“Why are they angry? That’s what I want to know,” said Irish Whaley, 61, the sole Black woman attending the tiny Saturday demonstration. “You’re going to tell me all lives matter, but you’re going to yell and scream at me like my life don’t matter.”
Nearly 160 years after a battle here helped turn the tide of the Civil War, Gettysburg is once again riven by conflict. The acrimony — including angry confrontations and arrests — has not yet led to serious violence, let alone the kind of bloodshed this town endured over three days in 1863. But clashes have gradually escalated, and Saturday a Democratic state senate candidate attending a Black Lives Matter demonstration was shoved to the ground.
The divisions on display in Gettysburg are emblematic of tensions gripping Pennsylvania and the nation as the presidential election approaches. Disputes over race, social justice, identity and Americans’ understanding of their own history have played out here in vivid fashion, with Black Lives Matter demonstrators facing off against counterprotesters toting AR-15 rifles in plain view of the diners at the Blue and Gray Bar & Grill.
Jacob Schindel, president of the Gettysburg Borough Council, lamented the extent to which demonstrators on both sides appear to be talking past each other.
“I think Gettysburg is really just a microcosm of the larger environment,” he said.
The trouble began on the Fourth of July, when armed right-wing groups descended on the town’s battlefields in response to hoax predictions on social media of a flag-burning. Calm did not return after they left.
For months, the town square has been a stage for protesters on the political left and right screaming each other down. Homegrown “Trump trains” — caravans of dozens of cars, trucks and motorcycles, honking and waving flags for the president’s reelection campaign — have regularly roared through the mostly White borough of 8,000.
“A lot of folks have just had it with the hubbub of what’s going on,” said Gettysburg Police Chief Robert W. Glenny Jr., whose department of a dozen full-time officers has repeatedly been called into the fray and this month arrested three demonstrators for disorderly conduct.
The conflict is being fanned by Pennsylvania’s role as a pivotal swing state in the presidential race, with polls showing a tight contest between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden. Gettysburg is home to a left-leaning liberal arts college but sits deep in a swath of rural Pennsylvania that strongly supported Trump in 2016.
But the debate is also about this town’s symbolic stature in American consciousness — what Gettysburg should mean and to whom. The battle that made it famous, some residents note, is seldom celebrated for what it was: a victory that advanced the cause of ending slavery and led to Abraham Lincoln’s vow that the nation “shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Instead, visitors often immerse themselves in the minutiae of the opposing sides’ military tactics. The reverence exhibited for soldiers’ valor can at times blur uncomfortably into “Lost Cause” nostalgia for states that fought to defend white supremacy. Confederate statues have been toppled across the country, but Gettysburg’s 40 monuments to the slaveholding states and their soldiers remain untouched.
“Very few Black people, in my experience, come to Gettysburg. It’s not a very welcoming place, and the emphasis is on strategy rather than emancipation,” said Karl Mattson, who retired as Gettysburg College’s chaplain 19 years ago and still lives in town. “The hope is that a different narrative will develop.”
To that end, Mattson, White and 86, has begun distributing hundreds of signs around town aimed at rebranding Gettysburg’s legacy: “This battle was fought because Black lives matter.”
‘I’m no terrorist’
Not long after he came to Gettysburg as a Pennsylvania State Police officer in 1994, Shawn Palmer made a traffic stop that would stay with him.
As a Black officer in overwhelmingly White Adams County, Palmer was accustomed to uncomfortable encounters. But as he approached the pickup truck he had pulled over for speeding, he braced himself: It was decorated with the Confederate battle flag, and the vehicle bore a license plate with the words, “Don’t worry, boys. The South will rise again.”
After an amiable interaction, Palmer gave the driver a warning, then asked if he was from the South.
“He said, ‘Oh, no. I’m from Chambersburg,’” Palmer recalled — a small town 25 miles west of Gettysburg that was burned by Confederate cavalry during the Civil War. “I just laughed.”
As Palmer began to study the Civil War in greater detail, he became increasingly perplexed by the worship of the Confederacy evident around Gettysburg. “It’s comical, but in another sense its almost alarming,” he said, “that people will fly the Confederate flag and the American flag together as if they were the same country.”
On July Fourth, Palmer joined a friend — Scott Hancock, a Black professor of history and Africana studies at Gettysburg College — on an excursion to some of the battlefield’s Confederate monuments. Hancock had been organizing similar trips for several years. He and those who joined him would carry signs displaying historical documents with information about Confederate leaders’ views on race and on why the war was fought.
This year, the group met with an unprecedented reaction. Hundreds of armed men and women had turned out in response to online rumors of an American flag-burning. Hancock said some people yelled at him to go back to Africa or said that he just wanted to collect his welfare check. At Mississippi’s monument, camouflaged men were lying in the grass with rifles. Hancock’s group ultimately left and were trailed by men on motorcycles until they reached a police command station.
“It felt like we went so far back on that day,” Palmer said, recalling his feeling that America, again, “was almost on the brink of Civil War.”
