GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- There's another war raging on the rolling terrain where Pickett's Charge, the most deadly and horrific encounter in the three-day Civil War battle of Gettysburg, occurred in July 1863. This one is between a small town and the Washington bureaucracy and the forces of commercialism and preservation.
Causing the commotion are plans for a visitor center to accommodate crowds of 1.7 million annually at the 5,900-acre Gettysburg National Military Park and the adjacent National Cemetery where President Lincoln gave his immortal address. The center would include a museum to safely house and preserve the largest, richest single collection of Civil War artifacts in the world.
But just as it was during the Civil War, the enemy is defined by where you live. What sounded like a swell idea in Washington -- setting up a private-public partnership to turn a decaying, cash- strapped national park into a state-of-the-art attraction -- has enraged the community that was supposed to benefit most from it. There isn't any side in the fight over America's most famous battlefield that doesn't claim to have the best interests of Gettysburg at heart. That includes the National Park Service, the town fathers and merchants, a private developer, and a variety of historical societies and Civil War buffs. Even Congress has stepped in, holding a hearing earlier this month to determine what's gone wrong and who's to blame in this hallowed place just north of the Mason-Dixon line. "Getting the job done at Gettysburg involves change, and change is frightening to many people," said John Latschar, the park superintendent and blunt Vietnam veteran who has become the symbol, to many, of the federal government's insensitivity and political blundering of the visitor center project. "People don't like me. I may seem arrogant because I think I can do it." What Latschar thinks he can do is get a $39 million, 118,000- square-foot visitor facility open by 2005. There, tourists would be able to view storytelling exhibits on the causes and consequences of Gettysburg, the critical and costly Union victory where 51,000 men died, were wounded or captured; see an educational film; catch a tour bus; eat lunch; and buy a souvenir book or map. It would also house a restored Cyclorama, the 350-foot panoramic painting of Pickett's Charge that hung from 1884 to 1891 in the Tremont Street building that now houses the Boston Center for the Arts. The plan also calls for reclaiming Ziegler's Grove, an important piece of the battlefield, by demolishing two notable structures: the current visitor center, a red-brick house built in 1921 by the Rosensteels, a prominent local family, and the unusual Cyclorama building, designed in 1961 and now on the list of sites eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. …