Why Does Hollywood Cemetery Need a Michael Shaara Memorial Bench?

Michael Shaara Memorial Bench - Memorial CemeteryHollywood Cemetery is a very special place.  This is the second year that I’ve brought students to this cemetery and I do so because it is rich in history and memory.  Every time I walk up Confederate Avenue I still get a little lump in my stomach as the Confederate obelisk comes into view as well as the countless Confederate graves – many of them unidentified.  Today I talked quite a bit about the steps that the Hollywood LMA took to bring the Gettysburg dead to Richmond in the early 1870s.  My students were visibly moved as they acknowledged the young ages indicated on many of the markers and the dates of death which connected them to the battle of Gettysburg.

As we walked around the loop to where George Pickett is buried one of my student pointed to a bench located next to the grave.  At first I couldn’t identify it, but within a few seconds I burst out laughing after reading the inscription.  The bench is a memorial to Michael Shaara and was dedicated this past July by the Pickett Society of Richmond.  Before proceeding, can someone tell me why the hell we need a Pickett Society?  Exactly what did this man do that was so special other than take part in a battle that for any number of reasons became immortalized as the great turning point of the war?  As I was saying, the bench is dedicated to Michael Shaara and was funded with the help of actor Stephen Lang, who played Pickett in the movie “Gettysburg” and who serves on the society’s board of directors with Ron Maxwell.  The inscription on the bench reads as follows:

Dedicated to Michael Shaara, Author, who so poignantly reminded us of the mortal sacrifice made by the soldiers who valiantly fought at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1st – 3rd, 1863 Presented to The Pickett Society by Stephen Lang, Board Member, Thespian & Playwright

I honestly don’t know where to begin with this ridiculous piece of commemoration.  The inscription has nothing whatsoever to do with Pickett other than to acknowledge one of the most popular works of historical fiction and its author.  More disturbing is that this organization is essentially acknowledging that their own identification with the general has little to do with serious history and has everything to do with a work of fiction and accompanying movie. In short, history and pop culture have become blurred.  The organization itself seems to have only started in 2000 which connects it directly to both the popularity of the movie and, in turn, Shaara’s book.

This bench has no business being on the grounds of Hollywood Cemetery and it certainly has no place in the Confederate section within feet of the remains of thousands of men who fought and died.  I honestly cannot fathom what the Pickett Society was thinking nor do I understand how the good people who manage HC could have allowed this to happen.  This bench is a piece of trash and ought to be removed immediately out of respect to the people who are buried there.

These people need to rename their organization to the Michael Shaara Society.

28 responses... add one

Isn’t the memory of the civil war always being shaped by popular culture? “Gettysburg” is an artifact of a certain time and place, just as the novel “Killer Angels” was. Hell, in the Atlanta cyclorama they have a figure painted to look like Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind.

How much of current interest in African Americans soldiers is due to “Glory?”
How much of the ballyhoed, mostly imaginary black Confederate soldiers a reaction to that interest, and attempt to wrest the narrative away from emancipation?

The bench seems out of place. A bench in a Normandy cemetary noting “Saving Private Ryan” would be the equivalent.

This intrigues me. Given all the defenders of Confederate heritage who flock to read your posts, I’ll be interested to see whether this is okay by them.

Matt,

Of course I agree that much of our interest in history is shaped by popular culture, but why do I have to see it acknowledged in a place like Hollywood Cemetery in the form of a commemorative bench. We seem to be in agreement on this.

Hi Kevin,

No, the bench doesn’t belong there. What is the bench doing there?

The more I read about the Civil War, the more I feel like I am in an episode of the Twilight Zone. Who are the “revisionist” historians? Who were the revisionist historians from the beginning? What is going on?

I can’t get that picture of HK Edgerton holding a Confederate flag as a man who could have been one of the dead soldiers in Hollywood cemetery one hundred fifty years ago out of my mind. That picture is wrong in every way, and the cynical manipulation behind it is unconscionable. You were right, Kevin. From all that I have read, HK is not defending a principle.

