WILKES-BARRE —To R. Gregory Goodell there’s no mystery about America’s fascination with the Battle of Gettysburg.
“Gettysburg has always been the (Civil War) watershed in the American psyche because of the way the people understood the battle in later years,” he said. “It was the turning point.”
Goodell, the museum services supervisor at Gettysburg National Military Park and the Eisenhower National Historic Site, brought his expertise about America’s brother-against-brother struggle to an area audience Friday when he spoke at the 155th Annual Dinner Meeting of the Luzerne County Historical Society.
In July, America will observe the 150th anniversary of that battle. Over three days of bloody warfare in and near the Adams County town of Gettysburg, the United States Army of the Potomac defeated the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia. Historians have long portrayed that battle as the moment at which the Confederacy’s fortunes began a long decline, and defeat was inevitable.
Goodell’s message is a simple one as the nation looks back: Time and the changing nature of American society call for presenting Civil War history in new ways. The earliest audiences for Civil War-related exhibits were closer to the conflict. Also, collectors and military enthusiasts were the most frequent museum visitors.
But today, he said: “Your typical family going to Gettysburg is not the sophisticated collector. We must balance the needs of the collector with the family from Kansas that just wants to learn about the Civil War.”
Through a slide show, Goodell showed how war-related museum displays have evolved from huge quantities of weapons and equipment, with minimal explanation, to smaller amounts of carefully chosen photos and artifacts that relate closely to one another and, through graphics, tell a story to the visitor.
A mock-up of army camp life is one such display. So is one linking a soldier in a photograph and the possessions that person used. “If someone can know that flag was on the battlefield at Gettysburg, that is very powerful,” he said.
The Gettysburg battlefield and museum have changed greatly since the turn of the 21st century. Gone are the structures that once encroached on the field, and the new museum does not have the warehouse effect of the old one. Goodell concedes that some traditionalists are disturbed by what they call minimal displays.
“The museum of today is a lot of different things for a lot of different people because people learn in different ways,” he said. “We are catering to a diverse audience.”
The historical society’s commemoration of the Civil War continues today with a reception marking the opening of the new Civil War exhibit at the society’s museum, behind the Osterhout Free Library on South Franklin Street in Wilkes-Barre. The reception is 4-6 p.m. Available will be the society’s latest publication, “Serving their Country, Defending the Commonwealth, Saving the Union: Stories and Images of Luzerne County Soldiers at Gettysburg,” by William V. Lewis Jr.
The society is also planning an August bus trip to Gettysburg to visit sites associated with Luzerne County troops in the battle.