Ground Zero: The Gettysburg National Military Park, July 4, 2020

Ground Zero: The Gettysburg National Military Park, July 4, 2020

Seven score and seventeen years after the roar of Union artillery and Confederate rifle fire fell silent on the Gettysburg battlegrounds, Adams County endured another invasion.

This one, on July 4, 2020, brought a Civil War-sized company of right-wing extremists, some heavily armed, onto the nation’s most hallowed ground in response to rumors that Antifa intended to burn an American flag in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

Although the Antifa threat proved false (again), the day’s incidents forced the Civil War community to take notice.  If we are angered or dismayed at these demonstrations, we should not be surprised.  Gettysburg has long been a landscape at the epicenter of debates over the war’s legacies and interpretations.  The fiasco of July 4 is best understood as yet another layer in the history of a landscape that has been perpetually used, misused, defiled, and promoted.

Photographs and videos of the demonstrations quickly emerged on social media.  One photograph captured a vehicle parked along Seminary Ridge displaying a Ku Klux Klan flag.  If this seems shocking, we must recognize that the battlefield has long hosted KKK rallies, many paralleling the rise of the Second Klan.  Likely the largest Klan gathering occurred in September 1925.  Thousands poured into Gettysburg, gathered on Oak Ridge, and enjoyed two days of festivities.  In the winter of 1926, local children roaming the battlefield with sleds in tow would find the town’s Klansmen “safeguarding” sledding paths on Seminary Ridge and Baltimore Street.[1]

The battlefield remained a platform for racist discourse through the 20th century.  In 1963, Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace visited Gettysburg and promised to stand for defense of the Constitution.   A tangible manifestation of white supremacy appeared in 1967 when a cross was burned on Steven’s Knoll.   As the new century dawned, Klansmen continued to rally at Gettysburg.  I spent nine summers working for the NPS as a seasonal interpretive ranger and remember walking by various KKK “1st Amendment” rallies.  Klansmen planned a rally at Gettysburg in the fall of 2013, only to be canceled because of the government shut down.  During the battle anniversary in 2017, a similar incident occurred when armed vigilantes and Klansmen descended upon the town reacting to another supposed Antifa threat.  The event passed with relatively little notice, although a man from Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, one of the “militia men,” accidently shot himself in the leg.[2]

We must ask ourselves why the nation’s most infamous white supremacist group gathered on a landscape where Abraham Lincoln envisioned a “new birth of freedom” for the nation?

No man had done more to craft Gettysburg’s place in our nation’s collective consciousness than John Bachelder, the battle’s first historian.  His creation of the “High Water Mark” thesis defines Gettysburg, and specifically Pickett’s Charge, as the moment when the Army of the Potomac stood against the rising tide of the powerful Confederate army.  Paul Philippoteaux’s “The Battle of Gettysburg” Cyclorama opened to critical acclaim from northern viewers in Chicago in 1883, but in time the Gettysburg Cyclorama came to be interwoven with Lost Cause ideology and a pro-Virginia version of the battle.  In 1897, the Confederate Veteran applauded the Cyclorama’s painting of “brave Pickett and the gray-coated heroes.”  The “out-numbering enemy” repulsed the charge, but the Cyclorama captured “a tale of heroism unequaled in history.”[3]  The agency acquired this painting in 1942 and made it central to the battlefield’s interpretation.  Yet the “High Water Mark” narrative does more than fashion a story that honors the deeds and sacrifices of both Union and Confederate soldiers.  It offers a specific moment in time when the Confederacy lost their best hope for independence.  That moment in time, William Faulkner later romanticized, occurred “for every southern boy fourteen years old.”[4]

In 1913, aging Union and Confederate veterans stood at the “High Water Mark” and clasped hands across the stone wall in a staged exercise of fraternal reconciliation.  Typical of the era’s reconciliationist sentiment, Virginia’s Governor William Hodges Mann extolled, “We are not here to discuss the Genesis of the War…but to talk over the events of the battle.”[5]

And so it would be for many generations.

