A Turning Point at Gettysburg

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.

Gettysburg battlefield, July 3, 2013 (Source: AP)

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.

Scott Hancock at Gettysburg’s Virginia monument

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.

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my latest book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Order your copy today.

11 comments… add one
  • Brad Jul 22, 2020 @ 5:03

    I’m claiming total ignorance on this but are people allowed to protest at National Park sites?

  • Buck Buchanan Jul 21, 2020 @ 9:06

    I am kind of curious…I live right beside Petersburg NBP. We don’t see the crowds here as Gettysburg does….very, very few monuments. But do other parks which are highly monumented (Chickamauga/Chattanooga, Vicksburg, Shiloh, etc.) do they see any of this? Or is it the outsized sense of Gettysburg in the American Memory and the Statue of Lee, etc.? I mean I don’t know of too many statues to Bragg TBH. Thanks

    • Joshism Jul 24, 2020 @ 16:09

      Gettysburg looks larger than all other battlefields, in stature and visitation. It’s also a great symbol of the Lost Cause heroic martyrdom mindset – “we were so close…”

      • Buck Buchanan Jul 25, 2020 @ 6:39

        Kind of what I was thinking but thought I would ask the hive mind.

        • msb Jul 26, 2020 @ 9:49

          I wonder if Gettysburg is seen as more conclusive (i.e. having a definitive start, ending and result) and more “gallant” in the traditional military sense of mass movements and grand strategy. Petersburg strikes me (correct me if I’m wrong) as less conclusive, because the final result was Appomattox, and more of a grinding slog – much harder to romanticize. People who know more than I about the military aspects – and that would be nearly anybody – might want to comment, however.

  • Matt McKeon Jul 20, 2020 @ 15:11

    Those yahoos were responding to a fake social media message. They and their fellow travelers have descended on less famous communities to strut about and threaten people.
    A like group was at Gettysburg a couple of years ago I recall, where one of them managed to shoot himself by accident. Same reason, some fake call from social media. Hancock and Carmichael are doing the Lord’s work.

  • Elizabeth R Farnham Jul 20, 2020 @ 14:43

    The National Park Service does an excellent job at presenting and contextualizing the Battle of Gettysburg at the Visitor Center. However, the Confederate monuments are beyond their control. Simply put, there is no way to contextualize and control how these oversized chunks of granite and bronze are presented because the monuments are the mythology that hide Truth on the Battlefield.

    These atrocities glorify the Confederacy that was never honorable, they evoke emotions of grief, honor, and majesty for people and causes that were never noble, and they do nothing to reveal enslaved African Americans who were forced to work the Confederate camps, let alone Lee’s orders to capture free Blacks to enslave. They were only erected when their greatest opposition were dying or had already died – those thousands of forces who had fought these treasonous enslavers. That armed white supremacists who defy history are their fiercest defenders is one of the greatest arguements for their removal.

  • Janet Oakley Jul 20, 2020 @ 13:54

    I went for the 150th and helped paint some fences a few months before. My great-grandfather made it to the 50th anniversary where he and all surgeons on both sides of the battle were honored. He was with the 11 PA. Proud to see his name by steps going up into the big PA monument. This July 4th incident really angered me. I know why the park came into existence and why its story is so important.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 20, 2020 @ 13:56

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Janet.

  • Msb Jul 20, 2020 @ 12:13

    “ the battlefield always exists in the present as it accumulates the lived experience of visitors who leave their own stories and meanings”
    Hitting the nail on the head, as you often do. Gettysburg’s history may have started on 1 July 1863, but it continues through every visitor and interpreter. Goodness, I appear to be agreeing with Faulkner: the past is never dead. It’s not even past.
    I visited Gettysburg a few years ago and, while jarred by the numerous monuments littering the landscape (and the awful inscriptions on some), I was impressed by the material provided by the NPS and its management of such a large and in many ways beautiful site.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 20, 2020 @ 12:21

      Make no mistake, I think very highly of NPS historians and staff. Thanks for the comment.

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