Since you were nominated last year by a certain organization as “Scalawag of the Month”, I believe it was; I would like to now nominate you as Patriot of the decade.

(Dear God, you’ve got to be kidding me…………………………)) !: I thought this was over. Obviously not.)

Not so much “interest” but the cultural memory of the civil war is actually memories of movies or novels. When a visitor is standing on the well kept grounds of a national battlefield, trying to evoke the experience, he’s probably replaying a movie scene in his head.

I was at Gettysburg in the spring, and the place was full of middle aged guys(which I’m one), pointing, gesturing, chopping their hands to indicate where the flanks were(or how large the fish was that got away). There was a murmer of “canister…Pickett…regiment…” a gentle soundtrack of military terms. How many of these folks were seeing a montage of exciting battle scenes?

As far as the SCV is concerned, I imagine they’re torn. On one hand the bench is a jarring disgrace, on the other hand Ron Maxwell has been a good friend to them, replacing viewing of of the aging “Birth of a Nation” with “Gods and Generals.” Maybe not such a good friend.

Sherree, — You are absolutely right. It doesn’t belong there. It almost feels like a movie and book advertisement. I also sometimes feel as if I am in the Twilight Zone, but that is what makes this so darn interesting. Thanks for the nomination. :)

Matt, — It is indeed a movie most people are playing in their minds when they visit a battlefield. I assume you are right that the Pickett Society is made up mainly of SCV folks, but I couldn’t confirm that on their website. Perhaps I overlooked something, but I was very tired yesterday when I composed the post.

Kevin,

You’re welcome. Don’t mention it. You deserve the nomination. Thanks for recognizing the enormity of the tragedy of the Civil War for all–the North, the South, and most especially, especially, especially, the black men and women who were kidnapped from Africa, forced to endure the fetid horrors of a voyage on a slave ship, and then sold as slaves to endure the horror of slavery, only to be freed by the war and put back into what amounted to virtual slavery again. This is simply the reality of what happened, and we cannot afford to forget it. Thanks.

Hi Sherree,

You said, “the black men and women who were kidnapped from Africa, forced to endure the fetid horrors of a voyage on a slave ship, and then sold as slaves to endure the horror of slavery, only to be freed by the war and put back into what amounted to virtual slavery again.”

I’m not so sure that any of those who made the crossing in slave ships were still around to see emancipation and subsequent postwar “virtual slavery again.” I may be mistaken and it would be interesting to see if there were, but I don’t think it was the case. I agree with you, however, that in many cases, life after emancipation was anything but reflective of anything close to true freedom and was often a return to what could be considered “virtual slavery.”

Best, Robert

Thanks, Robert, for keeping me on my toes, lol. I forget sometimes that I am speaking to historians.

To clarify:

What I meant by the sentence “the black men and women who were kidnapped from Africa, forced to endure the fetid horrors of a voyage on a slave ship, and then sold as slaves to endure the horror of slavery, only to be freed by the war and put back into what amounted to virtual slavery again” was to comment on the overall experience of black men and women in America as a people. Hope that helps.

The bench COULD be appropriate with a better thought-out inscription. The way it is now,though, is wildly inappropriate. The”Saving Private Ryan” analogy is 100% correct and we can hope that Tom Hanks doesn’t do something like this. But it is from a society honoring a general noted at the end of the war for his inattention to detail (case in point – going to a fish fry instead of staying at 5 Forks).

Matthew, — I guess it “could be” if it had something to do with Pickett. As it stands, the Pickett Society has turned a historical (and some would say a sacred site) into a shallow reference to pop culture. The disturbing part of this is that these people actually claim that they are protecting their “southern heritage.” What a complete joke!

Robert,

The international slave trade was outlawed (in the US) in 1807 (the prohibition took effect on January 1, 1808). If a 7-year-old child arrived on a legal transport in 1807, he/she would have been 65 at the end of the war.

