Gettysburg National Military Park and July 4, 2020: Personal Reflections

Gettysburg National Military Park and July 4, 2020: Personal Reflections

To be surrounded by men and women in festive patriotic attire and jungle fatigues, and holding a range of rifled weaponry was not how I expected my protest to end on July 4th. For much of the day my conversations with members of the Alt Right were uninteresting and largely forgettable. I was with my colleague Scott Hancock and a few other individuals in what can best be described as a teach-in at Gettysburg National Military Park. We came with signs that stressed the centrality of slavery to the Confederacy and posters that acknowledged the role of the enslaved on the battlefield. Nothing in my nearly 35 years of doing interpretation at Civil War sites, where I have encountered zealous defenders of the Confederacy, prepared me for the crowd of right-wing extremists who descended upon Gettysburg.  They were not the Lost Cause disciples of your parent’s generation.

As many have seen on You Tube, Scott had had an intense experience earlier in the morning at the Virginia monument, where the  self-deputized defenders of Gettysburg were angry and aggressive.  Scott handled the situation with bravery and integrity while always being respectful of the other side. It was a masterful performance and should be required viewing for all public historians.

Around mid-afternoon, Scott and I reached our designated area. Things were slow, and I ventured to the National Cemetery, the epicenter of the Alt-Right rally. What an amalgamation of people that included militia groups, extreme libertarians, anti-government folks who identified with the colonials of the American Revolution, neo Confederates, bikers, and Klansmen sans the white hoods. Noone occupied the rostrum, no one used a megaphone, and no one emerged from the crowd as a spokesperson. Chants of U.S.A and All Lives Matter erupted from time to time without provocation or purpose.

It was immediately apparent that law enforcement officials had lost control of the event. At one point a squadron of bikers raced through the gates of the National Cemetery–so much for respecting the memory of the fallen soldiers  at Gettysburg. Because Pennsylvania is an open carry state, brandishing firearms in public, including semi-automatic weapons, is perfectly legal. God forbid, though, that someone carry a beer in public as that would violate the state’s sacred open-container law.

For some members of the Alt-Right, the battlefield was merely a stage to act out their gun-toting fantasies of protecting Americans from radical forces. Others came to Adams County energized  by what they had seen along Richmond’s Monument Avenue, believing that Gettysburg’s monuments  would be targeted next. The uniformed militia groups, from what I witnessed, saw themselves as backup for the NPS police and Homeland Security. They seemed disconnected  from the “civilians”  screaming all lives. The militia, usually in dark green uniforms, and black helmets, marched across the battlefield with the precision of a reenacting unit filled with middle-aged men. It was bizarre to see a Twilight Zone episode unfolding on the battlefield.

At the end of the day, I was chatting with a fellow who, in a very heartfelt way, was explaining why he found the Black Lives Matter movement so divisive. I listened, and then listened some more, and in the meantime, I got separated from the rest of the group as we all headed back to our cars. When I reached the Taneytown Road, I was accosted by a man who ordered  me to “take my fucking sign and get across the fucking road.” I decided to interpret his lack of civility as an invitation to stay. Ten to fifteen of his friends encircled me, and I have no doubt that they were waiting for me to come their way the entire time. They were incensed by my poster, which read “10,000 slaves in Lee’s Army” with “#Black Lives Matter” at the bottom of the sign. To lift up the experience of African Americans was bad history in their opinion, when poor whites, especially the Irish, also got shot at Gettysburg. Why was I not telling the full story? When I tried to explain that I was carrying a poster and not a billboard, and that I couldn’t possibly address all the historical actors at Gettysburg, they just screamed obscenities at me. Two women repeatedly told me that I didn’t know anything about history and that I was a “fucking moron.” I am not such a moron, however, to have told them that I taught at Gettysburg College. Where was my knowledge lacking? They never specified. I expected a Lost Cause rant, but only one person played the loyal Confederate slave card. The folks in front of me didn’t know enough to be the intellectual heirs of Jubal Early.

Their verbal stoning of me was really over Black Lives Matter, because the movement, in their minds, was hypocritical and racist. They yelled about the media’s coverup of black people killing black people in Chicago and elsewhere. They also charged that black cops were guilty of police brutality, but that only white police officers were being blamed. And finally, they screamed at me about the funding for Black Lives Matters, insisting that donations go to Islamic extremists who will be led into race war by President Barrack Obama.

The people who surrounded me were delusional, to be sure, not especially bright or well-informed, driven by rage, apoplectically racist, politically paranoid, financially insecure, and convinced that their grievances against society are being ignored by all elites. One might wonder why I bothered to engage them in the first place?  I didn’t think it was right to abandon my ground when I had every right to stand there, but I didn’t do this out of spite. As an historian, I feel an obligation to try to understand all classes of people, especially when their perspective is vastly different from my own.  I wished I knew more about the economic and social status of the small mob, but from all appearances, they are not living the American Dream. I found them to be loathsome, but even so, their lives matter, and they are deserving of serious study if we are to fully understand why the working poor are drawn to reactionary ideologies. To conclude that the cause of white supremacy alone explains the Alt-Right gathering at Gettysburg, and that the disease of racism reveals itself as something handed down from one white generation to the next, is to ignore how the unique social conditions of today have  produced and sanctioned a vile and brutal form of institutional classism and racism.

