Walking with Enslaved and Enslavers at Pickett’s Charge (and Retreat)

Walking with Enslaved and Enslavers at Pickett’s Charge (and Retreat)

Trampling down Black people and Black property in order to remake history, memory and geography was a quotidian activity in the post-Civil War United States. In the states that Robert E. Lee’s soldiers hailed from, this was often done with ugly, tortuous violence against Black southerners. In 1938, in the northern state where Lee’s soldiers experienced one of their greatest defeats, Confederate and Union veterans, along with their descendants, politicians, the Boy Scouts, and tourists, virtually all white, with the exception of a few Black veterans and the less than welcome Black Civilian Conservation Corp workers, assembled at Gettysburg and, this time, peacefully reenacted the trampling of Blackness at what still gets called a “reunion.”

Reunion seems an odd term for a coming together of men who tried very hard to kill each other. It implies that there was once union. In a sense, that’s accurate—before the Civil War, these men were all part of the same country. But twentieth-century “reunions” were not reenacting or commemorating that prior union, but rather the murderously brutal conflict that took place only because of the presence of Black people in that country.

In what had by 1938 become a staged photo op, a Union and a Confederate veteran shook hands across the stone wall just up from the Angle, near the Highwater Mark. What often gets missed in this popularized symbolic act of reconciliation is what’s in the background in the photo:[1] Abraham and Elizabeth Brian’s farm, Black Gettysburgians who owned twelve acres upon which hundreds of soldiers fought, bled, and died as part of Pickett’s Charge and Retreat. Had the Brians stayed for the battle, they could have peeked out their front door and seen Confederate soldiers launching their charge from the farm of James and Eliza Warfield, another Black family. But the Brians, Warfields, and hundreds of other African Americans in Gettysburg and the surrounding area got out before the battle, because they knew that Confederate military goals for inflicting violence and mayhem on the soldiers and civilians of the United States of America included kidnapping free Black American citizens and taking them south into slavery.[2]

Seventy-five years later, the Confederate States of America performed reunion with the United States of America right on the edge of the Brian property. By 1938, in the war for memory, a war, unlike the battle of Gettysburg and the American Civil War, that the Confederacy won more than they lost, the Brians, the Warfields and African Americans weren’t simply casualties—because casualties get remembered, sanctified, and repurposed for nationalistic aims—but instead were run underfoot, receded into the background, and rendered irrelevant amid the more important endeavor of making America great.[3]

On September 24th of 2022, two days after the anniversary of Lincoln’s issuing of the Preliminary Emancipation, Chris Gwinn, Supervisory Park Ranger for Interpretation and Education at Gettysburg National Miliary Park (GNMP), and I sought to tell a different story through “Battlewalk: Pickett’s Charge and the War for Memory” as a part of #MoreHistory.

Our collaboration had its roots in September of 2020, when dozens of historians responded to JCWE’s call to participate in #wewantmorehistory. At Gettysburg, where JCWE editor Greg Downs came, a few dozen of us congregated at the Peace Light, the main gathering site for the 1938 reunion. We had some great signs: well-researched information and carefully noted sources, that invited visitors to learn about the undeniable centrality of African Americans in Civil War history. We wanted to tell visitors that there’s more to the story than what the landscape communicated.

And that happened—but not often. Most visitors walked up to us, glanced at our signs, and kept on walking. Chris Gwinn and other Park Rangers, who have deep and broad experience with visitors, politely pointed out that no matter how welcoming and informative our signs were, we were a group of people holding signs—and that looks like a protest. Visitors don’t come to National Park sites to talk to protestors.

We tried a friendlier approach in 2021. GNMP worked with JCWE editor Hilary Green and myself, setting up a table near the newly renovated James Warfield house, with information about the history of Confederate state memorials at Gettysburg. On a perfect summer day, GNMP opened up the Warfield house, as Rangers know that when any building normally closed gets opened, visitors stop and talk. Hilary hung out on the porch, talking with visitors about the Warfields. It was definitely a better experience, and prompted us to think about what other kinds of activities would better engage visitors.

The collaborative aspect has proved crucial. Along with their years of experience with visitors, Rangers have deep historical knowledge of their specific sites. Academic historians bring broad analytical context and depth of specialization. It’s a combination waiting to be exploited for maximum benefit in a public setting. Based on this year’s successful #MoreHistory day at Gettysburg, the Pickett’s Charge battlewalk may be a template worth imitating.

Chris Gwinn gets most of the credit (the walk was his idea, after all.) As a Ranger with over a decade of experience, he knows that guided walks pique people’s interests—and, here at Gettysburg, if you stick “Pickett’s Charge” in the promotion, it’s sure to attract a crowd.

I’ve taken advantage of a few of the free guided Pickett’s Charge walks during the July anniversaries of the battle, when visitor numbers peak. In July of 2021, there were well over 300 people stepping off from the Virginia state memorial as part of a one-mile walk over the dips and swells that undulate from Seminary Ridge to the highwater mark. This summer, there were easily over 100 visitors embarking from the North Carolina state memorial. Those walks, which understandably focus on the soldiers, tactics and fighting, were outstanding.

However, on the 2021 walk, the word slavery was never uttered. African Americans were never mentioned. On the 2022 walk, slavery was mentioned once, in the shadows of the trees around the North Carolina memorial, when it was noted that General Joe Davis, Jefferson Davis’s nephew, had increased his human property holdings as the war drew near. After that, though, despite finishing the walk over two hours later within ten feet from the Brian house’s north wall, Black people and Blackness vanished into the summer air.

When Chris, therefore, suggested a walk, I immediately said hell yes (or something like that.) Chris also brilliantly suggested doing the walk in reverse: instead of starting at the Virginia state memorial, topped by Robert E. Lee’s statue, or any of the other eight Confederate state memorials that sit along West Confederate Avenue, and walking uphill to the highwater mark as Pickett’s charge walks normally do, we’d start on the Union side, underneath General George Mead’s statue, and walk to the Virginia memorial. Metaphorically and physically, we’d be reenacting declension, going downhill from Union victory to Confederate commemoration.

On a pleasant September Saturday morning, Chris implanted in visitors’ minds that the battlefield was initially meant to be a sacred landscape commemorating a decisive Union victory. The questions, then, were what, how and why did that change, and what disappeared from view in those rolling hills. After that introduction, our group of about seventy or so marched to the Brian farm to tell their story, and then over to the Angle. Standing right about where the 1938 handshake photo was taken, Chris showed the group an enlarged photo, and I shared it via QR code (which most visitors took advantage of with their phones.) We asked visitors to examine what was in the background, consider the significance of the handshake taking place on the edge of the Brian farm, and keep that in mind as an example of how African Americans disappeared from the story the landscape told.

Next, we crossed Emmitsburg Road to the top of a ridge. Chris told stories of previous reunions that explicitly forbid Black veterans to attend—but allowed Black workers to attend to white veterans. I told stories of enslaved laborers and raised the question of loyalty of slaves who cared for wounded and dying Confederates—and complicated those Lost Cause narratives by telling the stories of unreliable laborers and escaping laborers like Charlie Wright, whose report first alerted the Union Army’s first intelligence wing that the Army of Northern Virginia was heading into Pennsylvania.[4] A man who was reportedly a descendant of Robert E. Lee decided to challenge Chris and I at that point, saying that 50,000 slaves fought for the Confederacy, and that we were ignoring how Union atrocities such as Sherman’s march through Georgia motivated soldiers to enlist. Most of the visitors, however, were unsympathetic to his mythology. The subsequent conversation was fascinating—and ultimately productive. We concluded at the Virginia memorial, discussing Lee’s enslavement, via his wife, of nearly two hundred African Americans, and connecting that to the early twentieth century controversies swirling around the Virginia memorial along with the 1913 reunion as a key point in the declension that we had reenacted.

White clapboard house with a field and fence in background.
Figure 1 VIew of the Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg National Military Park, from the front step of the Brian House, one mile away. Photo by author.


We ended with a visual and visceral exercise. When we started, on the Union side near Meade’s memorial, near the Brian Farm, we asked visitors to look across to the Virginia memorial, with its whitish forty one-foot concrete plinth, topped by Lee and his horse, framed by a semi-circle of trees. It’s quite easy to see the loser of the battle from a mile away. Standing underneath Lee, looking back to where we began, if you don’t know just where to look and what to look for, you have to squint and guess, because to see the statue of the winner, if war ever really has winners, is far more difficult to see.

