GETTYSBURG, Pa. — As re-enacted war raged several miles away, tourists strolled a commercial strip of Gettysburg to survey T-shirts, hats and other trinkets to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s pivotal battle.
More than 200,000 people — including thousands of re-enactors — are expected to visit Gettysburg, in south-central Pennsylvania, through Fourth of July weekend to mark the milestone.
As such, it’s a prime opportunity for vendors to make some money.
Sightseers can pick up one of the many incarnations of “150th Anniversary” T-shirts at stores along about a two-block stretch of one of the main drags in town, Steinwehr Avenue, less than a quarter-mile from the Gettysburg National Military Park. One store had “Army of the Potomac” and “Army of Northern Virginia” athletic department shirts.
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A few visitors said they aren’t comfortable with the consumerism.
“I don’t like the commercialism. I think they can do a lot less of it,” said Richard Gow, 65, of Binghamton, N.Y. Dressed sharply in a gray uniform, Gow was portraying noted Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead outside the American Civil War Wax Museum.
Then Gow — himself a U.S. Army veteran who served during Vietnam — looked toward the battlefield, just down the road. That is where the self-proclaimed Civil War buff, who said his family ties trace back to Confederate Major Gen. John Gordon, said visitors can find what’s really important.
“It’s the grounds,” he said, referring to the fields and hills where up to 10,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in the Civil War’s pivotal battle. “It’s an honor to be here.”
Federal forces turned away the Confederates during the bloody Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863, ending with the South’s ill-fated Pickett’s Charge across an open field against Union soldiers.
George Lomas, owner of The Regimental Quartermaster store on the commercial strip, said he’s been gearing up for this week for months. His business primarily attracts re-enactors looking to buy period military jackets, shirts and belts along with bayonets and muskets.
Smaller tables near the front door carried 150th anniversary T-shirts and more kitschy items, such as a pen shaped like a mini-drumstick — for drumming, not eating — inscribed with “Civil War.”
When asked about people who may think Gettysburg is too commercialized, Lomas said: “That happens. That’s business. I don’t think it’s overcommercialized. Of course, I’m prejudiced.”
Many visitors said modern Gettysburg strikes the appropriate balance between capitalizing on its notoriety and paying reverence to the conflict: No amusement parks, no roller coasters.
“This kind of brings history alive,” said Dave Gish, 54, a pastor from Wilton, Conn., who took photos of a re-enactment between Union and Confederate cavalry featuring hundreds of horses.
Capitalism is at work on the grounds of the re-enactment. Re-enactors and shoppers can head to a 19th-century-style tent city where shopkeepers offer items appropriate for the period or to restock the soldiers, just as traveling suppliers did in the 1860s.