Demonstrations had begun in town after the killing of George Floyd in late May. But in August armed men and women began to appear alongside the Black Lives Matter protests, which were increasingly dominated by activists from out of town.
Frank Marrone, the Gettysburg resident who organized some of the counter-protests, said his goal was to offset the protesters’ message with a “pro-America, pro-gun, pro-Trump” argument that supported rather than attacked the police. He said the weapons were not meant to intimidate those on the other side.
“We believe in law and order. They believe in feelings. So if they feel uncomfortable with a rifle, they’re going to cry about it,” Marrone said. “I’m no terrorist. I’m no Nazi. I’m not going out there to do a mass shooting in the square.”
Marrone, who said he was a Democrat for 25 years and voted for Obama in 2008, said he recognizes the right of Black Lives Matter protesters to speak out but that they should not be allowed on the town square using vulgar language and spooking the tourists who are finally returning to restaurants and shops devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Who’s to say that freedom of speech has to be on the main square in one of the most historic towns in America, where there’s diners?” Marrone said. “I don’t like what happened to George Floyd no more than anyone else. It has nothing to do with Gettysburg, and they’re not changing anything.”
On Oct. 3 — just a few days before Biden delivered a campaign speech at Gettysburg calling for national unity — demonstrators on both sides faced off in what had become a Saturday ritual. Police made three arrests, including two Black Lives Matter protesters.
‘Did we not learn?’
One of them was Leslie Mon-Lashway, 43, a White former overnight baker at Giant Food who was accused by police of “shouting vulgarities” and was cited for disorderly conduct.
Mon-Lashway, who lives in Hanover, about 15 miles east of Gettysburg, said she and other Black Lives Matter activists have been unfairly targeted by Gettysburg police, while their armed antagonists have been ignored.
Mon-Lashway acknowledged using profanity on her signs and in some of her dealings with counterprotesters and belligerent passersby but said police should also be cracking down on the counterprotesters.
“It’s definitely something that’s been escalating,” she said, “and when they’re not held to the same standard, that physical, violent behavior is not going to stop.”
On Saturday afternoon, a small group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators was marching near the town square with Rich Sterner, the Democratic challenger to incumbent State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R). When a young man approached and began screaming at the group, denouncing antifa, the 65-year-old Sterner said he tried to calm him down and was shoved to the ground. Sterner later received stitches in his hand.
“We need human decency to rise up again,” Sterner said Monday. “This is just beyond the pale that this kind of stuff is going on in the United States.”
Gettysburg resident Zachary Moore, 22, was arrested for pushing Sterner and cited for harassment, said Glenny, the police chief. The charge can lead to a fine of up to $300 and up to 90 days in jail. Moore could not be reached for comment.
Glenny said that vulgar language to accost or intimidate others also merited the previous arrests made by his officers and that he had no authority to forbid counterdemonstrators from carrying guns in public. He also said he fears an effort to clear out counterdemonstrators could provoke more radical elements to descend on the town.
“If you tell these folks who are carrying the guns now, ‘You can’t come,’ then my fear is what we get is the — what’s the word I’m looking for — the ultra, ultra folks, the anti-government folks,” he said.
Even some in town who support the movement for Black lives have reservations about the actions of Mon-Lashway and her fellow protesters.
Jenny Dumont, a Spanish professor at Gettysburg College and head of the left-leaning activist group Gettysburg Rising, said she was “really alarmed” by the presence of armed, right-wing activists on the town square. But she also took issue with the tactics used by some of the Black Lives Matter protesters, saying they were too quick to let themselves be drawn into profanity-laced confrontations with the other side.
“I don’t want to come off as if I’m criticizing them,” she said. “But I don’t understand what their long-term goal is.”
Dumont is taking a different approach, working to include more Black history in the town’s public school curriculum and advocating alongside Hancock for new monuments on Gettysburg’s battlefields to honor enslaved people. Like Mattson, she believes the town is overdue for a rebranding that recognizes the battle as a milestone in the centuries-long Black struggle for freedom.
In the meantime, as what may be the most divisive presidential election in modern U.S. history approaches, Americans continue to visit Gettysburg in an effort to understand a different era of division.
On a recent Saturday, after the shouting and signs had disappeared from the town square, visitors quietly wandered Little Round Top several miles to the south. An ember-red sun was dipping into the hills above Plum Run Valley, better known by its nickname: the Valley of Death. The scene was steeped in an eerie serenity that often impresses visitors to the site of one of America’s bloodiest battles.
Heather McClintock-Racz stood on the slopes wearing 19th century widow’s weeds and a broad hat.
“I do Union,” said McClintock-Racz, a historical reenactor from Downingtown, Pa. Nevertheless, she said, Confederate memorials have an important place on the battlefield. “When you come out here,” she said, “how are you going to understand the terrain without these monuments and these markers?”
McClintock-Racz marveled at the scale of the violence that once swept over the fields around her — roughly 50,000 casualties over three days.
“Think of the damage that happened to the country,” she said. “My question is: Did we not learn from that?”
What, exactly, should Americans have learned? McClintock-Racz admitted she didn’t know.