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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UDC Snubs Virginia Flaggers

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.

Looks like the Virginia Flaggers suffered a setback this week during their ongoing boycott of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for removing Confederate flags from in front of the Pelham Chapel.  The trouble started after the group attempted to take a photograph in front of the national headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

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.

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Remembering the Centralia Massacre

Centralia Massacre Mural

Yesterday I spent the day doing my part as one of twelve members of a Sesquicentennial Working Group that will meet next month in Milwaukee as part of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  Our panel was organized by the American Association for State and Local History.  We are now at the stage where group members are responding to the various proposals in an attempt to facilitate as fruitful a discussion as possible once we all get together in one room.

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.”

[Image source]

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Why the Museum of the Confederacy Chose Not To Fly the Flag

I don’t have much to add to Brooks Simpson’s post about the controversy surrounding whether the new branch of the Museum of the Confederacy at Appomattox should fly a Confederate flag outside of the facility.  To be honest, I haven’t given it much thought, though I agree with Brooks that it would be appropriate to fly Third National flag opposite the US national colors for 1865.

Let me venture a guess as to why the MOC has chosen not to fly the Confederate flag in front of the building and it has nothing to do with hollow accusations of political correctness and the like.  The Confederate flag has become symbolic of very little that has to do with its Civil War past and that, in large part, is due to the actions of the very people who claim to cherish it as a symbol of their Southern heritage.  Their defense of every nitwit who comes along looking to stir up controversy with the flag and the mainstream media’s obsession with publicizing these stories as part of the “Continued War” narrative has rendered the flag as virtually meaningless.  It is nothing more than something we argue about.

The MOC has an interest in not alienating the general public by flying the flag in full public view; rather its mission is to educate and I have little doubt that it will succeed with the Confederate flag as one of its most important artifacts.   You would think that after so many butchered images of the flag that the MOC’s decision to showcase and interpret the real thing would be met with a sigh of relief from the heritage crowd.

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The Governor Considers It A Most Important Command

Statue by sculptor Thomas R. Gould constructed in 1875, Hingham, MA

One of the stumbling blocks that I continue to come up against in researching the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry is in reference to Governor John Andrew.  The problem is especially acute given my interest in the pay crisis of 1863-64.  Andrew played an important role as an advocate for these men, but I am only able to skirt the surface of his involvement thus far.  Unless I am mistaken, the last biography was written in 1904.  I suspect that his pre-mature death in 1867 as well as the general trend of the nation’s collective memory by the end of the nineteenth century has something to do with his disappearance from the historical landscape.

Of course, he makes a very brief appearance in the movie Glory and you will find him referenced in scores of Civil War studies that focus on the organization and deployment of black Union soldiers, but there seems to be little more.  Can anyone think of a more important Civil War era governor?  Andrew is central not only to the inclusion of African Americans in the United States military, but emancipation itself.

I am now toying with writing a Civil War biography of Andrew.  Such a focus would allow me to continue to research black Union soldiers and the story of black citizenship in Massachusetts, but it would also highlight Andrew’s role in this dramatic story.  I suspect there is also room to talk about how Andrew was remembered in connection to emancipation and black soldiers after his death.

[Post title comes from a letter written by Col. Robert G. Shaw on Feb. 4, 1863, which appears in Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.]

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