I’ll Take It

Looks like Brag Bowling and the SCV are going to look elsewhere for a home for their statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber.  I reported on this story a few days ago.  He is rightfully concerned that, given the lack of preconditions attached to the donation of the statue to the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar, they may decide never to display it.  I would suggest, however, that his bigger concern is that they will display it.

As a steward of SCV money, I’m not going to take that risk, where it might not be displayed or it might be made in a way that denigrates the intent of the statue,” he said. “Theoretically, they could take the thing and melt it down. I think Richmond has missed an opportunity to open up the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

How might the museum display it in a way that “denigrates the intent of the statue”?  Well, they might do what museums do and include an interpretive panel that would give the visitor information about Davis and his view of blacks and slavery or his broader racial outlook.  It might even include information about the antebellum-postwar myth that slavery was a benign institution.  If I were Bowling I would cease to give interviews about this issue and move on.  The problem he is dealing with is the lack of an easy target to use to shape the image of a people/organization whose heritage and history are being attacked.  In this case it’s impossible since the mission of the museum is to tell the story of the Civil War from the perspectives of Union, Confederate, and slave.

Just in case the statue fails to find a home I would like to make a pitch for my classroom.  Next semester I will be teaching a class on memory and the Civil War, which will include an entire section on statues and other public historic sites.  I am planning two field trips, the first through Charlottesville and later to Richmond.   What better way to remember Davis than to use him as a teaching tool in a classroom full of young Virginians.

Give it some thought.

Postscript: Richard Williams has a thoughtful response to my post (even if he fails to provide a link) which you can read here.  His suggestion that Tredegar might place the statue in a “circus setting” is unpersuasive unless he can provide examples where this has happened in the past.  I’ve said this before and it bears repeating that Tredegar was not responsible for the placement of the Lincoln-Tad statue back in 2003.  The reason there is no historical marker explaining Lincoln’s racial outlook is because the statue was placed to commemorate his visit to Richmond in April 1865. It has nothing directly to do with race unless you want to explore how the black community received Lincoln.  This, of course, is quite different from Lincoln’s own evolving views on race.   As for how the Davis-Limber statue ought to be interepreted, Williams has this to say:

There was no reason for the statue to be purposely misinterpreted as representative of the institution of slavey as a whole, (that notion is utterly ridiculous) nor should the statue be used to make the false claim that most Southerners want to cover up or dismiss the evils of slavery. That too is utterly ridiculous.

Williams would have us believe that this statue is best interpreted as a reflection of the benign side of race relations and slavery.  First, I agree with Williams that the statue ought not to be interpreted as “representative of the institutiton of slavery as a whole” – a narrow focus on Davis would be sufficient.  Visitors would need to know that Davis was a wealthy slaveowner who believed in white supremacy and served as president of a nation whose expressed goal was the preservation of slavery and the maintenance of white supremacy.  I also agree with Williams that the statue should not be interpreted as a conscious attempt on the part of Southerners to “dismiss the evils of slavery.”  That would be to mistakenly reduce all Southerners to one narrow position, which would dismiss the diversity of opinion over how the past is identified and embraced.  What I would say, however, is that it is reflective of how the SCV has chosen to remember the history of the antebellum South as well as the Confederacy.  Much has been written on the history and agenda of the SCV by such historians as Gaines Foster, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Thomas Brown, Robert J. Cook, and Charles R. Wilson – most of whom were born and teach in the South.  To suggest that the commission of the Davis-Limber statue is not to be understood as an extension of that broader narrative/agenda is ludicrous.

Clarification on Hopkins-SCV Dispute

The other day I briefly referenced the decision of Johns Hopkins University to deny a Maryland chapter of the SCV use of their facilities for an upcoming Lee-Jackson Day celebration. The only information available at that point was an SCV blog post which reported that they had been denied access to school facilities simply because they were a Confederate organization. A brief news item in Inside Higher-Ed adds a bit more to the story. Apparently, the organization will still be able to hold their ceremony in the park adjacent to the campus, but will not have access to university facilities:

A spokesman for Hopkins noted that the university does not control the park, and that the Confederate groups are free to continue to honor their generals there. But he added, “We’re not legally required to rent meeting space to anyone who asks.” As for the change of heart this year, the spokesman said that there were complaints last year and that “we choose not to have the Confederate battle flag carried across our campus, particularly so close to the Martin Luther King holiday.”

Is anyone surprised that the university would not want to be associated with the Confederate flag given recent events? This story has nothing to do with attacking Confederate heritage or the suppression of ideas. It is better understood as a reaction to the blatant misuse of the Confederate flag for reasons that have nothing to do with the men who fought under it during the Civil War. As I stated in that earlier post, the SCV’s silence on the misuse of the flag functions as an implicit endorsement. Clearly, they are reaping the rewards for their silence and my guess is that it is too late to be rectified.  Don’t blame Johns Hopkins for your troubles, blame yourselves.

End of Another Semester

The second of my two Civil War sections just finished their final exams.  They had 90 minutes to write about the evolution of the conflict from limited to hard war.  Students analyzed how and why the war evolved, the relationship between the battlefield and home front, national politics, and ultimately the redefining of freedom and liberty.  I decided against a more traditional objective test since just about all of my students are seniors who need as much practice as possible writing analytical essays before they head off to college.  I used the same format for their midterm exam, which focused on how Lincoln came to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. 

This is the first year where we’ve moved from a semester to a trimester system.  It hasn’t made much of a differenct to my survey courses, but I’ve had to focus much more on what I want to teach in my electives given that I have four fewer weeks to work with.  I had a great time with these students.  Both sections were interesting and worked consistently throughout the semester – only a couple of early cases of senioritis.  Luckily, most of my students are scheduled to take my course on Civil War memory which begins after the Thanksgiving break.

Louisville’s Changing Public Landscape

Plans for a new “Freedom Park” were unveiled yesterday in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, which will include a number of new exhibits and statues related to the civil rights movement.  The site is home to a Confederate monument erected in 1895 by the Women’s Confederate Monument Association.  The project is being led by local city officers as well as University of Louisville officials.  The new exhibits will be placed alongside the Confederate monument in the hopes of creating a more historically diverse public space that reflects a more inclusive citizenry.

City spokesman Chris Poynter said it is important to leave the monument “where it is. It is part of our history. But it tells only one side of the story, and we feel it is important to tell the other side.”

Dr. Blaine Hudson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and an African-American historian who helped develop the concept for Freedom Park, acknowledged that it would be difficult to move the Confederate Monument. He said it “reflects Southern sentimentalism.”  Hudson said he hopes that Freedom Park will be an “outdoor museum that will tell the complete story of the Civil War period, the antebellum period here in Louisville and the civil-rights period.”

According to sculptor Ed Hamilton: “You can’t rewrite history. You’ve got to deal with it head on. But we need to have something to offset that one-sided portion of history.”

I agree that it would be a mistake to remove Confederate statues like the one in Louisville.  They have become part of our cultural landscape and most of them can rightfully be considered works of art.  It’s a mistake on the part of Professor Hudson to even hint at the possibility of removal.  Such a suggestion only works to alienate segments of the public.  Like all public historical displays these monuments need to be properly interpreted and as an educator it is his job to do so.   Adding to the park’s landscape can only enrich the visitor’s experience and provoke questions and dialog about our rich and sometimes divisive history.

My Fredericksburg Battlefield

Just sitting here thinking about what I might say in my keynote address marking the 145th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. I am going to center my remarks on how I use the battlefield to teach. I’ve brought my students to the Chancellorsville/Fredericksburg battlefields for the past 5 years. It’s always a new experience depending on where we go as well as the interests of my students. One of my favorite walks begins in the downtown area of Fredericksburg where we discuss the crossing of the Army of the Potomac and the civilian experience, including the town’s slave population. One of the more interesting stops on our route towards Marye’s Heights is the slave auction block, which is located at the corner of William & Charles Streets.

Thinking about the scope of my comments is difficult as I have an inclusive view of what a battlefield ought to include, especially when my students are involved. It’s never simply about the movement of troops, but the experiences of the men involved along with the bigger issues that defined the war, including its cause and aftermath.  I guess all I want to say is that without this auction block there is no Fredericksburg battlefield.  They are inextricably linked.

A few questions to consider: (1) How many Southern towns have preserved sites such as this?  (2) Why did the city of Fredericksburg preserve this particular site after the war?