Two “Patriots” with long guns at their side stop to read an inscription at the Gettysburg National Military Park. Hundreds of heavily-armed bikers, militiamen and veterans descended on Gettysburg in response to a mysterious ANTIFA/BLM threat to burn flags on the 4th of July. (BPE Staff)
BALTIMORE – In the aftermath of last weekend’s aborted/hoaxed flag-burning event in Gettysburg, perhaps the only story which truly stands out is the somewhat cautionary tale of the encounter between a vociferous group of heavily-armed “patriots” and a young pastor wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. The pastor – Trent Somes of the First United Methodist Church in Hanover, PA. – videoed about 13 minutes of the confrontation.
Somes titled his video: Man in BLM shirt surrounded by white supremacists at Gettysburg.
Others at the scene filmed portions of the confrontation as well.
The videos show Somes surrounded by a large group of salty-tongued patriots – who alternately mock and interrogate him – before the arrival of law enforcement. Law enforcement then moves Somes away from the hostile crowd and encourages him to leave the park. Voices are raised here and there and pejoratives are used, but in the end calmer heads prevail and nobody comes to blows.
Watching the videos and reading Somes’ comments about the encounter in the Washington Post, one can’t help but wonder how he managed to remain so steady in what could easily have become a violent situation.
We contacted Somes twice on Monday to ask his thoughts on the confrontation. Somes respectfully declined to speak with us on the phone and reiterated his decision to remain silent in a follow-up email. So we listened again to the videos, read Somes’ reported statements in the Washington Post, and tracked his social media photo galleries and tweets. In the process, we discovered several points that seem problematic.
According to the Washington Post story, Somes said he was at the cemetery “visiting the grave of an ancestor, not protesting.”
At 1:09 in his own video, Somes says to the crowd, “This is where my ancestors are buried; am I not allowed to be here?”
After a bit of back-n-forth, one patriot asserts that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization. Someone else in the crowd (at 1:26) says, “Let the guy go – let him go.”
Somes replies to this at 1:30, saying, “I didn’t do anything. I’ve been walking around for, like, hours.”
At the 2:00 mark, an unknown man we’ll call Patriot #1 asks, “Why are you here?”
Somes replies, “I came here to visit my ancestor’s grave.”
“Which one?,” the patriot asks.
“John Aker. He’s in Pennsylvania plot D,” replies Somes.
An online search for John Aker at the Gettysburg National Cemetery quickly revealed a modest rectangular marker at Pennsylvania Plot, Section D, Site #26. This section contains a mass grave, where 534 bodies were laid to rest. But further digging online revealed that the “John Aker” in this section is believed to be Pvt. James L. Ackers – “One of 9 known Confederate soldiers buried amongst Union dead.”
The Find-a-Grave website states the Pvt. Ackers served with Co K, 2nd Mississippi. He is listed on the Confederate Roll of Honor.
Ackers’ death at Gettysburg is confirmed on the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment website (information on Co. K comes mainly from Martin L. Sandy, Jr.) The genealogy website Family Search further reveals that this same James L. Akers of Mississippi (the spelling again is slightly different) died in 1863, at the age of 17, without a wife or children.
Query: How can a person with no descendants be anybody’s ancestor?
More vexing is Somes’ assertion that he was unaware of the patriots’ presence in Gettysburg.
First, there was certainly plenty of media attention to happenings in Gettysburg last weekend, as noted in our story of the planned Flag Burning protests. Plus Somes lives in Hanover – a mere 17 miles away.
Picking up Somes’ own recording of the encounter at 2:12, we find this exchange:
Patriot #1: “And you’ve got relatives here?” (in the cemetery)
Somes: “I do.”
Patriot #1: “Well, what are you doing here?” (at the Rostrum)
Somes: “I was on my way out. I just walked around the whole cemetery.”
Patriot #2: “Sir, why are you wearing that (Black Lives Matter) shirt, though?”
Somes: (emphatic) “I didn’t know this was going on! I just had this (shirt) on.”
It is important to note that other videos of the encounter, which have been posted on social media, clearly show that Somes and the patriots were engaged in their lively exchange very close to the Gettysburg Rostrum.
The Rostrum is located near the main exit at the south end of the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
What is puzzling is why Somes would so strongly assert that he “didn’t know this was going on,” when 22-hours earlier, he was at that exact location taking photos of a group of patriots.
Here we turn to Somes’ Twitter feed from 7:44 PM July 3, 2020. The red brick Rostrum can be seen in both pictures:
Viewing the videos of last weekend’s encounter, it is clear that Somes’ presence in the park while wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt set off an alarm amongst a group of people who were already on edge. Law enforcement had also braced for the worst, which may be the reason they suggested to Somes that he simply leave the area.
As an American citizen, Somes had every right to be at the Gettysburg National Park last Saturday – dressed in a Black Lives Matter shirt and a Jesus Loves You mask. He also has the right to hold whatever political, philosophical, and spiritual ideals he chooses – as do the patriots whose views might come down squarely on the other side our cultural divide. But in light of the video evidence, his own assertions, and his curious actions on the day preceding his encounters at the cemetery, some thorny questions remain about Somes and his July 4th foray into Gettysburg.
If and when Pastor Somes is prepared to speak with the press, we again invite him to sit down with us to talk about his July 4th confrontation and to address these thorny questions. In the meantime, we will be delving into Somes’ social media postings, his political outlook and how that may inform his pastoral duties, and also a failed bid in 2019 for political office. Stay tuned.
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Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A former reporter at The Washington Herald and an occasional contributor to the Voice of Baltimore, Tony’s poetry, humor and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore; Magic Octopus Magazine; Destination Maryland, and Tales of Blood and Roses.