The Fourth of July is usually a big day in Gettysburg, coming, by coincidence, a day after the anniversary of the end of hostilities in town.
Usually, the holiday follows a reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point in the Civil War, and a pivotal moment in American history.
This Fourth of July was exceptionally busy in Gettysburg, with traffic moving at glacial speed all over town, but for reasons that may well be a reflection of our times and of the divisions that have existed in the country before the war between the states and ever since. Those divisions are exacerbated by this overheated political season playing out against a backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated economic crisis and the protests that have flared up all over the country, and the world, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
This year, in Gettysburg, the holiday was supposed to be, in some respects, a re-litigation of the Civil War, with Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist activists attempting to defeat the Confederacy by tearing down statues and desecrating Confederate graves and heavily armed people who call themselves patriots defending the monuments to the Lost Cause, as it’s called.
The battle was joined when some people took to the darker areas of social media – most notably on Facebook – to circulate rumors that Antifa, the anti-fascist organization, was coming to Gettysburg on the Fourth of July for a variety of reasons.
One post showed a poster that advertised a flag-burning, complete with Antifa members doing face painting, of all things. Another post suggested that 30,000 members of Antifa were planning to invade Gettysburg and its suburbs to kill white people and Trump supporters. That post also suggested that Antifa members had been setting off fireworks for weeks leading up to the holiday to inure people to the sound of gunfire so they wouldn’t call the police when Antifa began executing white people.
Both things turned out to be, as the president of the United States would say, fake news. The flag-burning event had been taken down by Facebook, and Antifa claimed it knew nothing about it. The post about Antifa’s supposed invasion of Gettysburg — which claimed that the borough police had confirmed it — turned out to be a fever dream of a far-right-wing conspiracy theorist. For their part, the Gettysburg police said they had never confirmed any such information and called it complete nonsense.
Antifa never showed and only a small group of protesters materialized. Only one skirmish apparently occurred, a reported shouting match between one of the patriots and a man wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. The combatants were quickly separated by authorities, witnesses said.
“Obviously, it was all made up,” said Kurt Andresen, a physics professor at Gettysburg College who visited the battlefield Sunday wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. “(The flag-burning event) was made up by a right-wing group to try to get a rise out of people. They got what they wanted.”
His friend, Chris Kauffman, a theater professor at Gettysburg College, said, “It’s like a pop-up white supremacist conference.”
Gettysburg was besieged by heavily armed people, some members of right-wing militias and others just people who have a lot of guns. Just walking around and observing, it seemed fair to conclude that there hasn’t been this much firepower present in Gettysburg since 1863.
A sizeable group of people armed with military-style semi-automatic weapons – a lot of AR-15s and a few AK-47s (a Russian weapon) – stood in the shade of a large oak by the entrance to the parking lot across Taneytown Road from the National Cemetery. They flew American and Confederate flags. Many wore T-shirts expressing their support of gun rights and Donald Trump.
A small contingent of armed people had stationed themselves at the Virginia Memorial on Confederate Avenue on the battlefield. A half-dozen agents of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – called in by the National Park Service to provide security — kept watch over them.
Among them was a guy named Nathan who made the nearly seven-hour drive to Gettysburg from Cuyahoga County in Ohio with three of his buddies to protect the Confederate monument from attack by protesters. He didn’t want to give his last name because his wife was angry with him for spending the holiday in Gettysburg rather than with his family.
He and his friends said they were members of the Ohio Militiamen, and they felt compelled to come to Gettysburg to protect monuments at the battlefield from vandalism.
“It’s history,” he said. “We learn from it so it doesn’t happen again.”
As he spoke, he said it was no different than people having to learn the history of Nazi Germany. When it was mentioned that there are no monuments to Hitler or other Nazis in Germany, he said, “The United States is a different culture. It’s different here.”
