Flag Controversies and Race Politics in a Civil War Town

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A Confederate flag hanging outside a shop in Gettysburg, PA.A Confederate flag hanging outside a shop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Joey Rozier/Flickr)Flanked by hills and mountains, the quiet farm country of the Shenandoah Valley thrives on the annual wave of tourists that flood the historic basin every Fourth of July by motorcycle, minivan and motorhome to experience Gettysburg’s Civil War monuments, re-enactments and ghost tourism.

Gettysburg was invaded by Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces on July 1, 1863, at the tail end of a month-long rampage through southern Pennsylvania. Eventually losing the three-day battle in what was the first major defeat for the South and one of the conflict’s few encounters north of the Mason-Dixon line, Lee would go on to apologize for what has been maligned by military scholars as his greatest blunder. There were three days of fighting in the surrounding wheat fields and peach orchard, and storied charges up Culp’s Hill, Little Round Top and Devil’s Den. The ensuing 46,000 casualties changed the heart of this small Pennsylvania town forever.

The businesspeople of Gettysburg found themselves well equipped to supply the sudden demand for the Confederate flag.

At the war’s end and federally enforced Reconstruction’s beginning, the Confederate battle flag was socially ostracized throughout the South by the Republican-imposed radical state governments that oversaw the post-war transition. Demonstrated through the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in December 1866, the ideology of Confederate pride made secretive emergences throughout the period to enforce repressive Black Codes and superstitions of white “haints” and ghosts of fallen soldiers on night patrols to terrorize Black citizens (see The Ku Klux Klan: A History of Racism and Violence for more on this).

The Confederate flag was largely policed out of public view by the Northern veterans who fought against the banner and enforced a singular nationalism up until the first re-enactment on the eve of the US involvement in World War I in 1914. For example, in nearby Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in 1905, a doctor whose wife was of Southern heritage had flown the rebel flag out of their third-story window at the time when a Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) veterans post were having a reunion: The soldiers threatened to shoot at the window if the flag was not taken down, which it promptly was, according to a May 31, 1905, article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

After the 1913 reunion, the transition from illicit symbology to honorable lost cause in a unified nationalism foisted a new white unity into the segregated veins of the United States. As David W. Blight details in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, the Confederate battle flag, taken up by segregationist Dixiecrats after World War II and white hate groups like the Klan, further buttressed its racialized symbolism with a foundational principle of white supremacy in the Confederate States of America.

Tensions Resurface Over the Confederate Flag in Gettysburg

Gettysburg has been home to historical and cultural re-enactments for more than 100 years, featuring people decked out in a range of dress from the 19th century: the sutler, the musician, the woman in mourning; throngs of blue and gray, butternut and brass. Every Fourth of July, the borough hosts a re-enactment of a chosen clash from the Battle of Gettysburg. The first re-enactment of this historic battle was in 1913 at the Stone Wall, an area of heavy artillery fire into the Southern lines during Pickett’s Charge: Veterans of the war from both sides portrayed a mock charge toward reconciliation on the battle’s 50th anniversary. A living dedication followed next on the 75th anniversary in 1938 by the 2,500 Civil War veterans who remained. Since 1996, an organized re-enactment has occurred in the surrounding farmlands every Fourth of July weekend by Civil War enthusiasts.

On two occasions in the past 19 years the event had been postponed: in 2003 and this year. The official statement given by Andrea DiMartino, spokeswoman for the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee, was that the cancellation was not due to the most recent Confederate flag controversy, but because of the amount of rainfall in the area.

On the heels of the highly politicized murder of nine Black worshippers on June 17 at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a 21-year-old white supremacist, the Confederate flag received a public attention not seen since the mid-1990s as the Ku Klux Klan waxed yet again in its irruptive hate cycle. A major debate arising from this tragedy along the racial rift in the United States was over the state-sanctioned public display of the flag on governmental grounds in Southern states, which still raised the tethered cotton vestiges (South Carolina since 1961, and Alabama since 1963). DiMartino extended the committee’s contributions by adding that “the Confederate flag was not designed to be anything but a representation of their (Southerners) country, so no, I don’t believe it affects the re-enactment at all … They’ll still be flying their flags.”

The Park Service and Local Businesses Debate Confederate Flag Sales

As a historian, I have made this pilgrimage to Gettysburg four times in the last three years, primarily over the re-enactment weekend, occasionally by accident but habitually for the mystique. Walking the familiar streets in the dank July evening this year, bodies shuffled and grunted and side-eyed along the main commercial streets. Half expecting the crowd to have relocated to other US venues on account of the major cancellation, to my surprise the streets were filled with people and charged with tension. An air of hostility accompanied the usual middle-aged couples walking silently from shop to parlor. The hot breeze lifted fresh Confederate flags swaying from porches and windows on storefronts where sun-bleached T-shirts and army surplus banners had once hung.

