Gettysburg battlefield casualty of government impasse
GETTYSBURG — Fred Leeman walked past the locked gate of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, shaking his head in disgust.
Closing the cemetery and battlefield because of the federal government shutdown “is a disgrace. It's our national shame right now,” said Leeman, 70, a retiree and Navy veteran from Xenia, Ohio. “It's a tragedy. It makes you want to cry.”
Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address 150 years ago next month in the cemetery where approximately 3,500 Union Army soldiers are buried. Leeman and others wonder whether the fiscal dispute in Washington will be resolved by Nov. 19, in time to commemorate the speech.
“I can't imagine that moment in time not being memorialized because of this nonsense,” Leeman said.
Audrey Haverstock, 55, a retired nurse who lives near Sacramento, was particularly angered by the cemetery's closure on Friday.
It “belongs to the people, not the National Park Service,” said Haverstock. She and other tourists see a “political ploy” in the attempted shutdown of Gettysburg.
The borough, only 1.66 square miles, is home to about 7,600 people and the seat of Adams County.
But its poignant history draws tens of thousands of people — their numbers multiplied this year by the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
The bloody conflict, a turning point in the Civil War, was waged July 1-3 in 1863. An estimated 98,000 Union soldiers and 72,000 Confederate troops battled across the town, into hills and fields. About 3,100 Yankees and 3,900 Rebels were killed, according to the Civil War Trust, which puts total casualties at a staggering 51,000 killed, wounded and missing or captured soldiers.
As the government shutdown slogged through its fourth day of political impasse, Haverstock ventured onto the battlefield, ignoring signs along the edge of Gettysburg National Military Park proclaiming “Closed Area.”
“This is our land, not the government's,” said John Shires, 59, a Navy veteran from Bloomsburg. “This is sacred ground. This isn't a park like Yosemite or Yellowstone.”
The barrel-chested Shires, a former truck driver, squared his shoulders: “You think anybody is going to forcibly remove me?”
About 20 people branched out across the battlefield on Friday morning.
“I'm proud to see Americans stand up for America,” Shires said. The veterans who entered the closed World War II Memorial in Washington are an inspiration, he said.
“I guess we are breaking the law,” said Stacy Kohlhofer of Rochester, Minn. Her husband, Guy, finds it ironic that “the government closed a Civil War battlefield when the reason for the war was federal overrule of the states.”
“I'm not trying to be in their face,” said Ron Capallia, 65, an Air Force veteran. But “they are not going to stop me.”
Chief Ranger Ryan Levins said rangers will ask people on park grounds to leave. So far, rangers have encountered no major problems.
“We're not out to fine people,” he said. “If you tell them to leave several times and they're back, there might be a fine” of $75, the same as the park's after-hours fine.
Tom Huntington, who wrote three books on the Civil War, said tourists normally can move throughout the battlefield without limitation. He doesn't know why the park is closed but suggested that the reduced park personnel could spell trouble for anyone accidentally injured on the property.
Max Felty, president of Gettysburg Tours Inc., abides by the closure warning. His company offers tours — but not on the battlefield — and lets people know they cannot access areas such as Little Round Top, the Pennsylvania Monument and Devil's Den.
“There still is so much to see without stepping on the battlefield,” he said.
Some tourists blame President Obama for the political move of closing national parks; others pin it on congressional Republicans.
“I'm a Democrat,” said Mark Cohen of South Hadley, Mass. “I think the Republicans, the Tea Partiers, want to close down government.”
He and his wife, Jane, decided to make the best of their prepaid reservations in Gettysburg, made two weeks ago.
Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College, views the shutdown as “a political tactic by the Obama administration, saying, ‘If I can't get it all, I am not going to give you (Republicans) anything.' ”
The use of historic sites for political leverage “is absolutely shameful,” said DiSarro, reached by phone.
“Both sides are using everything they can to gin up public support,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “Any inconvenience, Democrats think, will help build support for their position.”
Sue Porchetta, a tourist from Scotch Plains, N.J., holds everyone in Washington at fault.
Capallia, the career Air Force retiree, tried to put the issue in perspective.
“Think of the sacrifice made here,” he said, looking across the battlefield. “And we're just inconvenienced.”
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or email@example.com.