“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.” – Abraham Lincoln
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