Across the street, Chuck and Kathy Miller kept watch. Chuck was wearing camo with “Mercenary” stitched above one of his shirt’s pockets and had an AR-15 slung on his back. Cathy was packing a 12-gauge shotgun and had a 9mm Glock on her hip. (Chuck said he’s retired but that he couldn’t say what he did for a living.)
They drove to Gettysburg from Shippensburg, Chuck said, “to back up law enforcement.”
“We heard BML or BLM or whatever was going to show up, and after what they pulled in Utah last night…” Chuck said.
Utah? Did he mean South Dakota?
“Yeah, South Dakota,” he said.
He said, “I don’t mind people coming to protest. Just keep your mouth shut.”
He said his great-great-grandfather died at Gettysburg, fighting for the Union. Did he think it was odd that he would be defending a memorial dedicated to the forces that killed his ancestor?
“It’s all history,” he said. “They don’t teach history in school anymore. People don’t have any respect. We’re here to show the younger generation we’re not going to put up with this.”
Scott Hancock, a history professor at Gettysburg College, and a friend – both of them Black – went to Confederate Avenue to plant Black Lives Matter flags at the monuments to the Confederate troops from North Carolina, Virginia and Mississippi. He said counter-protesters took them down and tore them up within minutes.
“They don’t care about freedom of speech; they care about their freedom of speech,” he said.
They also got followed by bikers, and Hancock said it was scary.
He had attended a similar gathering three years ago and said that one was more peaceful. He sensed something had changed. Now, he said, it seemed people are angrier and more aggressive. He said people surrounded him and his friend as they approached the monuments. They yelled, “Go get your welfare check” at them.
“It seems like something has shifted since 2017,” he said.
Down the road from the cemetery, Bill Humpf handed out what he called “anti-Antifa” literature under a small canopy erected within the confines of cattle fencing, one of two areas set up in a grass field for groups that had applied for permits to be in Gettysburg.
Humpf, a 69-year-old retired printer from Lancaster who runs a website called AmericanAction.US, which promotes conservative values, provided literature that dismissed calls for reparations for slavery, and listed acts of political violence since Trump’s election, among other things. His take on Confederate statues, though, appeared contrary to many of those who consider themselves conservatives.
He believes Confederate statues on the battlefield or in a museum must be preserved. But he thinks that other statues should be replaced with those honoring “true heroes from the South.”
“The attachment to the Confederacy by some Americans is misplaced loyalty,” he wrote in his hand-out titled “Confederate Statues.” “The Confederacy was fighting to retain slavery through States Rights. How can you justify that?”
He suggests putting the Civil War behind us and uniting against “America’s enemies – Black Lives Matter, NAACO, KKK, New Black Panthers, Nation of Islam, CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), La Raza, the Nazi Party and expose black on white crime.”
He suggests erecting statues of American heroes from the South, including Audie Murphy, the six Medal of Honor winners from North Carolina and Edwin G. Seibels, a South Carolinian who invented the filing cabinet, among others.
He initially thought the confrontation between Black Lives Matter and Antifa and those opposed to them would occur. “I thought they would do it,” he said. “But I didn’t believe they could get 30,000 people. Maybe they could get 500 or a 1,000.”
And he had hoped that the Ku Klux Klan would stay away. “Those guys are idiots,” he said.
Jason Martz, the acting public affairs officer for the park service at the battlefield, said the park service “prepared for the worst and hoped for the best,” working with law enforcement from the local, state and federal governments to keep the peace.
He said this gathering was reminiscent of one on the Fourth of July in 2017, when similar rumors of leftist desecration to the battlefield and cemetery circulated, and a large group of heavily armed people came to defend the park. No such desecration occurred, and the only casualty of the event was one of the armed people accidentally shooting himself in the thigh.
Asked what this gathering says about our times, Martz thought for a moment.
“That’s the $30,000 question,” he said. “I guess it’s very representative of what’s going on now.”
Evening Sun reporter Mariana Veloso contributed to this report.
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