Recently, while waiting in line at a store in Grove City, Pennsylvania, we saw a young man several customers in front of us wearing a sweatshirt with the Confederate battle flag on its back and a caption that read, “If This Flag Offends You, You Need a History Lesson!” An hour or so later, we saw the same teenager hop into a pickup truck with Pennsylvania tags. While the citizens of South Carolina are rightly debating the appropriateness of flying the Confederate flag on state grounds, it struck us as pretty ironic that here in western Pennsylvania a teenager would venerate the Confederacy. As the nation celebrates both the Fourth of July and the 152nd anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, perhaps this Pennsylvania youth and other confused northern neo-Confederates need a brief history lesson.
Although the Republican Party now finds its strength in Old Dixie, when the party of Lincoln was formed, western Pennsylvanians were among its most enthusiastic supporters. When the newly created party nominated its first presidential ticket in 1856, candidate John C. Fremont won only 33 percent of the national vote. But the citizens of Mercer County cast 57 percent of their ballots for Fremont—the candidate pledged to oppose the further expansion of slavery into the territories. In 1860, western Pennsylvanians were among the strongest supporters of Abraham Lincoln. At the party’s national convention, Pennsylvania delegates cast 52 out of their 54 votes for Lincoln; many Pittsburghers celebrated Honest Abe’s nomination firing cannons from Boyd’s Hill. Predictably, in November, 60 percent of Mercer County voters went for the Rail-splitter; Lincoln’s total in nearby Lawrence County was nearly 78 percent. Nor did western Pennsylvanians change their voting habits after Appomattox.
Vets continued to “vote the way they shot” well after the war. Former Union soldiers joined the main veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), virtually an arm of the Republican Party in some parts of the north. Visit a local cemetery sometime and you’ll be struck by the number of metal GAR badges adorning the graves. Nor were most citizens of Mercer County prepared to just let bygones be bygones when the war ended. As the editors of the Mercer “Whig & Dispatch” newspaper declared: “Treason is the natural fruit of the doctrine of state rights as expounded by the traitors of the south and the leaders of the Democratic Party north. It was the school in which the traitorous elements of the South were shaped for the fearful war which was launched against the nation’s life.”
Not only did many Pennsylvanians oppose secession on political grounds but they also viewed slavery as the reason for what they called the “Great Rebellion.” Many western Pennsylvanians embraced Lincoln’s anti-slavery views for both political and religious reasons. These convictions had been fermenting for decades. At the 1835 organization of an abolitionist society in Mercer County, for instance, supporters passed a resolution which declared slavery “a gross violation of the fundamental principles of our government, and incompatible with the laws of God and the requirements of the Gospel.”
These sentiments reached a fever pitch as one southern state after another seceded from the union in the aftermath Lincoln’s election. At a rally held at the Mercer County Court House in January 1861, the Reverend W.T. McAdam, pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Mercer, whose manse was a stop on the Underground Railroad, declared, “It is no time for unholy compromises. Sure that we are right, we should stand as inflexible as justice, and trust the issue to Almighty God.”
Such convictions led many Pennsylvanians to make the ultimate sacrifice to abolish slavery and to preserve the union. More than two million served in the Union Army, including more than 400,000 from Pennsylvania. Over 33,000 Pennsylvanians were listed among the Union casualties from the war. Nowhere was that sacrifice more evident than when Pennsylvanian regiments rushed to the small hamlet of Gettysburg on July 1. These troops saw themselves defending the north from an invading army. One officer said as much as he led the 154th Pennsylvania Regiment into battle: “Don’t forget to-day that you are fighting in your own state,” he shouted in encouragement, “and give them the best you have.”
The mixture of Napoleonic military tactics with modern weapons produced horrific carnage. Although no states’ soldiers escaped the brutality, with more than 51,000 casualties in the three-day battle, Pennsylvania volunteer regiments suffered terrible losses. When the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment arrived at Gettysburg, it experienced a “whirling vortex” of death, as one observer described it. More than half of the regiment was killed or wounded stopping a Confederate advance. The 141st Pennsylvania suffered even worse casualties, losing more than 75 percent of the regiment.
What would the ancestors of these modern neo-Confederates think of their descendants? Surely they would be dismayed by their affiliation with secession and slavery. Wearing the Confederate flag is hardly an appropriate way for Pennsylvanians to honor their sacrifice. In light of our past, it isn’t just ironic—it’s historically ill-informed.