Gettysburg National Battlefield Still Has Lessons to Teach

I am a history nerd of the highest order. That puts visiting historical sites high on my list of vacation options. Recently, I toured the Gettysburg National Military Park that commemorates the Battle of Gettysburg, 154 years ago. The national battlefield where the South’s invasion of the North ended and the spiral to the end began — — is large — about 10 square miles — and covered with monuments to every Federal state, army, corp, division, and regiment that fought there. There are also monuments to the Confederate soldiers. The view across the valley looks like a graveyard writ large — which it is. 50,000 Men died there, for their own reasons.

gettyburg 1

Those reasons. Yeah, the Civil War remains its own battlefield for Black folks, let alone the rest of the population. The whole “Slavery was the Cause of the Civil War” conversation, a pendulum continually swinging, has always seemed too easy, too self-congratulatory on the part of white liberals. I’ve been Black my whole life, so it is hard for me to believe that any collection of white men willingly risked their lives to liberate my ancestors from anything. Whites then, as now, had their own, let’s call them in the language of modern political excuses, “economic anxieties” wrapped up with a racial animus so strong and bizarre as to be used to justify colonial systems that are still churning today. Slavery didn’t cause the Civil War, no one thing could have caused and sustained something so devastating. Standing on Cemetery Hill, looking across the mile wide valley that was for those 3 days a killing field, the complexities of the Civil War became clear to me, clear in the utter absence of Black people in the middle of it. It wasn’t about individual slaves, but about some abstraction of freedom that they represented…the freedom to own, the freedom to compete in the labor market…there were no Black people in that conversation, only the reference to us, only the spots where our shadows fell.

I trekked all over that field, saw the spot where Lincoln delivered his famous address — a speech that is truly moving in its rhetoric even while being unrealized in its truth. We visited each of the State monuments, including the ones erected by the Southern states. When the park was established in the 1890s, the South didn’t want much to do with decorating the site of their defeat. Later, coincidentally in the 1960s when the Civil War was 100 years old at the same time that the Civil Rights Movement was claiming victories, they put up huge statues to state rights and freedom of conscience. This is, by the way, completely uncoincidental. The Civil War continues to be a proxy, even now, for those “economic anxieties”.

gettysburg-visitor

The National Park Service Visitor Center, in the middle of the park, is excellent. The museum there has a comprehensive walkthrough of the battle and the war, complete with a 15-minute documentary film narrated by Morgan Freeman — even for white people, he is the voice of God. In addition to the museum, there are talks and activities going on all day: demonstrations of weapons, lectures on the who/what/why, hands-on activities for the kids to try hardtack (think a stale saltine cracker…and not a good Premium Saltine, a generic Saltine you get in a restaurant to go with your soup). Really, it brought to life so much of what you may have slept through in High School or watched mindlessly on PBS.

The National Park Service has an informative and easy to follow Auto Audio tour that you can drive. Throughout the park there are 20 or so stops, each clearly marked, where you pull over and hit play on an audio clip. The clips walk you through the course of the battle, add personality to the generals who participated and provide insights into the lives of the average white men who were out there fighting. There are also certified guides available to answer questions and provide direction. It was one such guide who changed my perspective entirely.

brian farm

The guide was sitting on a three-legged stool next to a small, neat white reconstructed farm house. He looked sad, a bit lonely, as did the house set apart from other structures in the middle of the battlefield, with an orchard of peach and apple trees to one side. We stopped, asked him what he was up to. This is what he told us:

This was the Brian Farm, and it stood at the northern end of the famous Pickett’s Charge. Abraham Brian, the owner, was a Black Freeman and farmer. (The spelling of his name changes between Brian and Bryan.) He lived in that farmhouse with his wife and kids. When the Confederates approached, he and the other local free Blacks, numbering about 300, fled further north to avoid being captured.

Let’s pause here:
There were free Blacks living and farming in Gettysburg in 1863. Gettysburg had an approximate population of 2,400 at the time, of which 300 were Black. That’s more than 10% of the population. That’s more Black people that live there *now*.
Back to the story.

Mr. Brian, along with his friends and relations, left town to hide while the battle raged through town. Federal Northern soldiers used his house for cover, his attic as a sniper nest. On the last day, Confederate soldiers captured and hid in his barn while the Northerners controlled his orchard. The space between, the literal life and livelihood of a Black family, was an unclaimed land in the midst of the deadliest battle over “freedom”, dangerous and empty. The metaphor writes itself.

Once it was all over and the Confederates retreated back over the Potomac in a rainstorm, the Brian family returned. The house & the barn were both destroyed, the animals slaughtered, the wheat field full of dead bodies. Abraham Brian submitted a bill for $1,024 to the Federal government for the damages, as did his white neighbors. He received $15 in recompense — more than his white neighbors did. Then as now, the Feds don’t pay if they don’t want to pay. Their neighbors moved on, but the Brian family stayed, rebuilt the barn. Abraham probably earned extra money helping to bury the dead in the new Soldier’s Cemetery on Cemetery Hill. The family was probably there, standing on their porch, when Lincoln climbed that hill to give that speech about a freedom that implied them, but didn’t include them. Again the metaphor…

gettysburg-address-monument

It all stays with me. I was wrong — we were there, even in a battle in which no Black men (that are documented) fought. We were then the middle, our lives the dirt, our fruit the peaches growing beside the house. And here we are now, in that same position 154 years later, in the ongoing fight for our freedom that some want to erase us from. Obviously, we fight that erasure, and that’s what makes this a half-way happy story. At the end of it all, The Brian family was still there.

In the ongoing struggle for our freedom and value, we fight our erasure every day — with debates of history having as much importance as those of the present. Years later, the National Park Service rebuilt the Brian family house. Organizations like the Female RE-Enactors of Distinction (FREED), an Auxiliary Organization of the African American Civil War Museum, bring the stories of the free Black women to schools and museums. (Don’t worry, the African American Civil War Museum is on next year’s vacation list.) The 54TH Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment of re-enactors continues to represent Black men who “served, lost their lives and health in the Civil War, particularly those members of our namesake, the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.” Many of us research our genealogies and retell family stories.

freed at memorial

The metaphor of Gettysburg, of the Civil War, continues to change, because of work being done right now. Professional historians and weekend re-enactors both continue to research the Civil War and help us all remember the Black people who lived and died for their own freedom. I thank them for that work and can’t wait to find out more.

Photo Credits:
Cover photo, Brian Farm: National Park Service
Field, Gettysburg Address Monument: TripAdvisor.com
FREED photo: Female RE-Enactors of Distinction (FREED)

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