21 Replies to “Gettysburg National Military Park and July 4, 2020: Personal Reflections”

  1. There is no such thing as a “disease of racism”. Everyone has it in them, at some level. It’s a human weakness we all share. There is, however, a disease of capitalism, whose predictable societal results you finally got a face full of because you preside over a “historical community” that has left America compliment ignorant of the right and wrong of the Civil War. Congratulations professor on all your chickens finding the right roost.

    1. Could you clarify what you mean by “preside over a historical community that has left America compliment ignorant of the right and the wrong of the Civil War. Congratulations professor on all your chickens finding the right roost?” Thanks so much

      1. Two questions.

        1. You’re the Robert C. Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies & Director of Civil War Institute, no?

        2. What’d you do when you found out the American Battle Field Trust had no map of the First Minnesota’s charge (your logo)?


        1. Knock it off, Tim. This is not about the 1st Minnesota Infantry. And that’s the Robert C. Fuller Professor of History at Gettysburg College.

          1. Fiddle dee dee, where are my manners I do beg your pardon, professor! Let’s try it this way. What’d you do when you found out the American Battlefield Trust had no map of any of the defense of Cemetery Ridge July 2, 1863?


  2. DR Carmichael,

    I applaud the attempt by you and your peers to try to reach across the room, if you will, and educate those who appear to not want to learn some inconvenient truths. As a volunteer at Civil War site here in Virginia I engage folks who come there with their understanding of the Civil War and society today pretty well set in stone. As much as I want to share my own beliefs I recognize I am representing the institution where I am working that day and bite my tongue. If I ever am in a situation like the one you found yourself on July 4th I hope I can have the same empathy and professionalism as displayed by yourself and Doctor Hancock. Well done.

  3. Pete,

    I’ve studied the Civil War since I was 8 (Im almost 44) and I feel that you did an excellent job describing the situation that you face on July 4, 2020. I love Gettysburg, I love studying the Civil War but as a social studies teacher, as a historian I really struggle with trying to get people to understand that the Civil War was about slavery. Period. Dr. Hancock (I watched the video) did an excellent job explaining what we all know and that is the battlefields of the Civil War need a broader scope of interpretation that is present on the battlefield and not just confined to our classrooms or visitors centers. It has to happen.

  4. Thank you for all that you do. I saw the video, and commend you &Dr. Hancock on your poise ( which I don’t think I would have).

  5. I love your talent for mind-reading, and how you neatly categorize all of the people into various groups. If everyone had your talent for self-righteousness and pre-judging people, this would be a sweet society. Thank you, sir.

    1. I neither pre-judged nor did I do any mind-reading as your claim. My reflections were based upon my conversations with members of the Alt-Right at Gettysburg. In fact, I suggest in my piece that the Alt-Right cannot be neatly categorized under the Lost Cause label.

  6. What worries me is that the July 4th gathering at Gettysburg seems to be the PHYSICAL manifestation of current online experiences — a mob of people overwhelming a single person who dares to post something counter to their worldview.

    Unlike a debate, where each side expresses a point, and the other actually engages that point in the discussion, in these affairs, in person and online, you may pose a point or a question, but the response either jumps to a one off that has no bearing on the point (why don’t you talk about “all the Irish”) or a hostile reaction designed to intimidate you to silence. Or you get, as as you experienced, single line shouters that never bother to hear your answer, because shouting their belief is all they came to do. They don’t want to have a discussion or a debate, because they know they are unarmed once they fired their single shot.

    These, if forced to engage, deny your standing (‘don’t know anything about history’ and ‘you must be a f***ing moron’) as a way to explain why they don’t have to listen to you.

    Of course, if you said to them, as they said to you, that they ‘didn’t know anything about history’ and that they were a “f***ing moron” what would their reaction be?

    I am guessing it would be a violent one, justified in their mind by your lack of respect. So why does that same expectation of respect not extend from them toward you?

    Thank you for trying to increase the circle of knowledge, for treating them like they could be reasoning and intelligent human beings. (Obviously, your initial discussion on the walk back at least engaged in an exchange of ideas. Similarly here, had TimRusso at least tried to defend his original statement when you asked for clarification, (rather than assuming you knew what he meant) we might have gotten somewhere in the online discussion, too.

    Good luck to you. Good luck to ALL of us. I think we need it.

