Panels will soon be installed near each of 12 Confederate state monuments at Gettysburg National Military Park to offer visitors more context to understand when and under what circumstances they were erected.
The National Park Service expects the panels to be added by September. They will be located near the Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tenessee, Texas and Virginia state monuments.
This move is partially a response by the park service to the recent national conversations about what should be done with Confederate monuments across the country, said acting spokesman Jason Martz.
A fake social media post, advertising plans by Antifa to burn flags at the National Cemetery at Gettysburg on July 4, drew dozens of armed people to the battlefield with the intention of thwarting any such protest. The initial post was later revealed to be a hoax.
While that incident bolstered the conversation, the decision to install the contextual panels has been in the works since earlier in the summer, Martz said — since calls for racial equality spurred by the death of George Floyd came to encompass a discussion about monuments that glorify those who fought in support of slavery.
Scott Hancock, a professor of Africana Studies at Gettysburg College who lives near the battlefield, has argued that the monuments tell a one-sided story that ignores the flaws of those memorialized, and the historical context in which they were erected.
The panels are a sort of middle-ground solution for the park.
“This is another way that we can clarify what was happening at the time that these monuments were placed,” Martz said. “In many cases, these monuments were placed at a time when there was a fair amount of contention going on in the country, whether it be the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights era, things of that nature.”
The South Carolina monument, for instance, was dedicated in July 1963, marking the 100th anniversary of the battle. But one of the main speakers at its dedication was Alabama Gov. George Wallace, known for his staunch segregationist views and support of “Jim Crow” policies.
“We have discovered over the years that there needs to be more context in certain areas of the battlefield,” Martz said. “Any time that we get a chance to educate the public on and then broaden the general knowledge about any given item … (it) can only be positive.”
The park service has been consulting with historians for the content on the panels, including Hancock.
Hancock has said he would support the removal of Confederate statues from the park they continued to exist without context, as they do today. But he believes the panels are a good first step toward acknowledging the history of the monuments themselves, and the history they represent.
“You got the brigade and regimental markers that state the number of casualties and things like that. I think those are fine … but the Confederate state monuments are very different. They were installed for different reasons, and they send a different message,” Hancock said. “(The panels) are a way to talk to visitors about how (the monuments) were part of this narrative of white supremacy and the erasure of Black people and slavery from the story of the Civil War.”
Beyond that, Hancock and other Gettysburg historians would like to see further representation of the Blacks who played a role in the Civil War. As of now, though there are historical buildings that tell the story of specific people, there are no statues commemorating the African-Americans who were present on either side of the battle — but that might change soon, thanks to a new piece of legislation.
U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, (R-IN), is planning to introduce a bill that would authorize the construction of two statues that would commemorate the roles of Blacks on both the Union and Confederate sides of the Gettysburg battlefield.
If approved, a congressional committee will be created that will include the park’s chief historian, as well as members from historical, cultural and academic organizations who will be consulted for the creation of the statues.
Hancock is “cautiously supportive” of the bill, because it will provide much-needed representation if done right, and further push a revisionist narrative if done wrong, he said.
“If it gets approved, I just hope whoever they put on the committee is, is really well aware of the ways that it could go wrong,” he said. “It is a really complicated reality. I think that’s a challenge because it’s difficult to tell a really complex story with a statue. (But), I think it can be done.”