Pa. Sen. Doug Mastriano, Republican nominee for governor, speaks at a primary night election gathering in May 2022 Credit: Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

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Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor Doug Mastriano, a retired Army colonel and self-proclaimed historian, seems to be fixated on Civil War history.

His passion for the war is in the national spotlight after Reuters unearthed a photo of the state senator dressed as a Confederate soldier, taken when Mastriano taught at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Cumberland County.

With the Gettysburg Battlefield lying squarely in his district, Mastriano frequently posts on social media about monuments in the area. He has introduced legislation in the Pa. Senate to curb monument vandalism — which he has said isn’t about Confederate statues, though they were not excluded from the proposed protections.

The 8-year-old photo now making the rounds appears to be the first released image of Mastriano wearing a symbol of the Confederacy on his own person.

Its backstory, per Reuters, is that on photo day at the War College, faculty were given the option to dress up as a historical figure. Only a handful of the 21 pictured did so. Mastriano was the only one to dress as a Confederate.

The image was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. After receiving that request, the college removed the photo from its walls, and told Reuters it did so because the image didn’t align with the Army’s values.

Mastriano’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the reports.

His senior advisor, Jenna Ellis, defended him on Twitter after the story broke, criticizing Reuters for cropping the photo to show fewer faculty members in costume, and suggesting that Mastriano’s choice to be photographed in the uniform is comparable to a Hollywood actor depicting a Confederate in a film. Other supporters on social media also defended his choice.

This fall, Mastriano faces Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro, the current Pennsylvania attorney general, who has said it was “deeply offensive” that Mastriano “wore the uniform of traitors who fought to defend slavery.” Shapiro this week released a campaign ad that includes the photo and highlights what he calls his opponent’s “pattern of extremism.”

Mastriano was an outspoken 2020 election denier and frequently espouses what political observers describe as Christian nationalist rhetoric. He attended and raised money for his campaign at “Patriots Arise for God and Country,” an April conference that promoted QAnon beliefs and other conspiracy theories. Mastriano has also come under scrutiny more recently for paying a $5k consulting fee to far-right social media site Gab and praising the site’s founder, who has made antisemitic statements.

He was also present at the U.S. Capitol when it was attacked by a mob of Trump supporters, and was among a crowd that proudly carried confederate flags and other racist symbols.

In Mastriano’s frequent Facebook videos, he gripes about the media portraying him and his supporters as racists, but he also mingles in seeming comfort among symbols of white supremacy.

With the Confederate flag on it, ‘can’t think of a better cape’

On Independence Day in 2020, Mastriano was at the Gettysburg Battlefield when dozens showed up to stop a rumored flag burning by antifa protesters. It appears the antifa event was a hoax, but “militia” showed up anyway, some toting guns and Confederate flags.

In a video from that event, Mastriano approaches a group of people gathered around a pickup truck with a Confederate flag flying from it, thanking them for coming out.

Approaching another attendee — a man wearing a combination of the American flag and the Confederate flag around his shoulders — Mastriano can be heard saying “I can’t think of a better cape.”

The state senator had posted on Facebook a week prior about “the threat to burn an American flag in the Gettysburg National Cemetery” on July 4. His post was flooded with over 800 comments, many of which were calls for people to bring their guns to the cemetery and stop flag burners or people who might try to harm statues at the battlefield.

In a Facebook Live video the next day, Mastriano praised the people who came out, and said they were protecting the area from “radical nutcases that hate our country and our history.” He also stated the gathering of militia had “nothing to do with Confederate monuments.”

Later in the video, he said of the armed militia that came to the battlefield, “I didn’t see any fringe. I just saw good people.”

Trying to preserve allll the monuments

During the summer of 2020, protesters around the country were calling for the removal of monuments to racist historical figures, including Confederate leaders. Many such statues were taken down by local governments. The U.S. House was in the process of voting to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol building.

In July 2020, Mastriano announced his plans to introduce legislation to protect monuments in Pennsylvania from vandalism, and to prevent their removal without approval from the state legislature. His official announcement of the bill was at Gettysburg Battlefield, though that’s a federal site and wouldn’t be affected by state law.

At the time, Mastriano said he was proposing the bill after hearing “from citizens across Pennsylvania ‘imploring’ him to take action to protect the state’s history and to oppose ‘attempts of the mob’ to rewrite it,” Penn Live reported.

He first started talking about the bill soon after news broke that the last four Confederate monuments and markers in Pennsylvania outside Gettysburg would be removed under an agreement between Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Two of them were ultimately replaced, with revisions meant to frame the Confederacy more critically.

Around the same time, the National Park Service put out a statement saying it wouldn’t remove any Confederate monuments.

Mastriano said his bill wasn’t about Confederate statues, noting that statues of abolitionists Matthias Baldwin in Philadelphia and Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York, were vandalized.

But many of his supporters make it clear, in comments on Mastriano’s Facebook posts and videos, that they want the Confederate monuments to stay.

In a November 2019 Facebook post, the state senator asked the question outright, alongside a news story about the removal of a Confederate statue in North Carolina: “This has become a thing here in USA. Since Gettysburg has hundreds of monuments, what do you think about this ???”

Most of the commenters said they were against the removal, saying the statues preserve history.

“There is nothing wrong with Confederate flags or statues of Confederate generals,” one person wrote. “[T]hey fought and died for what they believed in, those states should cherish their history, it is part of the fabric that built this country.”

Mastriano’s monument protection bill didn’t make it out of committee.

Confederate flags at the Capitol riot

Mastriano’s detractors have consistently pointed to his presence in 2021 at the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

It’s been cited as a central reason by a growing number of Republican officials choosing to back Democratic candidate Shapiro instead of their own party’s candidate for Pa. governor.

Recent reports indicate Mastriano was more active in the insurrection than he previously let on. He previously said he left the site when the protest stopped being peaceful, but videos investigated by NBC News earlier this summer appear to show Mastriano in the crowd just before it breached a police barricade into the building.

Several of the people present on Jan. 6 wore a variety of symbols associated with white supremacy and racism.

One even carried a Confederate flag into the Capitol building — the first time such a thing had happened in the history of the United States, including during the Civil War.

Mastriano has been subpoenaed in a congressional investigation of the Capitol attack, and he met with the investigating committee via teleconference earlier this month — but only for 15 minutes. His lawyer said afterward Mastriano plans to challenge the subpoena in court.