Being the history nerd I am and living so close to the area, I spent the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3) on the beautiful fields where that awful conflict happened. I've made the pilgrimage to Gettysburg for that grim battle's anniversary for years.
I've devoted myself to teaching my fellow Americans about what our ancestors endured during our Civil War.
There are few places in the world that are more sacred to me. In those once war-torn fields, I find serenity. Among the hundreds of monuments to the fallen, I find inspiration. At the graves of the men of both the Blue and the Gray, I can think in peace about what our nation has been through and how much has been sacrificed to get it to where it is today.
Gettysburg is holy ground to me.
This year's anniversary was different. Very different.
A couple months before the anniversary, an event appeared on Facebook. It claimed that attendees would meet somewhere in the park on the 154th anniversary of the first day of the battle and burn Confederate flags to "trigger Trump's special little snowflakes, so they can retreat back to their little safe spaces with their cute matching red hats."
I keep a close eye on the goings-on around town and at the park, so I noticed this pretty early on. I talked it over with some friends, and we all agreed it was pretty far-fetched — probably just a piece of internet satire to rile up Trump supporters and "Lost Causers" (folks who celebrate the cause of the Confederacy) or something. Nothing was gonna actually go down, but some gullible people were gonna turn out in full force.
Boy, were we right.
June 30th rolled around, and I was driving up to Gettysburg from my apartment in Baltimore. About 25 or so of my friends were going to be recreating the 12-mile march of a Union regiment on its way to the battlefield 154 years ago that day.
We met up in town, hopped in the back of pickup trucks, and pulled away to be shuttled down to our start point just over the Mason-Dixon Line. As we sped away from town and over the battlefield, I saw big metal barriers set up in a field just behind where the Union Army's lines stood. They were arranged in two big squares, ready for the "protest" the next day.
Presumably one was for the "protestors," which rumor had somehow said were a giant mob of Antifa which were coming to burn flags, destroy monuments, and desecrate graves. The other was for the "counter-protestors," who came to express their support for the Confederate flag and prevent any destruction of monuments.
Decked out in Union uniforms as we were ferried along in the pickup truck, my friends and I all knew no Antifa was going to show. It was all a ruse, everyone knew that. Hell, even the local chapter of Antifa said they didn't have any such protest planned. But we knew people were going to get pissed, turn out, and do something stupid.
As we marched north toward Gettysburg in the footsteps of our ancestors, some strange things were also making their way to town.
Once we made it to the battlefield, we posed for an old tintype photograph. But even as we stood there by that stone wall and the photographer prepared the image plate for exposure, we noticed a presence we didn't usually see on the battlefield. People in red "Make America Great Again" hats stood snapping pictures of us. Some wore garish "Trump" shirts, and others wore pieces of woodland camo military uniforms. At one of the key parts of the battlefield — the Angle on Cemetery Ridge, a news crew was interviewing passers-by.
It looked like modern politics were coming to Gettysburg.
I never really liked that sort of thing. It never sat right with me when presidential candidates came to the battlefield and drew in their supporters. I'm not saying politicians should never visit, of course. It just worries me. I get nervous that in this nasty, divisive political atmosphere we have today, too much political presence at Gettysburg might make it another battlefield.
I know our political discussion often revolves around our history and how our past should dictate our future. That's all fine and well, but when it comes to the 750,000 dead soldiers of our Civil War... that just shouldn't be touched.
I always have these horrible visions of two opposing political groups on the battlefield claiming that they're the true keepers of the memory of our Civil War dead, and the other side were perverting it in some way. In these visions, both sides bicker and fight in harsher and harsher terms until finally, it comes to bloodshed.
That's right, bloodshed. Right on the very soil where over 160,000 Americans shot each other, stabbed each other, bashed each other's brains in, and blew each other into unrecognizable pieces.
I'm going to be really blunt here: it scares the shit out of me that someday we might become so blind to the horror of our past that we forget all its lessons and start hating each other and hurting each other and killing each other, just like those men did all those years ago.
There was no fighting at Gettysburg on the weekend of the anniversary, but what I saw and heard there was ominous.
Friday night, my friends and I were completely beat from our long march in the summer heat. We didn't have any formal plans to camp or do any sort of reenacting that night, so we went into town to pick up some six-packs of beer to enjoy on our local friend's porch later.
A few of us walked into the beer distributor. As I went to back to one of the coolers to grab some tall-boys of Yuengling, I noticed a couple husky dudes on the other side of the store. They were packing heat, but that didn't shock me too much. I know a number folks who carry firearms, both open and concealed. I didn't pay any mind to them. I grabbed my beers, paid, and drove off to our friend's place.
Once we got there, we all sat around tipping back and chatting about the day. After a while, our buddy Eric showed up from the distributor. He told us about those two husky guys with the holstered handguns, and how he heard them say they were going "Antifa huntin' tonight."
I wasn't crazy about the image of armed yahoos lumbering around town on the lookout for imagined boogeymen – especially because they imagined they were "hunting" their fellow Americans.
The following morning around 8 o'clock, two friends and I went for breakfast at our favorite diner. Upon taking a seat, we noticed a table full of middle-aged men in old surplus Army uniforms and tactical gear sitting across the room. They sat hunched over their plates, wearing patches that said "Infidel" and military-style shoulder tabs that read "MILITIA."
When we quietly let them know we saw some "shady characters" at a Confederate monument that didn't actually exist, just to see if they knew their history, they excitedly said they'd go check 'em out and called us "brother."
It just seemed like the kind of clannish, trigger-happy bullshit that has the potential to get dangerous.
Of course, no protest actually happened that day, but gun-toting "patriots" used the day as an ego-massage anyway.
