4. Adding to the need for those who support the preservation of the chapel to reconsider the conflictive approach taken by the Virginia Flaggers is the inherent marginality of the site itself. It is a memorial. Essentially, nothing happened here.
People want to preserve battlefields because they are places where something happened. Ford’s Theater and the Lorraine Motel are filled with people pointing out where the assassins stood. People visit these places and imagine what they would have seen in 1863, or 1865 or 1968. They fire the historical imagination. What do people imagine when they go into the chapel? Men at prayer?
The chapel was a chapel for the Confederate retirement home and hospital on the site. In other words, this site is as perishable as the VFW Hall in town or the Veteran’s Hospital. Don’t believe me? Well the site originally contained a fair number of veterans’ buildings, some quite lovely looking. Most were torn down in the 1950s and 1960s at a time when Confederate Heritage was much more popular. They were removed by state governments that openly celebrated the CSA. Veterans’ sites are incredibly disposable in a way that battlefield sites are not.
On my The Immigrants’ Civil War facebook page I recently discussed the Union veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic. Many people wrote to say they had never heard of the group before, but now they understood why there was a Grand Army Plaza or Grand Army Highway in their town. Some wrote to say they now knew why the local Elks Lodge had the initials GAR on them.
While the vets of the war are now getting important attention from historians, the general public views veterans’ sites as boring. Imagine a tour of you local American Legion Hall:
“Docent: This building is very significant. It was used by World War II vets
Child: What did they do here?
Docent: They played cards and told stories. Once a year they pooled their money and hired a stripper. Poor Jimmy Mulcahey. He survived Omaha Beach but died during a lapdance.”
Think of the many Veterans’ Arena or Veterans’ Stadiums there were in the US 50 years ago. Now they have been renamed after our real heroes like Capital One Bank.
Apart from it vulnerability as a veterans’ site, there is also the problem of its marginal artistic worth. The Confederate chapel does not appear on lists of great architecture or churches. Its architect is little known outside Virginia. Many people praise the stained glass windows it houses. Windows could easily be decontextualized and removed from chapel and placed on exhibit in the museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has dozens of these stained glass windows next to panels showing the torn down building they were originally in. They cease to be seen as historical pieces and come to be viewed solely as art.
When the Flaggers stir up controversy about the chapel, when they repeatedly declare its identity with a flag many Virginians see as a threat, they inevitably bring disrespect on a site they claim to love. Making the chapel into a symbol of fringy politics will endanger public support for the expenses demanded to keep it open.
I think that the chapel is a very important site and one that should be preserved. I wish the Flaggers shared my prioritizing of the chapel over politics.
I want to thank Kevin for allowing me the space to share these thoughts.