Yet July 4, 2020, was hardly the first time that the right mobilized to protect their heritage and the sanctification of Gettysburg.  Responding to a 2000 Congressional directive to include a discussion of slavery at national Civil War sites, Gettysburg’s interpretive theme changed from the long-standing “High Water Mark” focus to “A New Birth of Freedom.”[6]

Gettysburg became ground-zero for a renewed national discourse about the Civil War and its implications.  Letters and emails poured into the park’s administrative office, many with refrains accusing the agency of “erasing history,” promoting a “liberal agenda,” and buckling to “historical revisionism.”  The Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Heritage Committee unleashed a vigorous writing campaign to the Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt declaring that Gettysburg intended to “alter” the Civil War narrative.  One resident of Bishop, Georgia, complained to his congressman that discussing slavery at Civil War sites was “not only a misrepresentation of history,” but was “irrelevant to the purpose in preserving the battlefields.”  Writing on Confederate flag letterhead, a resident of Missouri declared that the Confederacy had not been established to preserve slavery, but to execute a second American Revolution.  A North Carolina resident viewed a discussion of slavery as a “declaration of war,” threatening “we will respond” because “southerners are tired of these bigoted unhistorical attacks.”[7]

Such voices have long been a part of the history of the Gettysburg battlefield.  On July 4, 2020, we saw the faces associated with these voices.  And they came armed.

Generations of Americans have struggled for control of the Gettysburg narrative and the battlefield—and will continue to do so.  Only in understanding the landscape’s complicated history can we better grapple with what happened on the nation’s most “hallowed ground” on July 4, 2020.  Those demonstrations stand in direct contradiction to the very memory of the soldiers who stood in defense of the United States of America and for the notion that “all men are created equal.”  We, as a nation, must recognize and admit the complexity of our past, and in particular of our nation’s most decisive epoch—the American Civil War.  Anything less is a disservice to the memory of the 700,000 Americans who died in the conflict “gave the last full measure of devotion.”

[1] “Two-Day Celebration of Ku Klux Klan Officially Opens This Morning With Thousands of Members Here For Affair,” Gettysburg Times, September 19, 1925; “Klan To Safeguard 3 Coasting Hill,” Gettysburg Times, February 15, 1926.

[2] “Armed “Patriot” Accidently Shoots Self in Leg at Gettysburg Battlefield,” PennLive, July 1, 2017.  The “militia man,” Benjamin Hornberger, is now running for the 9th Congressional District seat in Pennsylvania.

[3] “The Battle of Gettysburg,” Confederate Veteran, June 1897, 307. For the most comprehensive reading of the Gettysburg Cyclorama see: Sue Boardman and Kathryn Porch, The Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama: A History and Guide (Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 2008).

[4] Roy Appleman to Regional Director, November 4, 1946, Folder 833, Box 46, Subject Files 1937-1957, NARA Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[5] Governor William Hodges Mann, July 3, 1913, in Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg: Report of the Pennsylvania Commission(Harrisburg, PA: 1913), 143-146.

[6] Superintendent John Latschar, “Gettysburg: The Next 100 Years,” presented at the 4th Annual Gettysburg Seminar, March 4, 1995; For a discussion of how the 2000 directive was implemented at Gettysburg see: Jennifer M. Murray, “On A Great Battlefield”: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933-2013 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014), 156-158.

[7] Scott Williams to Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, undated; Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Heritage Committee Comment Card to Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, Folder 6, Box 5; G. Elliott Cummings, Commander, Maryland Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, to Alan Hoeweler, President, FNPG, September 28, 1995, Folder 5, Box 5 (Unprocessed Central Files, 1987-present), Gettysburg National Military Park Archives, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; A Johnson to Congressman, September 5, 2000, Folder 7, Box 50; Timothy Manning, Folder 7, Box 50 (Unprocessed Central Files, 1987-present), Gettysburg National Military Park Archives, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Jennifer M. Murray

Dr. Jennifer M. Murray is a military historian, with a specialization in the American Civil War, in the Department of History at Oklahoma State University. In addition to delivering hundreds of Civil War battlefield tours, Murray has led World War I and World War II study abroad trips to Europe. Murray’s most recent publication is On A Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933-2013, published by the University of Tennessee Press in 2014. Murray is also the author of The Civil War Begins, published by the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History in 2012. She is currently working on a full-length biography of George Gordon Meade, tentatively titled Meade at War. Murray is a veteran faculty member at Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute and a coveted speaker at Civil War symposiums and roundtables. In addition, Murray worked as a seasonal interpretive park ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park for nine summers (2002-2010).

One Reply to “Ground Zero: The Gettysburg National Military Park, July 4, 2020”

  1. The High Water Mark Monument should be the first to go. It’s a total fiction, not least because the actual tipping point was the day before, when Ambrose Wright crested Cemetery Ridge. Before it goes, a full list of its funders should be published.

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