HuffPost photographed these two men – the Imperial Wizard of the "Rebel Brigade of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan" and his armed goon – near the headquarters of Union Army commander General George Meade.I honestly can't tell you what sort of fantasy this guy is trying to live out.
Getty Images photographed many more of the attendees of this demonstration.
It should be noted that sometime before the end of the demonstration, one of the "patriots" managed to shoot himself in the leg with his own pistol. He was treated and turned out fine, but his gun was so poorly maintained that it fired again when law enforcement was attempting to unload it.
Look, you have the right to express your thoughts and carry firearms — but this armed protest really raises some concerns.
First is just from a safety standpoint.
I don't know how much I trust guys like this in a national park with families and children around when one of them is stupid enough to shoot himself in the leg. He is damn lucky that round fired in the direction it did, and not at a nearby park visitor.
Look, I've got no problem with owning and carrying guns. But all of this was just irresponsible. There is no need at all to skulk around a national park with loaded semi-automatic rifles like you're on the hunt for the enemy. Sure, you have the right to do that... but that doesn't mean you should. If you want to play soldier at Gettysburg, try reenacting – at least then you have an opportunity to educate people on their history and you have a slightly lower probability of getting someone hurt or killed.
Second is concerning what it does to the visitors to the park.
The anniversary of the battle is a huge weekend for Gettysburg National Military Park. It's right next to the Fourth of July, so literally, thousands of people and their families pour into the park to celebrate our country and its heritage.
The average American family of four doesn't exactly want to take their kids to a place where there's a roving horde of heavily armed dudes, Klansmen, and political agitators too. That honestly would scare the hell out of them.
While helping with a public demonstration of a Civil War field hospital north of town, I noticed that we were only getting a fraction of the visitors we were expecting on such an important Saturday for Gettysburg. I have no doubt park visitation saw a drop because of the nonsense going on that weekend.
If there ever actually was going to be Antifa presence that day – which there wasn't – I would be saying the same damn thing to them.
Seriously, there is a time and place for stuff like this, and that was neither the time nor the place.
Third and finally... are we seriously starting to do this stuff on the very ground where Americans slaughtered each other?
Seriously— in the process of planning this whole demonstration, no one seems to have stopped and said, "Huh... Y'know what, it might not actually be very appropriate for us to have an event on the western hemisphere's bloodiest battlefield in which we have strong political undertones, rove around ready to shoot, and imply that we're ready to physically harm fellow Americans."
I don't give a damn what you people thought "Antifa" was going to do, you don't do that shit at Gettysburg. If Antifa showed up and did this, I'd be just as quick to condemn them too. I don't care what side of the political spectrum it's on, you don't go to our country's most sacred ground to mount your political soapbox and imply that you're ready for armed conflict with other Americans.
The question of Confederate monuments is already a really divisive one. I myself am pretty divided on it. Some cities have taken down their monuments to Confederate generals, but Confederate monuments at Gettysburg aren't going anywhere.
If there's anywhere that Confederate monuments do belong, it's on battlefields, where we can learn from what they did and from the tragedy of fellow countrymen killing each other.
In the waning hours of Saturday's sunlight, some friends and I helped lead a memorial program at the National Cemetery.
The end of the program saw each of us standing at the grave – or the estimated grave, in the case of unknown soldiers – of the man we represented. I stood with another guy at the head of one of the massive plots of unknowns (pictured above).
In between directing visitors to different plots in the cemetery, I noticed some things.
A woman, holding her young daughter's hand, walked past wearing a shirt with a picture of a burning Quran and the words "F*CK ISIS." The language on the shirt was uncensored and in full view of children, visitors, and others who came to pay their respects.
A group of men from the protest carried a large "rebel" flag through the cemetery. It wasn't even the correct Confederate battle flag carried by Robert E. Lee's army, rather, it was the modern rectangular look-alike that self, proclaimed "rednecks" like to put on the back of their trucks.
Finally, a man and woman came past and stopped in front of me. In a deep drawl, he talked with me about how many men fell here. I nodded and agreed it was a national tragedy. He then looked at me, motioned to the unknown soldiers' graves, and said, "And they wanna try to erase all this stuff. Tryin' to take our history away from us." He rambled on a bit more, but I lost focus. I stood stone-faced and said nothing until he walked away.
Everything just left me embittered.
What was always sacred to me now felt tainted in a way. Tainted with sentiments that just weren't supposed to be there. It left me seriously troubled, and a lot of my friends felt the same way.
I'm sure some folks will read this and just call me a pissed-off liberal. That's fine, people can call me what they want, so long as they don't call me late for supper.
At the end of the day, though, I'm a historian who is just seriously concerned about where the country he loves is going.
We may not have seen violence in Gettysburg this summer. But we're definitely seeing it elsewhere. We need to get a handle on this division before it goes even further.
On the night of July 1st, 2017, I lay down amidst the grass and fireflies to sleep under the stars.
The hospital program we did earlier that day was with a museum on the edge of the park, so they let us camp on their grounds that night. We were lying on the very spot where men were killed 154 years ago that day.
I'm not really the praying type, but that night I prayed. I prayed to God and to the men who gave their lives on that ground to give me wisdom and help me keep my fellow citizens from repeating our history's mistakes.
I awoke shortly after dawn that morning. After paying my respects at the monument to some men of my hometown, I decided it was time I went home. I had so much on my mind, and I needed to get away from Gettysburg, that place where I could always think so clearly before.
I drove down country roads back toward Baltimore, following the same roads that the armies followed after that horrific battle in July of 1863. I hope they heard my prayers that night— I think this nation needs all the guidance and wisdom it can get right now.