By John Messeder
At the site of a battle that became the beginning of the end of a war to decide whether any men should be allowed to own other human beings, we still celebrate the battle and largely ignore the people over whom all that blood and treasure was spent.
Black people lived and worked where I live long before that great battle in July 1863. They lived in groups, the way Scots lived with Scots, Germans with Germans – forced by cultural commonality and by the already-majority population to live “with their own kind.”
They formed a community in Gettysburg and built a church and graveyard on Black-owned land near Bendersville, Pa. Some of them likely helped operate iron forges, skirting Fairfield as they moved northward along the Underground Railroad.
Private Charles H. Parker, Company F, 3rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, was equal enough to fight on the Union side. But like other Black soldiers, he was not equal enough to be interred in the same ground as white warriors with whom they had fought and died.
Kitty Payne had been a slave in Virginia. She was freed in 1843 and took up life in Adams County. Five men kidnapped Payne and her three children from their home near Bendersville and dragged them back to slavery.
Why, indeed, do we have, in preserved battlefields and town centers, such a plethora of monuments to the men who led the charge to cleave the idealistic nation?
In the Second Gulf War, when we took down Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, we removed not only the tyrant, but the shrine constructed to glorify him, toppling his statue on worldwide television.
We train our warriors to carry our flag and proclaim our foundational values at bases named for a previous generation of military leaders who were intent on making a lie of those values.
We have nearly a dozen U.S. Army installations named for the treasonous leaders of that unsuccessful bloodfest.
The U.S. Navy inventory of Confederate tribute is led by the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville (CG 62).
Commissioned in 1989, it is named after the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, considered by historians to have been Gen. Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory of the Civil War.
In 1962, the Navy commissioned the submarine tender Hunley, after the Confederate submarine that sank the Union warship Housatonic in 1864. Nine years later, the Navy named another sub tender USS Dixon, after the Hunley’s commanding officer.
We must end glorification of those who led their youth in a fight to maintain an economic system that relied on treating some of our fellow humans as so much farm machinery. We can start by removing from town squares symbols that encourage and celebrate that racist heritage.
There is good reason for keeping the statues on the battlefield. The Gettysburg National Military Park, along with several other preserved battlefields, is an open-air museum owed to the thousands of men – and women – who fought and died over whether to preserve the Union or tear it apart.
Unlike many statues erected in government centers a century after the war, the monuments at Gettysburg are markers in the story of a horrendous war to bring the nation closer to its ideal of equality and justice for all.
Recently quoted in the Army Times newspaper, the Army’s public affairs office said, “It is important to note that the naming of installations and streets was done in a spirit of reconciliation.”
Reconciliation with whom? The thousands of slaves who were finally freed, but never actually given the “40 acres and a mule” they were promised?
The hundreds of Americans who were, a century after the shooting war ended, pummeled with bricks, sticks and canines for nothing more than gathering to protest their nation’s unkept promises? Or the thousands of United States military warriors serving at installations and on ships named for men and events intent on keeping them in bondage?
We can, and should, respect those opposing military leaders for their prowess and dedication to their chosen cause, but we must not honor them for their efforts to continue an economic way of life based on ownership of their fellow human beings.
We erect monuments and name warships and military bases to celebrate people who have offered extraordinary service to the nation, or have been victims of major disasters. We ought not celebrate the efforts of those who, no matter their bravery and exemplary battlefield tactics, employed their talents to divide the United States.
John Messeder is an award-winning columnist and former staff writer for the Gettysburg Times, and lives in Gettysburg, Pa. He has written often about the town’s role in Civil War reenactments and the need for a Black history museum. Readers may email him at [email protected]