Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is best remembered as the site where Union and Confederate armies fought between July 1-3, 1863. When it was all said and done the Army of the Potomac could claim a decisive victory. Tourists and history buffs travel each year to the battlefield to mark its anniversary, but this year the COVID19 pandemic has kept most visitors away.
That didn’t prevent members of the Alt Right from gathering on the battlefield on July 4 to protest the Black Lives Matter movement and defend Confederate monuments from an Antifa Rally that never materialized. It was difficult to watch these heavily armed thugs desecrate the ground on which so many Americans “gave the last full measure of devotion.”
Thankfully, they did not go unopposed. Among the counter protesters were Gettysburg College historians Scott Hancock and Peter Carmichael, who have shared their experiences that day in two separate blog posts.
That morning Hancock and a friend staked out a place at the Virginia monument on Seminary Ridge with their own message. The two endured threats and racial epithets, but they remained steadfast in their claim to the legacy of the battlefield and their right to be seen and heard.
Later that day Peter Carmichael found himself in the middle of another angry crowd. His attempt to engage individuals in a meaningful conversation proved futile.
This past weekend historians Jennifer Murray and John Heckman organized a small rally to vocalize their opposition to the July 4 gathering. They spoke meaningfully about the sacrifices of the men who died to save the Union and the need to stand up against hate and racism.
But this is also a reminder that battlefield landscapes like Gettysburg are not stuck in a remote past. Both Hancock and Murray remind us that this is not the first time that Gettysburg has become a battle ground for our own political and cultural wars. Regardless of how carefully you control the physical landscape, the battlefield always exists in the present as it accumulates the lived experience of visitors who leave their own stories and meanings.
A number of questions have surfaced about the way the park police managed the protest on July 4 and this past weekend. Hopefully, we will get some answers in the not too distant future.
For now I am more interested in how park service historians and front-line interpreters will respond. We are living in a hyper-politicized environment right now. There are questions about the Confederate monuments at Gettysburg, but it would be more accurate to suggest that the battlefield itself has become divisive as well.
This raises incredibly difficult interpretive challenges that I make no claim to being able to answer, but they must be acknowledged. The alternative is to pretend that the story of Gettysburg is over.