GETTYSBURG, Pennsylvania — The Sons of Confederate Veterans clashed with professor-led protesters as the group celebrated the first “Confederate Flag Day” rally today at the site of one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles.
The retention of the Confederate Flag on government property in several Southern states came under heavy scrutiny this summer after Dylann Roof allegedly murdered nine African Americans in a South Carolina church in the name of the Confederacy.
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Michael Landry, a guest speaker invited by the Sons’ Private J.W. Culp Camp in Gettysburg, told The Daily Beast the ceremony is the first surge in a national movement to reclaim the Confederate battle flag’s image and stop the tearing down of secessionist monuments, a progression which he likened to the Islamic State’s destruction of Babylonian artifacts in the Cradle of Civilization. North Carolina raised rebel colors over its state capitol in honor of this first commemoration, which was also celebrated in Michigan, and in Colorado, where boosters held a “flag ride” from Durango to Pagosa Springs.
Scott Hancock, an associate professor of History and Africana Studies at Gettysburg College, also received a First Amendment permit from the National Park Service to hold a counter-demonstration. Professor Hancock has been outspoken about what he says is a need to remove the Confederate Flag from commemorations of the battle. At 1:30, half an hour before the scheduled event, both factions were already assembled in force and had worked up an antagonistic froth.
“Fuck your kids,” the anti-Confederates yelled back after the Sons objected to their profanity in front of the many children present. “Fuck you and your inbred kids.”
Gen. Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg marked the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. The battlefield is home to many monuments both Confederate and Union, but the site of Saturday’s demonstration, the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, has the distinction of being dedicated to all who fought. The gas-flame torch atop an Alabama Limestone pedestal was unveiled July 3, 1938, the 75th anniversary of the battle. President Roosevelt remarked at the dedication ceremony, which was attended by over 250,000 people: “All of them we honor, not asking under which Flag they fought then—thankful that they stand together under one Flag now.”
The two groups Saturday were separated by 50 yards of grassy field. The Sons’ “free speech zone,” the Park Service’s explicit term for their designated space, was immediately in front of the monolith and behind a steel barricade that lined the sidewalk to the parking lot. The Confederate zone extended a further 50 yards west, surrounded by a single yellow-rope fence. Across the field, protesters with Equality flags and Black Power fist-emblazoned signs, many of them wearing masks, had their own steel barricade but no rope enclosure. Several Confederates had already crossed the rhetorical No-Man’s-Land to confront the rival demonstrators, and were sent back by less-than-enthusiastic park rangers.
Ranger Katie Lawhon was on site to distribute a statement from the Park Service explaining their decision to grant the group’s permit. She told The Daily Beast that while they often have Confederate flags and re-enactors at the park, they usually don’t apply for First Amendment permits.
The statement reads, in part: “National parks host hundreds of first amendment activities each year....Some like Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial reflect the prevailing mood of the American people, while others deliver a more controversial message whose validity is ultimately judged by the American people.”
“This is a wonderful day for the Confederacy, the southern people, the Southland that we love. Today is the inaugural Flag Day event and we welcome each and every one of you,” began Commander Gary Casteel of the Gettysburg Sons of Confederate Veterans, addressing a few dozen seated in a handful of white folding chairs while around them perhaps 200, holding more than 50 Stars-and-Bars of all sizes among them, stood within their barricaded half of the memorial site.
The lectern with a microphone and built-in speaker was frequently drowned out by the music and bullhorn of the counter-demonstrators, who chanted at the celebrants to “burn that flag,” amid epithets and entreaties to “join our side, you’re already traitors.”
The Sons say their organization is not racist and neither is their flag. “It is absolutely wonderful to see so many flags flying, and to see so many beautiful faces here carrying those flags,” Casteel continued. He then called the assembled to join him in two pledges of allegiance—first to the American flag, then to the Confederate—”I salute the Confederate Flag, with affection, reverence, and undying devotion to the cause for which it stands.”
“Thank you very much, you may take your seat, or stand your ground, whichever you might like,” said Casteel to chuckles from the crowd. He then introduced camp adjutant Henry Chandler to give the invocation, whose walk to the podium was punctuated by the megaphone of the counter-demonstrators: “All right, we got a history lesson for you racist fucks!” Chandler’s prayer was unintelligible above the heightening chants of “burn that flag!”
Casteel introduced his guest Landry, up from Tennessee, who like himself was one of many attendees who instead of donning rough gray cap and coat had dressed in the finery of antebellum gentry.
“Hey, ain’t it a wonderful day to be a Confederate?!” began Landry, who was immediately beset by a rebel yell from the throng—the only occasion they had to drown out their rival faction. “I praise God every day to be able to say that my ancestors fought for the Southland.”
He set out to educate the nodding crowd, from his speech written on a Subway napkin, regarding misconceptions of the Confederate army. “People like to think it was just a bunch of white guys,” he claimed.
Landry said he was working on a project about diversity in the Confederate Army for a pamphlet in Confederate Veteran magazine, from which he sampled for the audience accounts of several Confederate officers, each story ending with the reveal that the subject was not Caucasian, but black, or Jewish, or Latino.
Landry closed his address by affirming his group’s right to celebrate their ancestors, no matter how unpopular that might be in the current political climate. “We aren’t second-class citizens. The South is not a second-class citizen area.”
He assured the crowd that they would win their fight to save their Confederate artifacts, “because we love our ancestors more than they hate ’em.”
Casteel ended the ceremony with a call to benediction, and then a full-verse, fairly raucous chorus of Dixie, the lyrics of which were printed on the back of the Sons’ event program.
The departing Confederates clashed with the protesters and lingered in shouting skirmishes, watched closely by park rangers armed with long sticks, Tasers, and pistols, though there were no physical altercations. Well after the ceremony had concluded, The Daily Beast’s photographer came across a group of Confederate soldiers in a nearby store, buying yet more Dixie banners.