It’s More Than Just A Historically Inaccurate Wall
If you are not reading Mysteries and Conundrums than you are missing one of the most interesting new Civil War blogs to come down the pike in some time. The blog is maintained by the historical staff at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, which is led by John Hennessy. The gang has been posting on a regular basis and the stories are absolutely fascinating. Much of it has focused on the analysis of images of the town and battlefield and the high-resolution photographs will leave you staring for quite some time.
The most recent post by Eric Mink addresses the history of the famous Stone Wall at Marye’s Heights and its construction by a segregated group of African American Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s. The post goes on to address the concerns within the NPS and local white community surrounding the presence of these men as well as the steps taken to segregate park facilities, including picnic areas and bathrooms. I encourage you to read the entire post.
Anyone who has studied the battle in detail knows that the stone wall is not an accurate representation of the original wall, though recent archaeological work has shown that it does sit on the original foundation. This raises the interesting question of its status given the NPS’s recent work to return their battlefields to as close to their appearance at the time of the war as possible. We’ve seen this with the return of viewsheds at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg as well as a recent decision to dismantle a New Deal bathroom between Little Round Top and Devil’s Den.
I don’t believe that there is a general rule to be applied at every battlefield; rather, I tend to think that these decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis and in a way that will enhance the interpretation of the actual site. While I’ve walked the area around Marye’s Heights multiple times with students, family, and friends, I find it very difficult to imagine the fighting that took place there in December 1862 and May 1863. The development of the town from the area along the river up to the very foot of the battlefield makes it very difficult for me to understand the tactical ebb and flow of the battle as well as the area’s topographical significance. What I do understand is that the Confederate position there was pretty damn good. I get that.
As far as I am concerned the stone wall constructed by the CCC ought to be preserved and properly interpreted. While it would be interesting to see a historically accurate stone wall at Marye’s Heights, it’s added benefit would not outweigh the importance of the CCC wall. Actually, I could probably make the argument that if the returning of the site to its “original” look is our goal than we should either dismantle or remove the Richard Kirkland monument. Now, before you go off the deep end keep in mind that I am not suggesting that we do so, only that it does function as an obstacle in that regard. When I bring students to the monument we talk very little about the actual battle as opposed to the culture of the Civil War Centennial, which goes much further in explaining the monument’s presence than anything Kirkland did or didn’t do.
A new wall would not drastically change the stories that I share with my students when we visit. On the other hand Eric Mink’s post now allows me to share a significant story of the battlefield that will dramatically expand their understanding of the battle and its legacies. As I discussed in a talk that I gave at Fredericksburg on the anniversary of the battle in 2009 I strive to give my students a broad understanding of the significance and legacy of our Civil War battlefields. Here we have a major battle that took place on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation. Roughly seventy years later that very same spot is being maintained by a segregated group of black CCC workers for the enjoyment and education of a predominantly white audience. Some of these men may have been the children and grandchildren of slaves.
The men who fought at Fredericksburg created their own meaning, but we should not lose sight of the fact that subsequent management of a landscape continues its history and infuses it with additional significance and meaning. Think of the monuments that were erected at the turn of the twentieth century. These objects over time attain their own unique historical significance. With this wall we are presented with another object of historical significance and an interpretive opportunity that ought not to be passed over.