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. 

7 thoughts on “Heritage”

  1. Dear Jim, Thank you for the excellent and thoughtful piece on current events. I love your Blog and the way you express yourself with positive sanity and clarity! Please keep up the good work and thoughts. Aloha mau loa, Jennifer

  2. Very thoughtful and insightful piece, Jim. I really appreciate your perspective from Gettysburg. The National Park Museum you and Marianne took us to there provides such an honorable, sensitive and historically accurate picture of the horrific battles that took place. As you say, it is an emotional experience to just be on the battlefield, with a deep sense of sorrow for all the lives lost, most of them young and not the powerful or mighty. We must get history right and tell it like it really was and learn from it. In our first visit to Atlanta in the 1980s, we went to the Cyclorama & Civil War Museum. It struck us at the time as a very skewed portrayal of the facts. The same can be said about many of the history books we grew up studying. Monuments uplifting the very people who were admired for their actions to keep slavery in place deserve no place of honor in the United States. While their names and stories need to be told for future generations, the focus needs to shift to the truth and the consequences of their actions. Consequences that continue to this day. Among the many current perspectives about the issue of monuments, I found this to be a good one: http://www.npr.org/2017/08/16/543881696/fact-check-whatabout-those-other-historical-figures-trumps-question-answered?utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=politics&utm_medium=social&utm_term=nprnews
    Again, thanks for your thoughts here.

  3. Well reasoned, Jim! Those Confederate public monuments are an impediment to the States ever becoming truly United. That many of us fail to truly comprehend the declared values of our nation is tragic. And the fact that we instituted slavery for those hundreds of years is unimaginable.

  4. Nice Jim! Martha thank you for the article at NPR, I enjoyed reading that too. — I remember doing an exercise in diversity at Safeco with you Jim, and the instructor would ask a question about opportunity, and if you got the opportunity in your life you could take a step forward. At the end of the exercise, the white people in the room had crossed the room back and forth and the people with darker skin were still near the beginning. One black man had only taken one step. That exercise is what clued me in….that is why I understand Black Lives Matter.

  5. After I read this aloud to my wife, Freda mentioned that the Daughter’s of the Confederacy were instrumental in raising the money to “honor” their family members who participated in the Confederate endeavor. Isn’t is sad that they didn’t have other ways to remember their elders, for accomplishments that truly advanced our civilization and culture of freedom and equality, and made the world a better place for all….?

  6. The Daughter’s of the Confederacy did more than just raise the money and monuments. Research suggests that elite southern women are most responsible for fashioning the Lost Cause image, transforming the confederate defeat into a political and cultural victory. And they perpetuated their values thru the education of their children influencing textbooks with a pro-confederate slant for decades. They did not want their children to regard their ancestors as traitors or rebels. They further created Children of the Confederacy that expanded in 1910 to carry on their southern values thru study and memorization of the Confederate catechism ( a book of call and response to questions about the “facts” of the southern past). Scary stuff that I bet in rural areas is still alive and well, unfortunately. Read Dixie’s Daughters by Karen Cox for a better understanding.
    Jim, I wish you could be one of our panelists on an upcoming Symposium I am helping to organize for the purpose of providing a platform for a free and open dialogue about changing the name of The Talmadge Bridge (that glorious iconic bridge that connects Savannah to South Carolina). Eugene Talmadge was a notorious white supremist with ties to the KKK with staunch segregationist views. He was a 4 time elected Governor from the 1940s but our beautiful bridge is only 25 years old! We’ve been trying all these years to rename it with no success because of intimidation by the Talmadge family & power machine. Now, after the violence in Charlottesville, our efforts are gathering steam. We’re hoping for a civil exchange and a clear consensus in spite of the “slippery slopers”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *