I’ve now had a few days to think about the decision of the American Civil War Center at Tredegar and wanted to take a moment to share my thoughts, some of which have already been laid out in the comments section of the last post on this subject. This is the first major public relations issue that Christy Coleman has had to deal with, and I have to say that she handled it quite well; in fact, I think she handled it brilliantly. The question was simple enough: Should Tredegar accept a statue from the Sons of Confederate Veterans that depicts Jefferson Davis holding hands with his biological son and Jim Limber.
I admit to stating publicly that I had my doubts that Tredegar would accept such a statue. I came to my decision based on a rather naive assumption that given the donor and the subject that Tredegar would steer clear. Well, I was wrong and it clearly reflects how little I know about maneuvering on the slippery rocks that is the wild world of Confederate heritage and the politics of public history. Behind the offer is a bit of history having to do with the placement of the Lincoln-Tad statue next to the NPS building back in 2003. All of us remember well the protests carried out by Brag Bowling and the SCV, and it is clear that an attempt to balance the terrain is behind this most recent offer. Keep in mind, however, that Tredegar had nothing to do with the acceptance and placement of the Lincoln statue.
What I am having trouble understanding is why the SCV offered the statue at all. I agree with fellow blogger, Richard Williams, who recently suggested that the statue would find a much better home at Jefferson Davis’s Beauvoir, which is now being maintained by the Mississippi Division, SCV. In that setting the statue could be displayed with a straightforward interpretation that reflects their preferred story. In offering the statue to Tredegar the SCV, perhaps unknowingly, placed themselves in a rather difficult position. First, regardless of the SCV’s understanding of the relationship between Limber and Davis, any critical historian would have to come to the conclusion that there is simply not enough information to justify the statue. John Coski noted in a recent piece in the MOC’s newsletter that while the available evidence points to a benevolent relationship it raises more questions surrounding race relations in mid-nineteenth century America than it answers. Most importantly, we lack the crucial perspective of Jim Limber himself. If memory serves me we know nothing about what happened to Jim Limber once he was taken by Federal authorities following the Davis family’s flight from Richmond. How did he perceive his position in the Davis family and if we knew more might that change the way we view the relationship? We need to remember that this statue is not simply about how the SCV chooses to remember Jefferson Davis. You will not find one reference to Limber in William Cooper’s fine biography of Jefferson Davis nor will you find more than a few passing references to him in Joan Cashin’s biography of Varina Davis.
I am not suggesting anything nefarious about the relationship, but Tredegar’s Board owes it to their patrons, and to the community, to ensure that the highest standards of scholarship are applied in carrying out its mission. Without the necessary scholarship the SCV’s offer tells us more about the agenda of their organization and their place in the broader spectrum of Civil War memory than it does about this tiny slice of history. If the SCV simply wanted to counter the presence of Lincoln and Tad or offer a representation of his human side than why didn’t they commission a statue of Davis and his biological son or even all of his kids, including his wife? They could have made it a true family affair. Instead, what the SCV has done is dug themselves a hole. By accepting the offer – without any conditions – Tredegar seems to have placed the SCV in a no-win situation. If it is displayed at all, there is no way that the statue will lack interpretation as an object of memory, which reflects the organization which commissioned it rather than as a simple expression of historical truth as they intended. Either way the SCV loses. They lose if the statue is never displayed and they lose if it is since the statue was not meant as an interpretation or reflection of memory. Worse yet, if the SCV backs out of the deal they will have no way of blaming Tredegar since they accepted the offer.
If the offer is agreed to by both parties, the staff at Tredegar will have their own no-win scenario to consider. If they never agree to display the statue at some point the SCV will begin to cry foul, but if they do display it with the necessary interpretation the SCV will no doubt protest. The one thing going for Tredegar is that they have managed to steer clear of the standard litany of complaints that emanate from these groups. Given its track record perhaps such complaints would have little effect. All I know is that this going to make for a first-rate case study in my upcoming class on public history and Civil War memory