Museum of the Confederacy – Appomattox Opens Next Week

Sketch of MOC exhibit at Appomattox

It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago the future of the Museum of the Confederacy was in doubt.  There was a talk about a name change and even a move away from their location next to the Confederate White House.  Now, all eyes are on Appomattox, where the museum will open a new branch next weekend.  It is the largest sesquicentennial project to date and is a testament to the vision and talent of the museum staff.  I wish I could be there.

Today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch includes a nice overview of the new museum as well as some of the challenges the museum still faces in reaching out to various constituencies.  In contrast, the local ABC News affiliate chose to run a shorter article that references the “controversy” surrounding the decision on the part of the MOC not to fly the Confederate flag outside the facility.  Why?  Of all the good things that will come with this new museum, why is it important to acknowledge that a very small group of people in Richmond are unhappy?  Beyond protesting the Confederate flag, what have the Virginia Flaggers done to advance the community’s understanding of the Civil War?  As far as I can tell, all they’ve done is stage petty conflicts for uploading on YouTube.  They represent no one, but themselves.  Even the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who have issued a formal statement about this issue, is irrelevant.  Two weeks ago they were unable to bring out more than a small handful of supporters in the former Confederate capital of Richmond for a national rally.

Let’s be clear.  None of these protests matter because neither the Flaggers nor the SCV offer a vision of their own.  They’ve done nothing to reach out to the public with anything approaching a positive plan of how to commemorate and further our understanding of this crucial period in American history.  The future of the MOC in Appomattox and even in Richmond has very little to do with these two groups.

Their relative success will be determined by how well they tell the story of the Confederacy and the broader history of the period and their effectiveness in engaging the broader community, especially the schools.  This is a wonderful opportunity for the MOC to engage those groups that they have had difficulty connecting with in the Richmond area.

Most reasonable people will not be turned off by this silliness surrounding the display of the Confederate flag; in fact, most people who visit won’t be aware of it at all.  Finally, it’s OK to disagree with MOC’s decision, but that is not necessarily a reason not to visit.  Go with an open mind and share your thoughts in a constructive way re: the flag or other aspects of the exhibit if you are moved to do so.  You are bound to learn something either way.  Not everything has to be framed as an all or nothing choice.

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Virginia Historical Society Interprets Confederate Conscription

This is the second video that I’ve posted from the Virginia Historical Society’s traveling exhibit, “An American Turning Point”.  This one addresses the issue of conscription, but it also introduces visitors to women as political agents.  It’s always nice to see an exhibit move past the traditional and one-dimensional image of Civil War era women as Melanie Wilkes caricatures.

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Outrage Spreads Over Civil War Gift Shop

No, this is not an Onion headline.  I guess it should come as no surprise that the Gettysburg bobblehead controversy has gone viral.  The story has appeared in hundreds of newspapers across the country and beyond.  It’s nice to know that interested parties are on the job ensuring that only appropriate items are sold at a Gettysburg GIFT SHOP – a site where tens of thousands of Americans were killed and wounded.  Someone please let me know when the Iraq Sunni – Shia gift shop opens in Baghdad.

Well, at least kids will still be able to re-create the suffering of Andersonville Prison.

Please tell me this is not sold at Andersonville.  Is a JWB bobblehead really any worse than your own set of Civil War trading cards?

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What Will Spark the Imagination of the Sesquicentennial Generation?

If your interest in the Civil War has its roots in the early 1960s than chances are that it was American Heritage’s Picture History of the Civil War that sparked your imagination.  It’s not just the frequency with which it comes up in conversation, but the way in which it is remembered.  I’ve heard a number of historians reflect on the book’s influence on them at an early age.  Whether it was the photographs, illustrations or the battle maps, the book clearly made an impact.   [My own interest in WWII was sparked by reading the Time-Life Series when I was in grade school.]  It serves as a reminder that a healthy and lasting passion for history begins with a youth’s imagination.

