A Civil War History Lesson On Trump's Visit To Gettysburg

Oct 23, 2016
Originally published on October 23, 2016 5:07 pm

Donald Trump laid out his closing pitch to voters on Saturday in Pennsylvania, a battleground state that is home to many actual battlegrounds.

"It's my privilege to be here in Gettysburg, hallowed ground where so many lives were given," Trump said.

Trump reiterated the major themes of his campaign, like cracking down on illegal immigration. He also promised to sue women who've come forward to accuse him of unwanted sexual contact. But first, he drew a parallel to the state of the nation during the Civil War.

"President Lincoln served at a time of division like we've never seen before. It is my hope that we can look at his example to heal the divisions we are living through right now," Trump said.

Afterward, Trump visited the site of Pickett's Charge, a failed Confederate assault on the Union on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.

Trump's next stop at the conservative Christian Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., brought another Civil War battle to mind.

"A hundred and sixty-two years ago, in a place called the Wilderness, right here in Virginia, the entire center of the rebel line was collapsing," State Sen. Frank Wagner said to the large crowd standing in the open air, recalling the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness, which costs tens of thousands of lives but ended in stalemate.

Wagner was attempting to inspire the crowd to vote for Trump by telling them about Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, who refused to give up as the Union Army drove to break the Confederate line: "He ran to the sound of the gunfire."

"We're in a war," Wagner said, urging the crowd to take the country back — by getting out the vote for Trump.

"That's an amazing metaphor, isn't it," said John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Grantham, Penn., who was attending a conference for Christian historians on the Regent University campus.

Fea noted that Pickett's Charge — a last-ditch effort by the Confederate Army at the end of a losing battle — could be seen as an unfortunate symbolic choice.

"It was a big-time slaughter, but that was their only chance of getting out of Gettysburg alive with a victory," Fea said. "That's pretty much what Trump's trying to do right now, right?"

Whatever the outcome of the battle that will end on Election Day, Fea said he wonders about the direction of the Civil War within the Republican Party that will rage on.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to finish up today's program talking about politics, as the 2016 presidential campaign draws to a close. Don't worry though, there's a sweet ending you'll find out in a minute. But first, over the weekend, Republican Donald Trump and his campaign invoked historic metaphors in stops at Civil War battlefields over the weekend. That could be a useful lens, as NPR's Sarah McCammon reports.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: As Donald Trump laid out his closing pitch to voters in the key state of Pennsylvania, what better setting than an actual battleground?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: It's my privilege to be here in Gettysburg, hallowed ground, where so many lives were given.

MCCAMMON: Trump reiterated the major themes of his campaign, like cracking down on illegal immigration. He also promised to sue women who've come forward to accuse him of unwanted sexual contact. But first, he drew a parallel to the state of the nation during the Civil War.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: President Lincoln served in a time of division like we've never seen before. It is my hope that we can look at his example to heal the divisions we are living through right now.

MCCAMMON: Afterward, Trump visited the site of Pickett's Charge, a failed Confederate assault on the Union on the last day of the Battle at Gettysburg. Ahead of Trump's next stop at the conservative Christian Regent University in Virginia Beach, another Civil War battle came to mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK WAGNER: A-hundred-and-sixty-two years ago, in a place called the Wilderness right here in Virginia...

MCCAMMON: State Senator Frank Wagner told the large open-air crowd about a battle where the Confederate general refused to give up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WAGNER: The entire center or the rebel line was collapsing. Lee saw it. He ran to the sound of the gunfire.

MCCAMMON: We were in a war, Wagner said. And it's time to take the country back by getting out the vote for Trump.

JOHN FEA: That's an amazing metaphor, isn't it?

MCCAMMON: That's John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. He was attending a conference for Christian historians on the Regent campus. Fea noted that Pickett's Charge, a last-ditch effort at the end of a losing battle, could be seen as an unfortunate symbolic choice.

FEA: It was a big-time slaughter, but that was their only chance of getting out of Gettysburg alive with a victory. And that's pretty much what Trump's trying to do right now, right?

MCCAMMON: Whatever the outcome of the battle that will end on Election Day, Fea says he wonders about the direction of the civil war within the Republican Party that will rage on. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Virginia Beach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.