Are the Virginia Flaggers A Threat To Confederate Heritage? (continued)

 Here is the second part of Patrick Young’s guest post on the Virginia Flaggers. Today Brooks Simpson explains Flagger founder Susan Hathaway’s silence. It’s a doozy.

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.

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16 thoughts on “Are the Virginia Flaggers A Threat To Confederate Heritage? (continued)

  1. Betty Giragosian

    I have often wondered why those buildings at the camp were torn down–as you say, some were beautiful. I would suspect the expense of keeping them up was the villain, and no historical group took over their upkeep. What a loss!!!! We owe our historical organizations many thanks. Pity one did not take on this site.

    Reply
    1. Patrick Young

      I know. They looked wonderful. However, it is an unfortunate truth that old soldiers’ home often die with their last veteran. That is why I don’t oppose adaptive reuse of (most) historic buildings. The economics of preservation are tough for all but the most iconic structures.

      When I see pictures of the grounds and buildings from the 1930s, I have to think that if they could have been kept up they would be a true Richmond treasure today. But I also know of military sites near me with pre-World War I buildings that have not be repurposed in a way that will insure survival.

      Reply
    2. Elizabeth O'Leary

      Confederate veteran homes had a finite mission, population, and time span. As the old soldiers died out at the sprawling Richmond facility, they occupied fewer and fewer buildings–ultimately billeted in a handful and leaving a string of empty frame cottages behind them.

      In 1935, the height of the Depression, the Lee Camp Soldiers’ Home Board of Visitors took a vote and paid to take down most of the cottages and other structures because of fire hazard and insurance costs. By then the deteriorating structures were 40+ years old and maintenance funds had been sketchy for some time. Once the last resident died in 1941 and the Commonwealth gained full ownership of the property, demolition or relocation of all remaining buildings but the Chapel, Robinson House, and a utility shed took place.

      The Home’s war museum–a lower room in Robinson House–continued to operate a few more years under management of the Va. Division of the UDC, which had been given its contents by the quickly dwindling Lee Camp. The museum closed in 1948 when the state leased the building to a science institute. The UDC relocated the artifacts at that time and, I understand, still has careful stewardship of them. But during that transition, they wisely gifted the museum’s best known artifact, Stonewall Jackson’s stuffed horse, Little Sorrel, to VMI–where it is still lovingly preserved and still on view today.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        Elizabeth,

        Your point serves as a reminder that these buildings and broader landscape do not exist in a timeless bubble. They served different purposes at different times. The history of the site that you’ve carefully sketched out is a reminder that the focus for those people who wish to highlight Confederate history/heritage ought to have always been on the building and not the flag.

        I think I speak for everyone when I say thanks for taking the time to fill in these details.

        Reply
      2. Betty Giragosian

        Ms. O’Leary, I failed to read your excellent report, and you have explained the history so well. I was so anxious to set Mr. Bearden straight. Again, I thank you. You have also answered my questions as to why the cottages, etc were demolished. I hope to the satisfaction of Mr. Bearden. We are never too old to learn or to improve our minds! I hope his mind is at rest on this subject. You are truly a splendid representative for the VMFA. I believe the flaggers could have learned a great deal from you.

        What a pity their minds were closed

        ps-I cannot remove Mr. .Bearden’s name from this post.

        Reply
  2. Billy Bearden

    No historical group took over their upkeep….
    Yes, the United Daughters of the Confederacy HQ sits on the same land as the VMFA. Where were they when the old buildings were under threat of demolition? Where was the outcry as the bulldozers moved in? Too busy with a Massing of the Flags event or protecting that saced 501c3?

    Reply
    1. Brooks D. Simpson

      I think you should learn when the buildings were demolished … and I could ask where the SCV was at the time.

      Maybe you should do a little research before you open your mouth. Try it some time.

      Reply
        1. Brooks D. Simpson

          Well, we all know why Billy’s taken it upon himself to speak … someone has to take up the slack for silent Susan Hathaway.

          I say let Susan speak her mind. I wonder why the Flaggers don’t join me in that endeavor. So much for “restore the honor.”

          Reply
    2. Betty Giragosian

      Billy Bob, the United Daughters of the Confederacy did not acquire the property where our headquarters sits until after the last veteran was gone and the cottages, etc, were demolished.
      It was then that the Commonwealth devised a parcel of land to the UDC. As for the VMFA destroying several historic buildings, there was only one left, resembling a shed, and the Robinson House which was saved. The VMFA renovated that. The Massing of the Flags ceremony was not revived until after our headquarters was built. The UDC raised the money to build our headquarters, unusual for an organization of women, and for that reason it is on the Virginia and National Register of Historic Landmarks. Our Memorial Building turned 50 years old in 2008.
      We can look back and think how wonderful have been to have saved the cottages, but we do not know the reason why. they were lost. It would have been a monstrous undertaking for any organization. Is there anything else you need to know, Billy Bob?

      Reply
  3. Fiddlin Bill

    The “Flaggers” are one step away from this: http://www.traditionalistamericanknights.com/index.html You will note the display of the Confederate Battle Flag. If you peruse the Flagger web presence you’ll find all sorts of stuff that’s just slightly masked “lost cause” racism. There is no way to culturally disassociate the Battle Flag from the out and out racists, and in fact, the Flaggers are not really even trying–rather, they’re just insinuating rather than shouting out loud. One of their arguments is that since Congress declared Confederate soldiers to be American Veterans, they ought to be honored with the Battle Flag. I’d argue that the appeal to this Congressional declaration misses the point–it’s the American flag that would honor these brave Americans, who died and suffered in a lost cause, which in a word was the institution of slavery. And thank god they were defeated.

    Reply

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