I arrived early last Saturday at the National Civil War Museum to walk through some of the exhibit space and to spend some time with my good friend, Wayne Motts, who is also the director of the museum. When I walked in I noticed right away an individual who looked like Edward Sebesta, who as you all know is the self-described “Anti-Neo-Confederate” who traverses the country looking for examples of “banal white nationalism.” In the past I have been found guilty of this offense.

Well, it turned out that I was right. Sebesta not only attended my presentation on the ongoing controversy surrounding Confederate monuments, but wrote up a review. It is quintessential Sebesta.

Overall, he seems to have been quite pleased with my talk, though he chose to nitpick a few points that reflect more my decision not to bore the audience with a prepared text. What I find utterly bizarre is his review of the museum, which hinges almost entirely on the sale of Gone With the Wind and a book on Robert E. Lee, both of which are sold in the gift shop.

I think this photo [GWTW] ably summarized the essential nature  of the museum. It was offered in the museum store. Didn’t find videos about slavery and certainly not Django.

Sebesta dismisses the permanent exhibit of NCWM, which includes a new section on Reconstruction with the back of his hand.

I am sure there will be those who will point to the various exhibits and things which acknowledge slavery and African American soldiers, but these are token gestures. To give narratives of the Civil War they had James Robertson Jr., a supporter and endorser of Southern Partisan magazine.  The exhibit on Reconstruction was telling with displays talking about how “harsh” policies of “radical Republicans” caused resentment in the South. It is like reading Hodding Carter’s, “The Angry Scar.” The museum management seems to have a curation of the Civil War out of the 1960s but with concessions and accommodations to local criticism which they are getting.

Let me be clear that there is nothing inappropriate about critiquing a history museum’s exhibits. I’ve reviewed plenty of them over the years, but if you are going to do it and expect to be taken seriously you need to show some effort to consider any number of issues.

Funding to update or replace exhibits is not always available. I know for a fact that the director of this museum spends a good deal of time on the road raising money. It is a challenge for many history museums day in and day out. The permanent exhibit does reflect its age, but it actually stands up pretty well. It focuses on the expansion of slavery as the key catalyst for war, the unraveling of slavery and the service of USCTs within a rich military history of the war. One of my favorite sections addresses medical advances and the importance of field hospitals.

Sebesta addresses none of this. It is also striking that Sebesta made no effort to meet with the museum’s director to discuss any of these issues. He apparently enters these settings to find what fits into his narrow and self-serving agenda. [In another post he describes a blue and grey shopping bag from the Gettysburg Foundation as an indication of its white nationalist agenda. You can’t make this stuff up, folks.]

Instead we get an assessment based on the sale of two items. The gift shop at the NCWM is pretty much like all the others. I have written about how what is on sale sometimes conflicts with other aspects of the museum, but I get it. Items on sale fall on a wide spectrum, but the overall goal is to raise additional funds for basic operating costs. Actually, the gift shop includes a nice selection of books that cover just about every aspect of the war.

To describe the museum as pushing a “neo-Confederate” version of history is irresponsible and leads me once again to wonder why anyone takes Edward Sebesta seriously.

Do yourself a favor and stop off at the National Civil War Museum next time you are in the Harrisburg, PA area.

About Kevin Levin

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10 comments add yours

  1. I’m still trying to get my head around his notion that the Gettysburg battlefield is a “white nationalist park.”

    • It is a striking example of his tendency to look for only those things that will prove his narrow set of assumptions even before setting foot on a site. There is no indication that he walked through the museum exhibit at the other end of the hall, which in my view is single best exhibit we have on the Civil War era. And for that matter is Morgan Freeman pushing a “white nationalist” narrative in the introductory film?

  2. I’m conflicted. I get your point, but Ed’s pictures speak for themselves. I don’t know if you can’t see the trees for the forest, or Ed can’t see the forest for the trees, or both.

    I can understand his mentality though. It’s similar to Charles de Gaulle’s. Both Ed and de Gaulle see themselves as the movement itself, from the necessity for that which they find themselves in. Both had disillusioning experiences with the leadership of others. de Gaulle had disillusioning experiences with France’s leadership as France was falling to Nazi Germany, and Ed had a disillusioning experience with black leadership in Dallas: http://www.blackcommentator.com/613/613_cover_confederacy_fallen_sebesta_guest.html

    • What do you mean they speak for themselves. So, the sale of Gone With the Wind and a shopping bag imply an adherence to a neo-Confederate or “White Nationalist” agenda in isolation from everything else? Please explain without a reference to de Gaulle.

        • Yes, a lot of nonsense is sold in stores throughout Gettysburg and there are certainly some questionable items sold at the GNMP store, but it is a separate entity from what the NPS does throughout the rest of the building and on the battlefield. This is just another example of Sebesta’s inability to see beyond what he wants to see.

  3. It’s telling that in his review of the museum he refers to the Kirkland monument as being “at a park somewhere in the South.” Seriously? There’s a plaque directly in front of it at the museum that says Fredericksburg. A good indicator of how closely he was looking at the exhibits.

  4. “Items on sale fall on a wide spectrum, but the overall goal is to raise additional funds for basic operating costs.”

    It seems beyond petty to criticize the gift shop of all things as representing the interpretative mission of a museum. If one goes to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library in Springfield, you’ll find copies of the more popular Lincoln biographies not the mention statues of him, but you’ll also find knee socks with Lincoln’s image as well as cheesy stovepipe hats and Union and Confederate caps not to mention a Lincoln nutcracker. I was disappointed that the selection of books wasn’t deeper then the better-known biographies, but my disappointment in what I saw didn’t color what I experienced in the museum. Most tourists aren’t vocational or avocational historians. Most tourists go to museums with the understanding that they’re seeing narrowly selected examples of the history of a person or event, but I’ve yet to hear anyone seriously say “I’ll can’t take this museum seriously, and I’ll never visit it again because the gift shop sells (or doesn’t sell) ‘Gone With the Wind’.” Please!

    Best
    Rob

  5. I didn’t understand the context of what you said about the replica of the Kirkland Statue from Sebesta’s comments. Did you mean the Kirkland Statue is an intentional effort to recast the context of the war or just that it has the effect of diverting attention from those causes?

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