Confronting Past, Present & Privilege — I Protested A Confederate Rally

If I had been shot, it would have been at Gettysburg. The war, I read, had ended, and it dwelt now in the realm of memory. It was tired. Its books were thick. But I could hear drum beats across the valley, had caught the fading aroma of black powder, and I knew that the war was not over for the men and women who lost it. They meant to dig out their old Confederacy and restore the glory it never had. They would march north and demand reparations for the pain of political correctness. They would demand their supremacy.

They made it to Gettysburg on July 1, 154 years after the first of three days that would mark the war’s bloodiest battle and the Confederates’ northernmost advance, spurred by a rumor that members of Antifa, a militant anti-fascist organization, intended to take to the battlefield and burn Confederate flags.

A number of far-right and Lost Cause organizations, including the KKK, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Mechanized Cavalry, requested permits from the National Park Service to gather and protect their flag and the memory of those who fought for it. Mounted NPS law enforcement officers were on site, as well as the local police.

Antifa never showed. Instead, their posed threat became the rallying cry for perhaps the largest gathering of armed Confederates in Gettysburg since 1863, a conglomeration of Trump supporters and assorted First and Second Amendment warriors equipped with loaded guns from Colt pistols to assault rifles. Some wore body armour and carried knives. All flaunted the Stars and Bars in the most ostentatious display of resentment I have ever seen.

I walked up to Meade’s Headquarters with my friend, another woman Civil War scholar, with only one objective in mind: to show these proud Confederates--one might call many of them Lost Causers--that they could not win by way of fear. I wanted them to know that their rhetoric is not deserving of public land, and that their ancestral ties to the unending Civil War are meant to be observed with modest solemnity and empathy, not celebration.

If I could not convince them to respect existence that was not strictly white, Christian, heterosexual, and their own, I would at least use my safety and privilege as a middle class white person to disrupt their homogenous environment from the inside out. I would be one of many to dissent.

On the subject of slavery as the cause of the war, I knew, and still know, that I could never change their minds. It does not matter on what the top scholars agree, or what the credible books conclude, or what the first-hand documents show because the claim is an affront to the great-great uncle in gray who died defending Virginia and the great-great-great aunt who lived under Union occupation. Slavery is a crime from which they feel excused, yet while they argue for their innocence on the premise that so many years have passed since emancipation was proclaimed, they continue to relieve the war over which it was fought as if it had never been lost. They continue to pledge allegiance to the Confederate States of America and fly their battle flags. I have heard them compare Lincoln to Hitler, an analogy that I'm sure my ancestors, Russian and Ukrainian Jews, would be quick to refute.

Our actions atop Cemetery Ridge that day were not dramatic, and I am not even sure they noticed at first. While various group leaders took turns spitting venom into the bullhorn, fallacies about Black Lives Matter and immigration, I quietly took my friend’s hand, and we stood together in proud defiance, a feminine anomaly before a wall of heteronormative intolerance. She put her arm around me; I kissed her on the cheek. We cheered when they mentioned the feminists and the gays, and when one man asked, rhetorically and unfortunately, what the Civil War was really about, we told them.

When they began to notice us, they laughed, shook their heads, took a few photos, but we were infecting their space, ruining its sanctity and purity, and their glances became less jovial as the afternoon wore on. The crowd roared and the sun beat, and we continued to stand palm in sweaty palm through the painful claims that police brutality against black people did not exist, that feminists should not argue for equality unless they were willing to let their male partners beat them, that Islam is evil and refugees are not welcome. Our two voices in argument could never overpower the sound of the bullhorn and its worshippers, but our two hands together, my lips on her cheek, caused a ripple that rocked their bones and fueled their hate. As the rally wound down, one woman in camo walked past us and proclaimed, “I’m gonna beat those girls. I really want to beat them right now.”

She never did. I was not shot at Gettysburg that day. 

My friend and I did not change any minds. Instead, we became a visible, tangible protest, and I can only hope we served to remind them that their hate is not impenetrable. The more I reflect, however, the more I come to see that the rally and our subtle protest was not about me, nor was it ever meant to be. I could stand atop Cemetery Ridge surrounded by racists with loaded guns, and as much as they hollered about the feminists and the gays and wanting to beat me for holding a woman’s hand, I would always be safe behind my middle class whiteness. But when I watched a back family walk past the protest on what should have been a normal day at the park, an opportunity for their young child to develop a relationship with the past, I became suddenly and hopelessly overwhelmed by the reality of racial America. 

What was a casual Saturday protest for me was a violent nightmare and a traumatic flashback from which marginalized people cannot escape, as it has become the present. While I grew up in a household where it was perfectly fine to be queer, echoes of, “I really want to beat them right now” remind me that I will never understand the scorn of an unaccepting or abusive family member, that sixteen trans women of color have been murdered this year, that some people have been denied the right to serve their country because they are considered a burden.

The LGBTQ community is not a burden, nor are people or color or Muslims or immigrants or feminists. The burden instead falls on the champions of the Lost Cause, those who value their right to hate over an entire community’s right to live. It falls upon the organizations that will not acknowledge that the American Civil War was fought over slavery and the individuals who are blind to the slavery that still persists in America. It falls upon the privileged, like myself, to use the rhetorical space we are given in society to create space and advocate for those who have none.

The KKK and Sons of Confederate Veterans and gunslingers will return to Gettysburg. They always do. I do not imagine they will change their minds, but perhaps they will see two men holding hands, a black family, a Muslim woman in a hijab, and the flag will not feel so comfortable in their hands.