On the battlefield at Gettysburg, competing historical narratives force an encounter with the truth
At Gettysburg, the South Carolina state monument lies every day. It’s been lying to visitors every day for over 20,000 days since it was erected almost sixty years ago.
Like all lies, this one hides the truth. And, similarly to 2021’s Big Lie—that, despite no verifiable evidence, the 2020 election was stolen—the monument hides how Black people, and in particular Black women, have moved the United States to be better. Black women have consistently been the heart and muscle challenging the United States to fulfill its promises of equal rights and citizenship. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi (the founders of Black Lives Matter), and Stacy Abrams (failed gubernatorial candidate and successful—so far—voting rights activist) are just a few recent examples in a long history of Black women who have had an outsized impact on the political and cultural landscape. In 2020, they played a vital role in at least slowing, and perhaps reversing, the nation’s helter-skelter rush toward white nationalism. Over 170 years ago, a much lesser-known woman did likewise.
In 1847, nearly fifteen years before the start of the Civil War, a woman named Hester escaped from Hagerstown, Maryland. Running south to north, she followed the valleys and mountains paralleling the South Mountain range all the way to Carlisle, Pennsylvania—more than fifty miles away. Then she was caught—but Black residents of Carlisle intervened. As Hester was escorted from the courthouse into a carriage to be dragged back to slavery, they pounced, busting her loose and running down the street with Hester’s owner and his slavecatchers in immediate pursuit—who were in turn chased by a crowd of righteously angry Black women and men. One of the bricks they threw hit Hester’s owner; he fell and “was struck repeatedly by the negroes as they rushed past him.” He hung on for three weeks until those injuries finished him off. A trial followed; the prosecutor told the jury they had to convict the twenty-eight Black and one white Carlislians because of the “momentous issues which hang upon the result. The rescue of these slaves has . . . rendered the property of every slaveholder insecure.” At risk, he intoned, were “the social and political organization of whole communities. If you decide that these outrages can be committed with impunity, the foundations of the Government will be broken; this union[’s] States will be rent in twain . . . and the glare of a civil war will light up the land.”
If you stand on West Confederate Avenue at Gettysburg National Military Park, a hundred yards or so down from the Warfield Tower (usually called the Longstreet Tower, but James Warfield, a Black farmer and blacksmith, owned the land the tower sits on), directly in front of South Carolina’s state monument, you’ll see the South Mountain range running north behind the monument. We know enslaved people like Hester, and their Black and white allies, used these mountains and valleys as guides to escape slavery. Over the last decade, historians have increasingly recognized the disproportionate influence on national politics, identity, and law exercised by Hester and other Black women and men: the most powerless people in the country drove the nation toward the war that ended constitutional racialized slavery.
The South Carolina monument not only hides this historical reality, it flips it on its head. Like most good lies do.
One hundred years after the battle, on July 2, 1963 at 4:30 PM—coinciding with the day and hour one hundred years earlier when South Carolinians were preparing to charge across the battlefield—George Wallace stepped to the podium at the South Carolina monument’s dedication ceremony. With the backdrop of the South Mountain range that helped Hester escape, Wallace—who wasn’t from South Carolina, but was governor of Alabama—reinforced the big lie that had started even before the guns had stopped firing a century earlier: the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, race, or Black people.
The day before, Wallace had been at the Alabama state monument, claiming that the reason he had infamously (well, infamously now, but famously then) stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama a month earlier to keep Black students out was “to protect local government.” The next day, at the South Carolina monument, Wallace declared that “South Carolina and Alabama stand for constitutional government. Millions throughout the nation look to the South to lead in the fight to restore constitutional rights and the rights of states and individuals.” He got a standing ovation.
Although some historians describe Wallace’s language as “race-neutral” or “coded,” it was neither. The people roaring their approval knew exactly what he was talking about: White southern leaders and their millions of supporters would not let the federal government, or the American public, tell them that they had to treat Black citizens as equal human beings or as full citizens. They’d be damned if the federal government was going to make them stop denying Black people the ability to vote or stop preventing Black children access to a decent education or stop killing Black people when they tried to make America better. And all this was cloaked within that old lie: South Carolina’s secession was all about states’ rights.
The monument’s inscription, approved less than three months earlier by the National Park Service, framed Wallace’s speech. Every day since its dedication, the inscription has told the lie that South Carolina, and by proxy the Confederacy, fought for an “Abiding Faith in the Sacredness of States Rights.”
If you squint your eyes tightly and read South Carolina’s 1860 Declaration of secession with no consideration of context, maybe you can squeeze out an interpretation that says, yes, South Carolina was only concerned about states’ rights. But after its long preamble, the declaration identifies just one motivation for seceding: The federal government wasn’t doing enough to force northern states to deal with people like Hester.
That’s right: South Carolina, the supposed banner carrier of states’ rights and “local government,” was complaining that the federal government—the very government people like Wallace would later claim was overreaching by trying to enforce Black equality—was failing to suppress the rights of Northern states as they aided escaping slaves like Hester, or chose to ignore the problem (which is essentially what the judge and jury did in Carlisle when they convicted the twenty-nine Carlislians, sentenced them to “time served,” and immediately released them).
The South Carolina monument’s lie: White southerners were oppressed; white southerners fought against the power of a centralized government; white southerners fought for the “sacredness of states rights.”
The truth: White southerners fought because the centralized government wasn’t doing enough. White southerners fought because the centralized government wasn’t using its power to help southern states protect slavery.
Every time I ride my bike past that monument and see school kids standing in front of it, I wonder: How many more days do we let it keep lying? When will we make it tell the truth?
Currently, there are no other monuments, no signs, nothing to tell visitors the truth: that in the end, the Black women and men and children and their white allies, running through the hills right behind the monument, made the nation finally deal with the lie that lay at the heart of the founding documents of the United States—that all men would not in fact be treated as equal. For these people, the thousands of Hesters and their allies, it was not the “Abiding Faith in the Sacredness of States Rights” but rather the belief in Human Rights and Equality that inspired them to risk their lives for freedom. And their unrelenting pursuit to make that belief a reality is why South Carolina seceded, why there was a Civil war, and why there was a battle at Gettysburg. Instead of a lie, let’s tell that truth every day on West Confederate Avenue.
Scott Hancock is Professor of History and Africana Studies at Gettysburg College. Prior to that, he spent 14 years working in group homes with teenagers in crisis. He is currently exploring how places like the Gettysburg battlefield can put African Americans and slavery back into the heart of the story told by national park landscapes and memorials.