Thirty armed militia members started walking down a hill, across the Gettysburg Battlefield, toward him.
It was the 4th of July, and it was the first time all day that Scott Hancock felt his heart beating out of his chest.
“That feeling of possible harm kept escalating,” said Hancock, 58, of Gettysburg.
As it turns out, they marched past him, without incident, but Hancock believed it was an intimidation tactic. What prompted it? What was Hancock, a history professor, and a ragtag group of friends doing to provoke them?
It Was a Sign
They were standing with posterboard signs, along Confederate Avenue, where southern soldiers fought in the 1863 battle considered the turning point of the Civil War that eventually led to Union victory. It’s lined with 11 Confederate monuments, arguably the most controversial of Gettysburg’s 1,300 monuments.
Perhaps those militia members were protecting the Confederate monuments—and therefore, their version of history.
Hancock believes there are facts missing from the words chiseled into the Confederate monuments, from the stories printed on the National Park Service’s interpretive signs, from our conversations about American history and the very roots of America’s racial issues.
So, for five years, he’s been arming himself with signs bearing those missing facts, neatly printed by his wife Patty. He’s usually joined by a few friends or family members. Some are white. Others, like Hancock, are Black. The signs usually stimulate conversations, but on the 4th of July, they sparked confrontations—some of which were captured by documentary filmmaker globalstory2 on a YouTube video viewed more than 17,000 times.
“One of the signs we held by the North Carolina monument was about [sculptor] Gutzon Borglum who also did Mount Rushmore, and things he said about the KKK, because he was a big supporter of the KKK,” said Hancock.
He thinks visitors should know about Borglum’s background. Hancock also thinks visitors should know how Confederate General Robert E. Lee, perched atop the Virginia monument, treated slaves. And he takes issue with the language on Mississippi’s monument, which refers to soldiers who “fought for their righteous cause.”
That cause, Hancock said, was slavery, and by extension, white supremacy and racism.
Those facts are missing from the current landscape across the 6,000-acre Gettysburg National Military Park (GNMP)—and arguably, from our collective understanding of American history. But that’s changing.
Signs of the Times
“History is evolving,” said Jason Martz, acting Gettysburg National Military Park spokesman.
“The men who died… some of their lasting legacy is in these monuments, and what was going on at the time in our country [when the monuments were installed] harkens back to the Civil Rights and Jim Crow era,” Martz said.
That’s why the National Park Service is installing new interpretive signs adjacent to each one of the Confederate monuments this fall.
“These [new] panels will provide more context,” said Martz. Park historians, in consultation with Hancock and others, are developing the text.
While the timing of the signs might appear to be a direct response to our nation’s racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd, Martz said that the signage has actually been in development for a number of years, as part of a larger project overhauling nearly 100 interpretive signs across the battlefield through the spring of 2021.
Hancock believes the additional signage is a step in the right direction.
“The reality is—removing all the Confederate monuments—it’s not going to happen, so I think we need to face the reality they’re going to be here for a long time, maybe for centuries. So what do we do with them? I would say we educate the public about why they’re here,” Hancock said.
Are all Confederate monuments symbols of racism? There are gray areas.
There are those who want to remove all Confederate monuments across the United States and those defending the stone sentinels. Location is a factor. Generally, Confederate monuments in U.S. town centers are being toppled, removed or reevaluated due to their glorification of Confederate “heroes,” while Confederate monuments on federal lands such as Gettysburg serve as site-specific markers.
In August, The Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides at Gettysburg discovered language, buried in legislation that passed the U.S. House, HR-7608, that calls for all Confederate monuments to be removed from federally owned lands. That would include Gettysburg, Civil War battlefields and historic sites.
“This would severely hamper our ability to interpret the battlefield,” said Les Fowler, president of the association, which represents about 125 active guides. “We use the monuments as springboards for conversation.”
Fowler, originally from Texas, believes Confederate monuments at Gettysburg and other historic sites should stay. Even though the legislation is not likely to pass through the Republican-controlled Senate, the guides are lobbying U.S. senators to remove this provision.
Meantime, Hancock’s enterprising efforts are gaining momentum, and historians are rallying.
“We recognized the value of what Scott was doing… as an innovator—and evidence-based, engaging rather than confrontational,” said Gregory P. Downs, a professor of history at University of California-Davis, and co-editor of “The Journal of the Civil War Era.”
Downs, Hancock and two fellow history professors organized a “history action day” in September that mobilized hundreds of history lovers at 15 historic U.S. sites containing Confederate markers, from New York City to Richmond, Chicago to Gettysburg.
Their goal? “To emancipate our battlefields and other public spaces from a biased history that has sanitized and glorified the Confederacy’s fight to keep four million African Americans enslaved,” as written on the journal’s website.
Downs joined Hancock and 60 supporters in Gettysburg.
“There was a clear sense of purpose,” said Downs. “We want people to understand as they approach the Civil War, they should approach it with a fuller understanding. Many Confederate memorials… covered up the centrality of slavery to U.S. history, and in the process there are a lot of pieces conveyed to people that misshape people’s understanding of our country and our past.”
Their rallying cry can be summarized in two words: more history.
“I get accused of trying to erase history,” Hancock said. “But I say I don’t want to erase history—I want more history.”
For more information, visit the GNMP website at nps.gov/gett/index.htm, the Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides at gettysburgtourguides.org, The Journal of the Civil War Era at journalofthecivilwarera.org, and see the YouTube video of Scott Hancock on July 4, 2020 uploaded by globalstory2 by searching its title, “Scott Hancock—Gettysburg Monuments.”