It’s worth asking whether there is anything equivalent to the American Heritage book that will stir the imagination of a new generation of Civil War enthusiasts.  Kids today have more resources at their disposal than any previous generation – much of it in digital format.  While I am a huge fan of the digital turn I do wonder whether these products will have the same impact.  Than again, these may simply be the words of an old fogey, who can still remember a time before the digital age.  I look forward to the day when we will learn, for example, that the technology contained in the Civil War Trusts Battlefield Apps has made its mark.

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A Relic of the Past

Lee Monument, Richmond, Virginia

Last night I received an email asking why I continue to post about the activities and antics of the Virginia Flaggers [see here and here].  It should be obvious given the content of this blog, but let me once again state the obvious.  The Flaggers and their cause provide a clear window into the changing cultural and historical landscape of Richmond and much of the rest of the South.  I should point out that I don’t really have a problem with planting the Confederate flag in front of Pelham Chapel, but apparently the VMFA does and it is their private property.  Andy Hall was kind enough to forward the official UDC response to Susan Hathaway and the Flaggers following their recent incident:

On December 26, 2011, I responded to Ms. Hathaway advising that Pelham Chapel is not a UDC memorial and that our involvement in this issue could be construed as a ‘political activity’ that would possibly put our 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status at risk. I further advised that our Bylaws prevent our involvement in ‘political activity’ and for that reason; the UDC was unable to allow the use of the flag poles located on the front of our UDC Memorial Building. I reminded her that the First National Flag flies daily in front of the UDC Memorial Building in perpetual honor of our Confederate ancestors.

On Wednesday afternoon, March 7, 2012, Ms. Hathaway came to our building and asked to speak with me. Mrs. Lucy Steele, Chairman of the Memorial Building Board of Trustees (who was in the building on other business) and I met with Ms. Hathaway. The request was that they be allowed to ‘gather’ on the front of our property. She was advised that we would not allow that.

The request was then made to allow them to ‘gather’ on the back corner of our property. Mrs. Steele pointed out that the property at the back corner belonged to VMFA but that we did not have a problem with it but she would have to seek approval from VMFA.

Ms. Hathaway then asked if the “No Trespassing” signs that had been posted recently were because of them and if they gathered on our property would the police be called. She was told that, as with any trespasser, we would call the police.

We explained to Ms. Hathaway that there have been instances of people sleeping under the bushes around the building. Recently during a work day, a man was seen crouching between the bushes and the building with binoculars which raised questions as to his intentions. The police were called at that time. “No Trespassing” signs were placed on our property in an effort to protect not only our building but our employees as they come and go, often times during early morning and evening hours.

On Saturday, March 10, 2012, during our Annual Spring Board Meeting, the VA Flaggers gathered on the sidewalk in front of the UDC Memorial Building. A short time later, they were observed leaning and perched on the cannons ignoring signs stating do not climb on the cannons. They then moved from the cannons to the steps leading to our building for a group photo. At this point, Mrs. Steele went out to ask them to move from the steps to the sidewalk – some moved immediately. Others remained on the steps. During this time, the Richmond City Police were called.

The UDC could have found a way to accommodate the Flaggers if they had wanted to do so.  It’s safe to say that their “15 Minutes” expired some time ago.  Their fundamental problem is the same problem that the rest of the heritage community faces and that is a continued embrace of the Confederate flag as the beginning and end of Confederate memory.  It reflects a complete lack of creativity as to how to forge meaningful ties to the past for those people who may be disposed to follow.  Although the community believes that their ability to commemorate the past has been threatened, the irony is that there is no better time in the Richmond area to explore the rich history of the Confederacy and the Civil War era.  There is some evidence that tourists are visiting the area for precisely this reason, but apart from a few poorly maintained websites  (some of which are attached to some pretty shady people) and a YouTube page no one is coming to their defense or providing additional support. It is difficult to see the Virginia Flaggers as little more than a relic of the past.

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