In Gettysburg gift shops, the obvious dearth of Black or abolitionist souvenirs emphasized the tired presence of faded screen prints of Jefferson Davis.

The businesspeople of Gettysburg found themselves well equipped to supply the sudden demand for the Confederate flag and any merchandise displaying it. The usual patriotic fare, apparel and lobby art correlating Civil War soldiers with police officers and Iraq war veterans had been usurped by various trinkets proclaiming “heritage not hate”; previously found in dusty piles at the rear, these Confederate trinkets were now front and center above the cash registers. One could allow that the free market profit motive promotes the sale of an endangered commodity, yet the Yankee equivalent, shirts of the Confederate flag bearing the message, “the flag for losers since 1865,” were not located among the tchotchkes. The inherited belief in the rebel symbol yet again reinscribed new meaning on made-in-China nylon. First, the “Lost Cause” home fires of dispossessed Southern gentlemen; then, Jim Crow border enforcement stretching through the civil rights era; now, in July 2015, a guttered racist torch pulling double-duty as an image of embattled small entrepreneurship. With major retailers like Walmart and Amazon banning the sale of the flag, the touristy Disney-end of Gettysburg entered the market as the savior of free speech with slogans printed on a red field and blue-spangled cross: “Keep It Flyin”; “Never Goin Down.”

In many shops, white storekeepers discussed with eager white patrons the importance of the flag’s sale: The political correctness of an effete America and the shadowy, ever-encroaching “they” flowed from their tongues, as if an army had dug in atop the Blue Ridge plotting the town’s invasion. Much of the impetus locally for this aggressive vending was related to the National Park Service Visitor Center bookshop’s negotiations concerning the flag shortly after the Charleston massacre.

Initially, like that of the anniversary committee, the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center Foundation, which operates the bookstore, declared that they would continue to sell merchandise with the symbol, citing the relevance it holds to the battlefield. However by June 25, one week before the holiday weekend swell, a statement was released by the National Park Service proclaiming that, “We strive to tell the complete story of America.” The statement added that “Any stand-alone depictions of Confederate flags have no place in park stores,” further solidifying the national role of history maker under the seemingly untroubled Stars and Stripes.

At our Gettysburg campground, several tents on either side of ours made the symbolic gesture of affixing the Confederate flag to torqued tent poles with bread ties and twine. These do-it-yourself efforts brought the occasional inquiry from re-enactors passing by and mistaking us – “We see you like the rebel flag?” My response was to make sure we were not confused for anything but visitors with abolitionist principles, which was followed by the inquirer’s caveat that they didn’t see anything wrong with it and God bless America.

The Whitewashing of Civil War History

In the Gettysburg gift shops that I entered, the obvious dearth of Black or abolitionist souvenirs depicting widely venerated icons such as John Brown, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass and the Massachusetts 54th United States Colored Troops (USCT) emphasized the tired presence of faded screen prints of Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln and William Sherman, none of whom were at Gettysburg those three days in July. The larger motifs of a bearded president, a white-haired general and a reluctant soldier fit more appropriately in line with the Gettysburg High School’s mascot, an indigenous head-dressed warrior.

The Gettysburg Address transformed the battle from an intensely local trauma into the centerpiece of the national narrative of the entire conflict.

Few Black voices are heard and even fewer Black faces are seen in the historical displays in Gettysburg, apart from select displays in the Gettysburg Foundation’s Visitor Center Museum and overshadowed markers on side streets. These near misses on the tourist’s path further disenfranchise those most affected in the long term by the stakes raised in the historical moments that were commemorated here in the battlefield. The nearest point of engagement with the Black experience within the tourist district is located at Gettysburg’s Dobbin House, which contains a crawl space used during the mid-1800s for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. Ahead of Lee’s army of Northern Virginia, which marched into Pennsylvania in 1863 with more than 6,000 slaves, raiding parties of the Confederate invasion carried out a “slave hunt” by entrapping freedmen they encountered and adding them to the bonded masses. In stark contrast to the trains of runaway slaves who followed General Sherman’s troops through Georgia on his march to the sea in 1864, these men, women and children were made to carry out tasks as commanded like digging earthworks, cooking, driving supply and accompanying their dead master’s body home.

In response, Northern Black volunteers constructed barricades, actively resisted and fired upon these raiders throughout the course of the month-long Gettysburg campaign and served in the auxiliary during the culminating battle. In addition to the history of slave owning in colonial Pennsylvania, Black locals were quite familiar with resistance to white slavers intruding from Maryland, Unionist but slave-holding and a mere 17 miles south. The Battle of Gettysburg for them was a fight toward liberation of those bonded and the end to terrorism against their harried Northern community.

