Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional information about a verbal altercation that occurred at Gettysburg National Cemetery Saturday.
Although the social media posts promoting flag burnings, destruction and violence in Gettysburg on the Fourth of July were never confirmed, dozens of people, many armed, stationed themselves around the battlefield and National Cemetery Saturday to make sure nothing happened.
This year’s holiday was hot and dry, but that didn’t deter the masses from flocking to one of the most historic towns in the midstate to show their patriotism. Some wore red, white and blue, while others carried American flags or dressed in Civil War costumes.
Visiting Gettysburg on the Fourth is a tradition for some. But others came from as far as Delaware to protect the Confederate monuments from vandalism, in light of Facebook posts which claimed anti-fascist groups were planning violence under cover of fireworks.
The rumors appeared to stem from a Facebook post, ostensibly by a group called Left Behind, that said anti-fascists — Antifa — would hold a peaceful protest the afternoon of July 4 at the cemetery and planned to burn the United States, Confederate and Blue Lives Matter flags.
The post was later removed by Facebook. But the fact-checking website Snopes said a far-right media outlet and a Facebook post spread rumors that Antifa was planning violence.
Snopes concluded that the rumors likely had no basis. Central PA Antifa labeled them a “right-wing hoax.”
But they drew people like Dillsburg resident Mike Boyer, who said he came to the cemetery to make sure things didn’t turn violent.
“We will defend everybody’s right to freedom of speech. We want everybody to have a voice, because we think we all participated in building this nation,” Boyer said. “(But) everyone’s lives matter, end of story.”
Meanwhile, a group of people nearby were loudly arguing with a man wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt.
“Are we in agreement that all lives matter?” one man asked the crowd, drawing cheers in response. Homeland Security officers soon arrived and led the man in the T-shirt away, with chants of “USA” and suggestions to “get the (expletive) outta here” trailing him.
The Washington Post later identified the man as Trent Somes, a seminarian and associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Hanover. He told The Post he was visiting the grave of an ancestor when a crowd of about 50 people surrounded him and aggressively questioned him about his shirt.
Jason Martz, the Gettysburg National Military Park’s acting public affairs officer said he was escorted from the area for his own safety.
Maelea Burley and her husband brought their children to the cemetery to educate them on American history, but weren’t sure if they’d stay for the whole day once they heard about the rumors.
“We don’t want people shooting people,” Burley said in reference to the many people openly carrying weapons through the area. “Vandalism of a statue isn’t worthy of death.”
No incidents were reported as of 6 p.m. Saturday in Gettysburg, other than “verbal altercations” on the battlefield, Martz said.
Martz said federal, state and local authorities ramped up security in Gettysburg because of the posts. Agents from Homeland Security had a presence on the battlefield. Martz said they don’t often see rumors such as these on the holiday.
Dexter Parham, 65, has made the trek to Gettysburg from his Keymar, Maryland home several times on the Fourth of July — including in 2017, when other rumors of flag burnings drew several hundred armed people, including one who accidentally shot himself in the leg. No protesters showed to burn flags.
“Anybody destroying these monuments and history — it’s not going to help,” Parham said, clad in camouflage and clutching a Confederate flag. “(Change is) going to have to happen inside each one of us, caring about each other. We’re caring people and want good things to happen for the veterans, for the blacks, for the whites. All of us.”
Others were adamant that vandalizing or removing Confederate monuments does more harm than good.
“If you destroy history, you forget what happened and make the same mistakes,” said Art Miller, of Boyertown.
“Our Fourth of July isn’t a celebration of destroying things,” echoed 20-year-old Connor Tressler, of Dauphin.
Many in the group said they planned only to take action if protesters get violent or destructive.
“This is all about freedom — everybody’s freedom,” Boyer said.
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