It’s More Than Just A Historically Inaccurate Wall

If you are not reading Mysteries and Conundrums than you are missing one of the most interesting new Civil War blogs to come down the pike in some time.  The blog is maintained by the historical staff at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, which is led by John Hennessy.  The gang has been posting on a regular basis and the stories are absolutely fascinating. Much of it has focused on the analysis of images of the town and battlefield and the high-resolution photographs will leave you staring for quite some time.

The most recent post by Eric Mink addresses the history of the famous Stone Wall at Marye’s Heights and its construction by a segregated group of African American Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s.  The post goes on to address the concerns within the NPS and local white community surrounding the presence of these men as well as the steps taken to segregate park facilities, including picnic areas and bathrooms.  I encourage you to read the entire post.

Anyone who has studied the battle in detail knows that the stone wall is not an accurate representation of the original wall, though recent archaeological work has shown that it does sit on the original foundation.  This raises the interesting question of its status given the NPS’s recent work to return their battlefields to as close to their appearance at the time of the war as possible.  We’ve seen this with the return of viewsheds at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg as well as a recent decision to dismantle a New Deal bathroom between Little Round Top and Devil’s Den.

I don’t believe that there is a general rule to be applied at every battlefield; rather, I tend to think that these decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis and in a way that will enhance the interpretation of the actual site.  While I’ve walked the area around Marye’s Heights multiple times with students, family, and friends, I find it very difficult to imagine the fighting that took place there in December 1862 and May 1863.  The development of the town from the area along the river up to the very foot of the battlefield makes it very difficult for me to understand the tactical ebb and flow of the battle as well as the area’s topographical significance.   What I do understand is that the Confederate position there was pretty damn good.  I get that.

As far as I am concerned the stone wall constructed by the CCC ought to be preserved and properly interpreted.  While it would be interesting to see a historically accurate stone wall at Marye’s Heights, it’s added benefit would not outweigh the importance of the CCC wall.  Actually, I could probably make the argument that if the returning of the site to its “original” look is our goal than we should either dismantle or remove the Richard Kirkland monument.  Now, before you go off the deep end keep in mind that I am not suggesting that we do so, only that it does function as an obstacle in that regard.  When I bring students to the monument we talk very little about the actual battle as opposed to the culture of the Civil War Centennial, which goes much further in explaining the monument’s presence than anything Kirkland did or didn’t do.

A new wall would not drastically change the stories that I share with my students when we visit.  On the other hand Eric Mink’s post now allows me to share a significant story of the battlefield that will dramatically expand their understanding of the battle and its legacies.  As I discussed in a talk that I gave at Fredericksburg on the anniversary of the battle in 2009 I strive to give my students a broad understanding of the significance and legacy of our Civil War battlefields.  Here we have a major battle that took place on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Roughly seventy years later that very same spot is being maintained by a segregated group of black CCC workers for the enjoyment and education of a predominantly white audience.  Some of these men may have been the children and grandchildren of slaves.

The men who fought at Fredericksburg created their own meaning, but we should not lose sight of the fact that subsequent management of a landscape continues its history and infuses it with additional significance and meaning.  Think of the monuments that were erected at the turn of the twentieth century.  These objects over time attain their own unique historical significance.  With this wall we are presented with another object of historical significance and an interpretive opportunity that ought not to be passed over.

[Photograph from Mysteries and Conundrums/FSNMP]

Welcome New Readers

This last week has been pretty busy around here since the governor of Virginia announced his Confederate History Month Proclamation.  The number of visitors went through the roof owing to some key hyperlinks from a number of very popular news outlets.  To those of you who are new to Civil War Memory I encourage you to take a few minutes to look around.  Click here for some background about me and a brief description of the scope of this blog.  You can also explore my list of publications and research interests.  As for the blog itself you may want to check out the list of Popular Posts in the sidebar as well as the Archives and Categories list.  My most popular subjects include “black Confederates,” the Civil War Sesquicentennial, and my ongoing research on William Mahone and the battle of the Crater.  Enjoy and welcome.

My focus on the controversy surrounding Confederate History Month resulted in two writing assignments.  Today I finished a short editorial for Civil War Times that will appear in the next issue along with contributions from roughly ten others.  I’ve also been asked to write a critical review of an essay for The Wilson Quarterly.  The essay is titled, “America’s Changeable Civil War” by Christopher Clausen and is right up my alley.  How cool is that?

How Out Of Touch Is Governor Robert McDonnell?

Come to the former capital of the Confederacy this weekend to find out.  This weekend Richmond commemorates Emancipation Day with a wide range of events sponsored by the city’s history museums and other institutions.  What follows is an email that I received from the Online and Social Media Organizer at the University of Richmond.  I hope to be in Richmond this weekend.

I am sending this information to you as your readers may be interested in a Civil War commemoration coming up this Saturday. With Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s recent omission of slavery in his Confederate History Month proclamation (which he later corrected), the City of Richmond’s commemoration of the Civil War & Emancipation Day points the discussion of Civil War history in a direction of inclusivity.

As Gov. McDonnell’s proclamation struck a chord in this nation, I hope you will blog about Richmond’s initiative to move the conversation about the Civil War in a more comprehensive direction. [I trust that I've done just that.]

The need to tell a more accurate and inclusive story about the Civil War has led to an initiative in the City of Richmond, Va., to explore the Civil War from a more comprehensive perspective, through Civil War and Emancipation Day, a commemoration of the 150th anniversaries of the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves in America. The event will be held in downtown Richmond at The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar and Shockoe Bottom on April 17, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, and 15 sites will offer exhibits, activities, performances, discussions, tours and other events.

As there is a clear need in Richmond, Virginia and the United States to include more information about the different perspectives of the Civil War – such as the suffering and triumph of African Americans during one of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history – The Future of Richmond’s Past has organized the commemoration to present a more truthful, comprehensive perspective of the Civil War. Slavery will be addressed in addition to Confederate history.

For more info on Richmond’s Civil War & Emancipation Day, visit the event page on Facebook: http://ow.ly/1xsmC.

Visit The Future of Richmond’s Past on Facebook: http://ow.ly/1xsic or the website at http://www.futureofrichmondspast.org.

I thank you for your time.

[Click here for more information on the post image.]