Although legal prohibition slowed the importation of slaves from Africa to the US, it did not stop it. Since the punishment for defying the ban was a fine, some slave traders continued on in the business for decades after it became illegal. One example: the Antelope case, argued before the Supreme Court in 1825, concerned a slave ship captured off the coast of Georgia and the fate of the 200+ captured Africans aboard. Other African-born slaves were brought through Mexico into Texas.

It’s rare, but if you look through the 1870 and 1880 census records, you will occasionally come across someone under the age of 80 whose birthplace is listed as “Africa.”

I keep trying to come up with an insightful comment, but everytime, all I can think of is that the bench looks like a perfect place to munch some shad. Say on April 1.

Hi Sherree,

O.K., I’m with you on that. As “an overall experience,” you are absolutely correct. I sort of thought that you meant that, but wanted to make sure.

However, as CGDH points out (thank you), it was actually possible. I’ve never encountered anyone, in my workings with the records of former slaves, who was born in Africa. I usually find it interesting to see the numbers of slaves and former slaves, in specific counties, who were frequently brought from one specific area. In the Shenandoah Valley, I find trends where slaves are regularly brought in from counties to the east (often from neighboring counties just across the Blue Ridge). I usually find fewer, among the records of slaves, who were actually born in the Valley.

, and not so often born in the Valley.

Actually now that I think of it (pithy at last), there is a new monument at Bastogne to mark the position of the “Band of Brothers,” prominently paid for by Tom Hanks among others. As a fan of the series, I enjoyed finding the actual site, but I must admit that I aslo wondered about all the other unclebrated companies and regiments there in the woods.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jacques_wood/2627823226/in/photostream/

Ken,

There is a certain amount of luck in all of this in terms of who ends up being commemorated. At least this monument is commemorating the men who made up the unit rather than one of the actors in “Band of Brothers” and/or Stephen Ambrose. Thanks for sharing it.

Well this also plays into the fact that a lot of times the people errecting the monument do it more for themselves than those they claim to be commerating.

Lee

Sadly, the “Rocky” statue that was foisted on Philly didn’t depict Rocky Balboa in a sitting position, it could have been a match made in heaven.

I’m in the minority here, but I’m okay with a Shaara bench at Hollywood. There comes a point when certain works of fiction transcends pop culture and becomes an artifact in itself, and it seems to me that Killer Angels reached that point some time ago.

Still, I get where everybody’s coming from. I think Shaara merits some respect on the part of ACW scholars and commemorators, but a cemetery bench might not be the best way to go about it.

As for having a Pickett Society, well–to each his own, I guess.

–ML

Stephen Lang, you will recall, also played Stonewall Jackson in Gods and Generals. Hopefully Jeff Shaara will not get “benched” for that…

He also played Ike Clanton in “Tombstone.” That doesn’t mean a very ugly marble bench needs to be placed at the OK Corral! The greater question is how does this bench fit into the pastoral scenery that seems to be the goal of the directors of Hollywood? (At least from the views Igot from its website seem to indicate a pastoral nature to the cemetery.) I’m not sure, since I haven’t visited the cemetery, but it seems this would “jar” the visitor’s experience since it so obviously doesn’t fit the motif of honoring the dead buried there.

You would be disgusted. It stands out like a sore thumb and has nothing to do with the goal of commemorating the dead.

I like how Shaara took real people doing what they really did at a real event and somehow he got the rights to the battle.
The movie Gettysburg paid a rights fee to Shaara{or his estate}. that’s not a bad deal for just inventing some dialog.

but then Howard Fast did the same for Lexington & Concord with ‘April Morning’.

A bench where people can sit and contemplate is always welcome and many people have come to the War through that book.
So I have a hard time being outraged by it

I am not outraged by it. Rather, I just think it’s incredibly bad taste to place the bench there given the nature of the site. It’s like placing a bench in honor of Matthew Broderick in Mount Auburn Cemetery. It doesn’t belong.

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