At Gettysburg, worry over preserving history without sugarcoating

A House spending bill would cut Confederate monuments at Gettysburg from 40 to zero as nation grapples with its history of racism

The Virginia Memorial as seen Monday along West Confederate Avenue in Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pa. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The Virginia Memorial as seen Monday along West Confederate Avenue in Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pa. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 13, 2020 at 6:00am, Updated at 12:42pm

Corrected 12:42 p.m. | Like unblinking sentries on watch, monuments dot the southern and western edges of the Gettysburg National Military Park, where over three hot July days in 1863 the United States repelled an Army of rebels led by Robert E. Lee, whose invasion of Pennsylvania cost more than 50,000 casualties for both sides.

In all, there are 40 monuments to Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg, including 12 monuments to their secessionist states. That number could be zero if a section of a spending bill, which the House passed in July, becomes law. There is strong opposition to that provision and others in the Republican-controlled Senate.

In the final year of his first term, President Donald Trump is trying to extend his political future by banking on the past and defending monuments to Confederate leaders like Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Lee, who turned on their nation to preserve slavery.

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After protesters near the White House tried to topple a statue of Andrew Jackson, a president who owned slaves, Trump signed an executive order in June that directed law enforcement to prosecute those who damage federal monuments. He opposed an amendment from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to rename military bases named after Confederates. And he criticized NASCAR in July after it moved to ban the Confederate flag from its events.

On Monday, Trump said he would accept the Republican nomination Aug. 27 at either the White House or Gettysburg.

The House bill would direct the Interior Department, including the National Park Service, to inventory its lands for “all assets” with Confederate names and block the NPS from receiving money to purchase or display confederate flags except for purposes that provide historical context.

Critically to Ralph Siegel, activists and historians, the bill would also compel the NPS to remove "all physical Confederate commemorative works” from its lands — a category that includes “statues, monuments, sculptures, memorials and plaques” — within six months.

“To me they’re irreplaceable,” Siegel, a Gettysburg guide, said of the Confederate monuments. “Their removal would place a profound scar on the battlefield.”

Siegel estimated that he does 50 tours a year for 600 to 700 visitors to Gettysburg, which the NPS manages. In an interview, he said removing Confederate statues from Civil War sites would close a window to inform the public about a pivotal moment in American history and how Southern generations fought to recast the war history in a favorable light.

He and his fellow guides want the Senate to cut the removal provision.

“These monuments are an interpretation and teaching opportunity,” Siegel said, adding that debate over the role of the Confederate monuments has percolated since at least the 1960s. “The issues are very dramatic right now but they’re not new.”

Many state monuments at Gettysburg contain gritty details. Yet others advance a chapter of what historians call the “Lost Cause,” a deliberate manipulation of the history of the war to convince Americans it was not about slavery, that slavery was benevolent and to glorify the Confederacy.

“On this ground our brave sires fought for their righteous cause,” reads the first line of the Mississippi state monument.

Others bristle at the North Carolina statue, sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, who agreed to build Stone Mountain in Georgia and was friendly with the Ku Klux Klan.

Scott Hancock, an associate professor of history and Africana studies at Gettysburg College, backs placing clear, eye-catching markers around monuments that distort history.

Context

The Lee monument, which is 41 feet tall and doubles as the park's Virginia state monument, was dedicated in 1917. It perpetuates the notion the South’s commander was a docile, gentle owner of humans, Hancock said.

“That monument, without a fuller history,” Hancock said, reinforces the notion of Lee as a “kindly slave owner.”

[Confederate statues targeted for removal in series of House bills]

Hancock worries smaller signs at the base of imposing sculptures may have trouble drawing visitors’ eyes. “I want more history, not less,” he said. “Part of the problem with that bill is that it’s so sweeping.”

The NPS manages 38 sites where Civil War battles occurred, from small lesser-known places like Wilson’s Creek in Missouri and Cape Lookout in North Carolina to key locations during the war, such as Antietam in Maryland, Vicksburg in Mississippi and the Appomattox Court House, where Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant in 1865, in Virginia.