  7. I think you are right about the connection between the poisonous behavior that flourishes social media platforms from people of all political dispositions. I do believe that the Alt-Right folks who descended on Gettysburg are on the fringe. Although I don’t believe they should be discounted or ignored given their extremism. I worry that the Alt Right folks might distort our vision of Lost Cause audiences that are not beyond the pale. We need to find ways of opening up communication with people who have legitimate questions about the removal of Confederate monuments and who might be open to rethinking some of the traditional Lost Cause assumptions about the war. Should professional historians reach out to the UDC and SCV? I am not sure because some of the local chapters are not interested in history and practice a firebrand style of politics that I abhor. Your desire to have a conversation , I believe, is possible and we should keep finding ways to create space for civil debate. The NPS, more so than the academy, can be the common ground for public debate. Tim Russo is making some very important points about the ways that racial ideologies have been and always will be the product of capitalism and class/social relations. He reminds us of the importance of Barbara Fields and her article “Race as an Ideology” in The New Left Review. At. time when the words white supremacy and racism are used to explain everything, but as Fields notes, it then explains very little in the end. It is unfortunate that he gets in the own way with his combative style.

  8. Thank you, Pete, for holding your ground and sharing your experience — the battlefield is not yet quiet, nor are the dimensions of its meaning to American hearts and minds.
    I look forward to the 2021 CWI when we can discuss this in person. All best, Bill

  9. One essential point that I do not hear brought up enough (thanks Pete for highlighting it here) is that the entire tenor of the Lost Cause as a subset of American culture and political ideology has mutated massively in the last few years. I do not personally have enough data to comment on the state of the Lost Cause online, but we are seeing plenty of the Lost Cause “IRL” lately. The ones who are willing to show themselves publicly are not like the UDC of yesteryear, and we need to be conscious of what has changed and respond accordingly. They were once able to cling to an alt-reality of the history and cultural significance of the war which, although outdated for some time, did not usually lead them to rabidly and violently divorce themselves from the modern U.S. itself, their countrymen, and 98% of humanity. No longer. Everything I have seen from the last three Alt Right rallies in Gettysburg demonstrates that these people are now more terrified of the masses of average people who simply don’t think like them (and are nowhere near as armed as them) than COVID, cancer, or dying broke and in the gutter combined. I have never seen such pathetic, desperate rage in my life as I have in the videos of these rallies, and I have been to many different kinds of protests. These guys know on some level that 1) they are losing the battle for the soul of the country, and 2) you can’t take even the strongest, most blindly lockstep echo chamber with you into the real world. Hence the rage, tears, and overall sense that they’re treating this moment as a last stand. I suspect that this generation of Lost Causers “found itself” online, in a zero-gravity space where if you say anything enough it starts to feel real. Where there is no community or authority that you can’t excise at a click of a button for dissenting. Now, as November draws near, they are coming back to Earth and realizing they can’t stand the pressure of dealing with actual human beings who will think, speak, and vote regardless of how angrily you shout or how tightly you clutch that AR. They replaced the notion of negotiation and dialogue (or any other tool of emotional intelligence) with force somewhere along the way. The question now, as I think Pete suggested, is how do we start to detox these people when they think that re-integration with society on any level is tantamount to destroying their very identity? I can’t help but see this as a mental health crisis inside of a poverty crisis inside of a joint political, cultural, and racial crisis….. Thoughts?

  10. Picking up on Matt’s comments, the russian doll created by layers of issues in the minds of the Alt Right (I hesitate to use the plural, but it somehow seems a collective) under the weight of a confused racial narrative, poverty’s effects run amok, nativist political metaphors swirling about us all, and the echoes of the never-fully-defined “Lost Cause” — it’s like trying to swim out of a plate of thin pasta to sanity. Sensemaking in such a moment is bound to be difficult.
    As Pete described their behavior, they were taking territory and trying to intimidate the other humans on the battlefield. Pete’s restraint was commendable — defending himself with a sign and some well-chosen/carefully-chosen words — apparently avoiding fisticuffs. Well done, Pete!
    My cousins in Scotland can give you blow by blow accounts of the Battle of Culloden moor in 1746, if you buy them a Jameson or two. They also reflect on the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 with great detail. Unfortunately, this portends a lengthy run for the Lost Causers.
    Rather it is for us, the fourth or fifth generation hence to build a new narrative — one that appreciates the roles played by all players — including the African Americans, who were present in significant numbers at Gettysburg. We need to stand on that telling, adding elements that project into the 21st century and beyond. I daresay that students graduating from high school in the U.S. today are NOT fluent in the Causes, Battles, nor the attempted Reconstruction of our country — for that matter, the entire 19th century. They know Blue & Gray, Lincoln’s killing, and a bit about Lee and Grant, if we’re lucky. That is NOT enough, and gives room for the kinds of interpretations like those of the Lost Causers/Alt Right, alt-reality.
    I will stop here, but want to offer a bravery award to Professor Carmichael, and thank him for instigating a serious challenge to us all — to do better with teaching Americans, and other visitors, a more complete, hopeful, and meaningful version of what happened in 1863, and more!
    Best, Bill G.

  11. “What worries me is that the July 4th gathering at Gettysburg seems to be the PHYSICAL manifestation of current online experiences — a mob of people overwhelming a single person who dares to post something counter to their worldview. ”

    Both the “alt” left and right react the same way and are strikingly similar with regards to their intolerance to the other sides view point. Just an observation from the past 4 years, when it seems this suddenly became a problem.

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