Battle of Gettysburg – Brickyard*
In my East Coast home there are a number of souvenir shops that cater to tourists from around the country who come to visit the site of the single most important battle in US history, the Battle of Gettysburg. In three days in July of 1863 the future of this country was set on a course that impacts us today in ways we don’t even know.
The defeat of General Lee’s army on the third day of the battle was the beginning of the end of the system of slavery that was justified by the idea/belief that whites were superior to people of color.
In November of that same year Republican President Abraham Lincoln gave the famous Gettysburg Address, arguably the greatest speech ever given, to honor the thousands of soldiers who gave their lives at Gettysburg to support a country and system of government that held that all people are created equal. The speech was given at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery where most of those who gave their lives in the battle in defense of our nation are buried. It is truly hallowed ground that moves me every time I visit it.
Thousands more gave their lives at Gettysburg as enemies of the United States of America in an effort to retain the economic system of slavery. There were no speeches given on their behalf and for many years the bodies of the dead laid unmarked in piles in large holes that were quickly dug and then covered up. Years later women who had lost loved ones in the war formed an organization that recovered many of the remains and buried them in cemeteries in the South. No monuments were allowed on the battlefield to honor the confederate dead. They were, after all, traitors.
I recite this overly brief and incomplete history of the battle to get to a point that is relevant today. Lincoln’s armies ended slavery in the US, but they did not end the concept and belief in white supremacy. Sadly this idea is alive and kicking today.
In the afore mentioned souvenir shops you can buy tee shirts imprinted with the confederate flag and the phrase “Heritage not Hate.” You see many of these type of tee shirts being worn around Gettysburg. There is an assumption that the word “Heritage” explains somehow that the person wearing this shirt is really just honoring past history and some vague romantic concept of a way of life and a “lost cause” that is “Gone with the Wind”.
This is where I have to call bullshit on the idea of “Heritage” and those people who pretend that the confederate flag is not a racist symbol and that “Heritage” is not a code for white supremacy. This starts with you, Mr. President.
Many years after the battle of Gettysburg, the U.S. government allowed for the construction of monuments for the Southern fighters who lost their lives at Gettysburg. At the 75th anniversary of the battle there was a Peace Light with an eternal flame installed to help with reconciliation and healing. I think these efforts were appropriate and that these monuments help us to understand the gravity of the battle and show respect for the dead – even those traitors who fought against the United States, most of whom did not themselves own slaves and many of whom were conscripted.
Around the same time (early 20th century) many cities in the South, and a few in the border states, started erecting monuments to confederate generals and others associated with the Confederacy. They also named roads, schools, and other civic buildings after them.
I do not know the true motivation for these moves and I do accept the argument that there is some value in remembering who these people who fought and suffered in the war. It makes sense to me to have monuments and statues in a place like the battlefields of Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, or Chicamagua where my great-great-grandfather, Private Samuel K. Sayer of Company H/51st Ohio Infantry, was captured.
I don’t see the value of a statue of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, in a prominent location in a city unrelated to an historic battlefield or museum. This kind of statue makes the statement that “we were right all along and these are the people that you should look up to.” The message is subtle but clear to me as a white guy. I can only imagine how clear and intimidating this message is to people of color.
There is a huge difference between statues and symbols on battlefields and in museums and symbols in prominent civic locations near city halls and court houses. Former South Carolina Governor Nicki Haley clearly recognized this and took the wise and bold step of removing the confederate battle flag from state property. Other civic leaders have followed suit and moved to remove hate charged statues that do not represent the values of their citizens or our country.
Keep in mind that the statues almost exclusively focus on the generals and leaders of the Confederacy. They are not in tribute to the thousands of young men who fought bravely and suffered immensely nor are they solemn reminders of the horrors of war. The statues honor those who executed the war in an effort to keep slavery intact not the poor whites who actually did the fighting and who suffered the consequences.
Many of these symbols of the confederacy remain in prominent civic locations and will do so as long as people continue to honor those who believed strongly in white supremacy and were willing to fight against the United States of America to keep a system in place that enslaved millions of people.
Continued acceptance of the use of the symbols of the Confederacy emboldens and strengthens the KKK, Nazis, and other white supremacist hate groups. It is doubly important that our political and other influential leaders not condone the use of hate group symbolism. The Heritage they support is for whites only. (No Jews or LGBT either BTW.)
- The mural depicted at the beginning of this article is on the Coster Avenue Battlefield which is only about 50 yards from our home in Gettysburg. There was a major skirmish at the brickyard on the first day of the battle. The Union soldiers where conducting a holding action to delay the advance of the Confederate forces. This is an example of the use of the Confederate Flag in a public space that seems appropriate to me as it helps understand the event and is a reasonable approximation of what happened on that site.