Confederate soldiers from North Carolina are honored on the state’s memorial at Gettysburg National Military Park for “sacrificing all in support of their cause.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

It’s unclear how many works that commemorate the Confederacy rest on NPS land, and there is no exhaustive national inventory.

In June, after the police killing of George Floyd, 44 percent of 1,900 registered voters responding to a Morning Consult poll said Confederate monuments should remain standing, down from 52 percent in August 2017. Thirty-two percent said they should be taken down, up from 26 percent of respondents who felt that way three years prior.

Alan Spears, senior director of cultural resources at the National Parks Conservation Association, said his organization supports a thorough but swift analysis across the National Parks System of what Confederate monuments possess historic value.

“We’d just like to take a breath, pause,” Spears said. “Gather info from experts.”

The guided tours generally focus on military tactics and are often tailored to visitors’ home states, meaning someone from Georgia, for instance, may get a walk-and-talk with intimate details of Georgia soldiers while side-stepping the broader themes of racism and slavery, Spears said.

“If we’re going to have national parks, let’s not sanitize them,” he continued. “National parks get us to the graduate level for American democracy.”

Rewriting history

Confederate monuments sprang up nationwide in two waves — around 1900, when states were implementing Jim Crow laws, and at the height of the civil rights movement during the late 1950s and 1960s. Confederate monuments erected on military sites follow the same trend.

“That’s in line with Blacks trying to enact their full and civil rights,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The twin prospects of renaming the military bases and removing monuments from federal land is thrilling, Brooks said.

“Statues and monuments venerate people just by the fact that they exist,” Brooks said. “It’s especially important that the National Park Service does not include statues that glorify white supremacy.”

The White House said July 23 in a memo it opposes the NPS provision, section 442 of the bill.

“This drive to edit history will not stop at the limits written into section 442,” the memo says. “President Trump has been clear in his opposition to politically motivated attempts like this to rewrite history and to displace the enduring legacy of the American Revolution with a new left-wing cultural revolution.”

‘Yankee Empire’

Donnie Kennedy, chief of heritage operations for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said his organization is urging the Senate to strip the removal section from its bill.

"There was a war, and some people, even though they're the victors, they still seem to have the idea that the defeated didn't have the right to express any pride in their heritage,” Kennedy, 72, said by phone.

He opposes placing historical markers around Confederate monuments and insists he has never seen a monument that mentions slavery.

“Anybody that throws out that red herring of slavery is simply doing it because they have no good reason, no good sound historical argument for the removal of those monuments,” Kennedy said. “There's a small group of people who seem to be dedicated to putting down the South at all counts,” he said. “And I refer to these people as part of the Yankee empire.”

The monument at Gettysburg National Military Park honoring Confederate soldiers from Louisiana. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Asked about Confederate monuments honoring men who fought to protect slavery, he replied, “Let's go over to the Yankee side and let me put I put my plaque up, explaining why the Yankees were cruel invaders.”

States paid for their monuments at Gettysburg, and many Confederate markers there and and at other Civil War battlefields chart the events of the battle or the tactics of a regiment without trumpeting the righteousness of human bondage.

On tours, Siegel said, he and other guides detail how the two armies clashed and maneuvered during the three days of fighting while also underscoring the salient point that the war was about insulating slavery.

“This is the story they were trying to perpetrate to justify the Confederate existence,” Siegel said. “We can show this to people,” he said. “Who’s going to be proud of fighting for white supremacy and the subjugation of the black race? No one’s going to be proud of that.”

On July 3, 1913, the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg, veterans of both armies recreated Pickett’s Charge, a famous maneuver during battle. They shook hands instead of shooting. Photographers captured the gray and blue greeting one another.

Spears notes who was not there: Black people.

“All those veterans were white men,” Spears said. “The healing was for white folks,” he said of the post-war period. “It wasn’t for people of color.”

Correction: This report was corrected to delete a reference to Andrew Jackson that implied he was a Confederate leader, the location of Cape Lookout, and the planned date and location for President Donald Trump's acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination.