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Desecrating Gettysburg

Desecrating Gettysburg
© Getty

President Trump plans to give his re-nomination acceptance speech either at the White House or what he calls the “great battlefield” at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Both locations are federal property whose use for political activities may violate the law. But Americans should especially recoil at the idea of their president turning the Gettysburg National Military Park into a stage set for what’s left of the Republican National Convention.  

The site is not simply a battlefield. It is a military cemetery as sacred as Arlington National Cemetery or the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. 

By the end of the third and final day of the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, 10,000 Union and Confederate soldiers had been killed or mortally wounded, and another 30,000 injured. Many of the fallen Union soldiers had been buried by their comrades on the battlefield in shallow, unmarked graves. Far from the battlefield, civilians reeled from the stench of decomposing bodies. Arms and legs protruded from the earth after heavy rains washed away the soil covering the unmarked graves. Like “the devil’s own planting, a harvest of death,” said one visitor, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin. 

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Curtin was so upset that he used state funds to establish a cemetery and help finance the reburials of an estimated 3,600 bodies of Union soldiers. That cemetery, then known as “Soldiers National Cemetery,” was established on Cemetery Hill, one of the most important sections of the Union’s battle line and a key to its victory, which changed the course of the war.  

The burials were far from complete when the cemetery was dedicated on November 19, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, which paid tribute to those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” so that the nation might survive with a “new burst of freedom.” Today, more than 6,000 veterans are buried at what is now called the Gettysburg National Cemetery, including veterans of both world wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. 

A sign at the entrance to the cemetery says, “silence and respect.” The National Park Service website reminds visitors to Gettysburg that “our national cemeteries and soldiers lots are hallowed ground. Be respectful to all of our nation’s fallen soldiers and their families.” 

In fact, the entire battlefield is a military cemetery. Bodies are still being discovered. In 1996 the corpse of a man in his early 20s, who had been shot in the back of the head, was found on the battlefield. His remains were given a military burial in the cemetery. Visitors are forbidden from picking up bullets from the ground that might have once been lodged in a soldier’s body. The battlefield contains over 1,300 monuments, memorials and markers, even a memorial urn, many of which were erected by veterans and families in memory of fallen comrades and loved ones.  The Gettysburg Foundation urges visitors to imagine Gettysburg as ”a place of solemn remembrance.”  

Presidents have visited Gettysburg before, but they have treated it with appropriate dignity and respect. President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Gettysburg on the 75th anniversary of the battle, when he said that “immortal deeds and immortal words have created here at Gettysburg a shrine of American patriotism.” No president has given a party convention acceptance speech there, and no president ever should.  

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This president, especially, doesn’t do solemn and respectful. He does partisan, self-promotion, bombast and division, and there is no reason to think that his acceptance speech will be any different. When he was a private citizen running for president in 2016, Trump gave a grievance-laden, divisive speech in the town of Gettysburg, which is not part of the battlefield, that was the opposite of solemn and respectful.          

There are plenty of forums available for President Trump to give an acceptance speech in the COVID era. The Gettysburg battlefield should not be one of them.

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author of the historical novel, “Two Men Before the Storm:  Arba Crane’s Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case That Started The Civil War.” Follow him on Twitter @gregorywallance.