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.
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.
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.
Update: Margaret Blough reminded me that the UDC has always maintained a strict code for displaying the Confederate flag. Their concern has always been that liberal use would disconnect it from the Civil War – a lesson the Flaggers and others should take to heart.
Apparently, a representative of the UDC explained to the Flaggers that their presence threatened their status as a tax exempt organization. Someone is going to have to explain that one to me. Interestingly, the UDC does not use the battle flag on their official insignia.
Has the UDC always used the First National as part of their logo or is this a more recent change? Somehow I doubt that their concern with the Flaggers has solely to do with taxes.
All of the proposals are very interesting and reflect a broad range of issues that educators, public historians, and museums are facing as we make our way through the Civil War 150th. I was particularly intrigued by one case study, which focused on securing funding to properly interpret the Centralia Massacre in Missouri for students and the general public. The author, who is a history teacher, focused on the challenges of raising sufficient funds for a story that tends to fall outside of our traditional narrative of the Civil War.
The challenge that this person faces in promoting interest in and funding for the preservation and interpretation of the Centralia Massacre highlights the continued popularity of a glorified Civil War narrative. Americans are much more comfortable commemorating and remembering a war that pit brave Confederate and Union soldiers against one another, mainly on Eastern battlefields, and apart from any serious discussion of causes and consequences. This is still the case even though there has been a steady stream of scholarly studies [start with Dan Sutherland's A Savage Conflict] devoted to the Border Wars over the past few years and online databases are also available. The story of Centralia and the war in Missouri is essential to the creation and maintenance of a sesquicentennial narrative that finally moves beyond what is still a deeply engrained Lost Cause/Reconciliationist narrative.
I’ve used the movie Ride With the Devil in my own course on the Civil War to introduce students to the Border Wars in Missouri. While it does capture some of the violence in the region, the movie’s emancipationist streak, which emerges in the final scene masks both the short- and long-term consequences of what was essentially a civil war within a civil war.
The story of Missouri’s Civil War has much in common with this nation’s military experience overseas in recent years, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, where much of the violence is driven by local disputes among competing tribes and various other warring factions. Questions of who holds the moral high ground is difficult to discern and arguably irrelevant to understanding the complexity and depth of violence that took place in Civil War Missouri. This project fits into an important narrative that moves us beyond that of North v. South/Confederate v. Union and forces us to confront some of the tougher questions of the war.
The author concludes with the following: “Missourians no longer bushwhack each other; however, it is important to remember they once did.”