Fortunately, we had learned of a project to begin a Gettysburg Black History Museum from a previous visit in 2014. But after formation of a board of directors and an election of President Ron Bailey in 2011, the opening of a physical museum, which was to be located in Old Gettysburg Village, had faced recurring setbacks. Stopping into the visitor’s centers and museums in the area, we asked every desk clerk we came across about it and received the fuzzily ambiguous answer that either the museum had never opened or didn’t exist. Eventually locating the address where the museum was to be established, we were greeted by a pet store offering both Union and Confederate dog costumes.

When asked, the shop owners declared that the museum never got off the ground and that there was a problem with the grant funding, the implication being that the group had taken the money and run. Whether this storefront was in fact the intended location didn’t matter; the first problem was that we were unable to find the site after inquiring of the information sector; the second was the continued whitewashing of how history is to be told and who is properly equipped for its telling. I was dismayed at the cliché but reminded myself that these were small business owners who do not receive funding from what is the smallest federal humanities pot in over a decade. The story of 1860 Gettysburg and its 200 Black residents of the historically Black Third Ward, many of whom attended the local St. Paul AME church, a prominent stop on the Underground Railroad, remains a contrasting narrative in today’s time of need.

Why Memorialization Matters

The tourism economy of Gettysburg relies on the National Military Cemetery, famously dedicated on November 19, 1863, and the historical preservation of the battlefield site by the National Park Service. The Gettysburg Address, delivered by President Lincoln at Evergreen Cemetery just a stone’s throw from the current tourism district, transformed the battle from an intensely local trauma into the centerpiece of the national narrative of the entire conflict. In a sense, Gettysburg has endured as much on the mythology of place as on the museum and battlefield’s tactical account of the battle, and sometimes despite it.

Gettysburg was the largest battle in North America, let alone of the Civil War, as well as the largest loss of life for both the North and South, yet the mythology of place and the landscape of memorials produce two different narratives. What is starkly apparent when touring the massive grounds of the military park and cemetery is that of the 1,328 historical markers and monuments and the thousands buried, only 30 markers are dedicated to the Confederacy.

Following the battle, Southern prisoners and Black residents dug the shallow graves on site where the Confederate soldiers lay for seven years as opposed to the internment of some 3,500 white Union troops in the nearby town cemetery within months. At the end of the conflict, Confederate social organizations like the Wake County Ladies Association funded the removal of some 3,200 remains to be shipped back to Southern centers like Richmond, Savannah and Charleston. Even further to the point, those Black residents engaged and USCT enlisted during the war were segregated from the National Cemetery and eventually interred at a site called Lincoln Cemetery in 1867, which was founded by their community leaders, the Sons of Good Will. Located a few blocks west of the tourist district, this graveyard also entombs early Black residents of Gettysburg who were displaced from the “colored cemetery” just north of town, which was cleared for a housing development in 1906. A Veterans Day commemoration is held at the Lincoln Cemetery for USCT veterans by Black re-enactors on Dedication Day every year.

Similarly, the mass memorializing that began through G.A.R. posts and other Northern veterans’ associations populated the landscape with faces and arms of granite and copper. The Confederate veterans were decidedly opposed to contributing their memorials to what was not only a military defeat for the South but more importantly a freshly christened federal sanctuary for all that the Yankee stood for: free labor, governance and the subsumption of the individual into the larger structures of power, which would characterize the United States for the next century.

Of the 30 memorials, mostly located on Confederate Avenue, only five were dedicated before the 1913 “reconciliation” reunion. The Confederacy invaded with flags raised as an occupying force in order to push its intentions toward a peace agreement on Washington’s doorstep. However, the Northern victory in the battle turned the war and cemented Gettysburg, in the words of Lincoln, as a symbol of “the last full measure of devotion” for unification of the country and as a “dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The contrasts between the use of symbolism for historical production at the battlefield site and those represented in it could not be at greater odds.

As the final Civil War sesquicentennial year transitions to 150 years since Reconstruction, the importance of this formative period in American identity is still recast, as demonstrated by a town invaded those many years ago only to take up the raiding banner today. Museums, at the federal, state and community level, exist to help walk us into the facilitated controversy that is our nation’s past. These necessary institutions are but one sector of public engagement for what should always be a narrative that confronts us from doorstep to workplace. The ground itself needs this memory imprint, from first peoples to last, not just for the descendents of a slaver’s generation, but also for those of an enslaved generation.