View of battlefield with two historic buildings in back ground with arrows indicating their location.
Figure 2 VIew of General Mead’s Memorial at Gettysburg National Military Park, from the base of the Virginia Memorial, one mile away. Photo by author.

Today, it’s still nearly impossible to see the Black people whose presence, tramped down for a century and a half, is why this commemorative landscape exists. #MoreHistory and these kinds of collaborations can help us see them.

[1] I owe credit to Cameron Sauers, a Gettysburg College history major and 2021 graduate, who pointed briefly to the Brian farm in this photo in a video for the Gettysburg Compiler, one of Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute’s virtual publications.

[2] See Hilary Green, “The persistence of memory: African Americans and transitional justice efforts in Franklin County, Pennsylvania” in Reconciliation after Civil Wars: Global Perspectives, Paul Quigley and James Hawdon, eds., (Routledge: 2019): 131-149. See especially pp. 132-138; also see Edward L. Ayers, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (New York: 2017), 45-49.

[3] For an excellent survey and analysis of the historiographical discussion of memory and the American Civil War, see Nina Silber, “Reunion and Reconciliation, Reconsidered,” Journal of American History 103 (June, 2016): 59-83. David Blight’s Race and Reunion pushed the debate into high gear, and others have provided invaluable responses that complicate his seminal work. See Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2001); Barbara A. Gannon, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Cvil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Gannon, Americans Remember Their Civil War (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2017.)

[4] P. K. Rose, “The Civil War: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence” (1999) Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 76-77.

Scott Hancock

Scott Hancock, associate professor of History and Africana Studies, came to Gettysburg College in 2001. He received his B.A. from Bryan College in 1984, spent fourteen years working in group homes with teenagers at risk, and received his history PhD from the University of New Hampshire in 1999. His scholarly interests have focused on Black northerners’ engagement with the law, from small disputes to escaping via the Underground Railroad, during the Early Republic and Civil War eras. He has more recently begun exploring how whiteness has been manifested on post-Civil War memorializations of battlefields. His work has appeared in anthologies and Civil War History, and he has published essays on CityLab, Medium, and The Huffington Post. He can be contacted at shancock@gettysburg.edu or on Twitter @scotthancockOT.

11 Replies to “Walking with Enslaved and Enslavers at Pickett’s Charge (and Retreat)”

  1. Great article, thanks! The Gettysburg 150th anniversary had thousands of people tramping along the path of Pickett’s Charge. I took quite a few pictures of it. I’d be happy to share them!

  2. “… the murderously brutal conflict that took place only because of the presence of Black people in the country.” A brilliant turn of the phrase, professor. You are an asset to those who endeavor to explain to Black children and families why it is important for them to visit this place.

    1. Thanks Ralph for taking time to comment & for your encouragement. Hope your battlefield guiding is going well.

  3. The War Between The States was NOT a “Civil War”. A civil war is what happens when the population of a single nation or region begins fighting with one another. Take, for example, the civil war that occurred in Northern Ireland or in Syria.

    The War of Southern Independence was fought between the United States of America (the Union) and the Confederate States of America (the Confederacy). Both had their own separate capitols, governments and organized armies.

    The institution of slavery played a part, but so did Mr. Lincoln’s raising of import taxes (tariffs) on the imported manufactured goods from Great Britain and Europe on which the agricultural Southern states depended. The Southern economy was based on exchanging farm products such as cotton, tobacco and rice for finished goods from the industrialized countries of the old world. Mr. Lincoln and his Northern industrialist backers wanted high import taxes because their new factories could not compete on price with old established companies of Britain and Europe which had already amortized the cost of their production facilities.

    Basically, the War Between The States was brought on by the desires of Northern industrialists to gain sales in Southern markets from which they were excluded due to their higher cost of production.

    1. Thanks Mr. Thayer for taking time to comment. I’d encourage you to explore two things: the avalanche of scholarship over the last half century or more that is thoroughly grounded in original sources, and the original source themselves. I think you’ll find that the former does not support your argument & makes clear that tariffs was a relative non-issue when it comes to causation. And original sources make that even clearer. Here’s one quick & easy (though admittedly not comprehensive) test of this argument: check the declarations of secession and the Confederate constitution. How many of them mention tariffs and taxes as a reason for leaving the United States of America? How many mention slavery? What reasons do those documents give for secession?

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