Rupert Cornwell: Plans for a casino spark a new battle at Gettysburg

Out of America: In 1863, the town witnessed the climactic contest of the Civil War – now a very 21st-century conflict is raging
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Say Gettysburg, and you think of the battle that was the turning point in the American Civil War. Consider the name from a strictly commercial viewpoint though, as does the former railway company executive David LeVan, and it has an added appeal. Gettysburg, an easy 90-minute drive from Washington DC, is not merely the place that inspired President Abraham Lincoln to utter arguably the most perfectly rounded 272 words in the English language. More prosaically, it's also the "last untapped gaming marketplace in Pennsylvania".

In ways not only meteorological, this has been a torrid summer in the US. We've had anger over oil spills, and an economy whose struggles never seem to end, while the Tea Party movement has made the political temperature sizzle. As for emotional heat, look no further than the controversies over "hallowed ground", or more exactly the alleged desecration thereof. First came the row over building a mosque near Ground Zero in New York. Now there's the brouhaha over the "Gettysburg Casino".

This is not the first time LeVan, an avowed Civil War buff, has tried to bring slot machines and croupiers' tables close to where Union forces put an end to the attempted invasion of the North by Robert E Lee's Confederate Army, over three bloody days in July 1863.

Back in 2006, LeVan wanted to build a rather larger casino, but the scheme was rejected after vociferous opposition from preservationists and many local groups who argued that the casino would wreck the character of Gettysburg, deter tourists and be an insult to the thousands on both sides, who died there. Put up casinos by all means, they said then – just not here. Identical arguments are to be heard now, both against the proposed Islamic centre and mosque two blocks from the former World Trade Center, and against the Gettysburg Casino Mark II. But over the past four years, much has changed.

For one thing, LeVan's new proposal is less intrusive. Listen to the debate in New York, and you'd imagine that minarets are about to rise where the Twin Towers stood. Here in Gettysburg, you might think that Sodom and Gomorrah are poised to rise in the open fields of Pickett's Charge – the climactic engagement of the battle, which for folly, heroism and legend yields nothing to the Light Brigade's exploit in the Crimea nine years earlier.

It is true that the new casino would be closer to the battlefield, roughly half a mile from its southern edge. But it would be housed in an existing hotel and conference centre close to an existing commercial zone, and would be much smaller than its mooted predecessor, with just 600 slot machines and 50 roulette and card tables.

But the biggest thing that's changed is economic reality. Love them or loathe them, one thing about casinos cannot be disputed. They bring thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue for states and municipalities across the country. And after the deepest recession since the 1930s, in southern Pennsylvania, as everywhere else, the need for both jobs and revenues has never been greater.

Gettysburg proper is a typical American "heritage" town, full of old red-brick buildings, pretty restaurants and fusty Civil War curio stores, with a modern population of 7,000, not so much more than the 2,500 who were living there that summer of 1863. As for the battlefield proper, the 10 square miles of rolling farm country that constitutes Gettysburg National Military Park are splendidly preserved and maintained – far better than English equivalents such as Edgehill or Naseby.

But all around, an "Anywhere USA" landscape of strip malls and commercial development has taken root. This greater Gettysburg has 100,000 inhabitants and has seen unemployment double in five years. Just 50 miles north, the capital city of the state, Harrisburg, may soon be filing for bankruptcy. In times like these, a new $75m casino can seem a pretty good idea.

Thus the intensity of the passions aroused at last week's packed hearings held by Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. Judging by T-shirts worn and signs on display in house windows, the forces of "Pro Casino" and "No Casino Gettysburg" are evenly divided – a conclusion born out by a local poll that showed the Ayes narrowly ahead by 42-35 per cent, with almost a quarter either indifferent or undecided.

At the hearings, eminent historians, actors and film-makers argued that a casino, however modest, would be a defilement of the most important battle in US history. Other opponents produced evidence that tourists, now numbering one million a year, would be put off, while yet others claimed that the proposed new site, albeit outside the Military Park, was where Union troops had assembled before a vital engagement in which they repulsed Confederate cavalry.

But LeVan's supporters were not cowed. They made the economic case, of course. But they also pointed to the tacky souvenir shops and phoney candlelit ghost tours as evidence that Gettysburg is not quite the high-minded keeper of the national historical conscience it purports to be. "People that want to go to the battlefield will," says one resident, "There's only one Gettysburg" – so what difference would a casino make, tucked away on the southern edge of town, where tourists don't go anyway?

How the gaming board decides, before the end of the year, is anyone's guess. But the resonant words of Lincoln's Gettysburg address may offer a clue. No mere visitor could "hallow this ground", for those who fought and died there "have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract". What goes for a president surely goes for a mere casino.