Why Does Hollywood Cemetery Need a Michael Shaara Memorial Bench?

Michael Shaara Memorial Bench - Memorial CemeteryHollywood Cemetery is a very special place.  This is the second year that I’ve brought students to this cemetery and I do so because it is rich in history and memory.  Every time I walk up Confederate Avenue I still get a little lump in my stomach as the Confederate obelisk comes into view as well as the countless Confederate graves – many of them unidentified.  Today I talked quite a bit about the steps that the Hollywood LMA took to bring the Gettysburg dead to Richmond in the early 1870s.  My students were visibly moved as they acknowledged the young ages indicated on many of the markers and the dates of death which connected them to the battle of Gettysburg.

As we walked around the loop to where George Pickett is buried one of my student pointed to a bench located next to the grave.  At first I couldn’t identify it, but within a few seconds I burst out laughing after reading the inscription.  The bench is a memorial to Michael Shaara and was dedicated this past July by the Pickett Society of Richmond.  Before proceeding, can someone tell me why the hell we need a Pickett Society?  Exactly what did this man do that was so special other than take part in a battle that for any number of reasons became immortalized as the great turning point of the war?  As I was saying, the bench is dedicated to Michael Shaara and was funded with the help of actor Stephen Lang, who played Pickett in the movie “Gettysburg” and who serves on the society’s board of directors with Ron Maxwell.  The inscription on the bench reads as follows:

Dedicated to Michael Shaara, Author, who so poignantly reminded us of the mortal sacrifice made by the soldiers who valiantly fought at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1st – 3rd, 1863 Presented to The Pickett Society by Stephen Lang, Board Member, Thespian & Playwright

I honestly don’t know where to begin with this ridiculous piece of commemoration.  The inscription has nothing whatsoever to do with Pickett other than to acknowledge one of the most popular works of historical fiction and its author.  More disturbing is that this organization is essentially acknowledging that their own identification with the general has little to do with serious history and has everything to do with a work of fiction and accompanying movie. In short, history and pop culture have become blurred.  The organization itself seems to have only started in 2000 which connects it directly to both the popularity of the movie and, in turn, Shaara’s book.

This bench has no business being on the grounds of Hollywood Cemetery and it certainly has no place in the Confederate section within feet of the remains of thousands of men who fought and died.  I honestly cannot fathom what the Pickett Society was thinking nor do I understand how the good people who manage HC could have allowed this to happen.  This bench is a piece of trash and ought to be removed immediately out of respect to the people who are buried there.

These people need to rename their organization to the Michael Shaara Society.

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Hooray for Hollywood

Today was the kind of day that I live for as a teacher.  My students and I had a wonderful time on our trip to Richmond. It was a bit cold, but we managed.  The highlight of the trip was the Lee statue along Monument Avenue.  We spent quite a bit of time looking at it from various angles and discussing both the pose of Lee as well as a Traveler.  It is indeed a beautiful monument.  I was also surprised by the interest expressed in the Jefferson Davis Monument.  It’s the perfect contrast with the reconciliationist message of the Lee statue.  There is nothing apologetic about the Davis statue and its assertion of states rights as well as other bits of Lost Cause symbolism.  From there we headed on over to the Arthur Ashe monument to discuss the fierce debate that ensued over its placement on the same avenue as Lee, Davis, Stuart, and Jackson.  As I was talking a passerby yelled from his car, “Tear it down.”  A few of the students were surprised and a bit disappointed, but it was the perfect reinforcement to my commentary, which emphasized the continued divisiveness over Civil War memory and who can claim rightful ownership of certain public spaces.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to hit the Lincoln-Tad statue at Tredegar, but we did take quite a hike through Hollywood Cemetery, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  All in all it was a great day and this particular group of students made it extra special.  Here are a few pictures from the trip followed by a poem that one of my students composed from each site.  All of the photographs can be found on my flickr page.


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A General today still a symbol to many, ever proud and tall, he instills pride in any.  The cause disputed, different to all, and perhaps there’s still shock at the Confederacy’s “fall”.

An elaborate wall built to vindicate, the man in front, leader of states.  Praise to his army and written law of the land his hand opened up, he asks for respect yet remorse or apologies one should never expect.

Controversy caused by a monument to one, he fought his disease, a battle not conquered.  Yet instead of looking back at segregation, he fought to show his path towards a new kind of nation.

A river to one side with roads to the next, nestled between thousands laid to their rest.  Winding roads, past blocks of stone, bodies of many who fought for their homes.  Some fought in the East, and some in the West now all are together here laid to their rest.  Dates rubbed away and names never known, sacrifice, though, still not forgotten.

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Reconciliation at Hollywood Cemetery

Confederate Soldier Monument at TredegarI’ve been browsing Hollywood Cemetery’s website in preparation for tomorrow’s class trip and I am struck by the reconciliationist tone used to describe the various sites.  Consider the following brief description of the Confederate pyramid memorial, which was designed by Charles Dimmock and dedicated in 1869:

“Hollywood’s ninety foot granite pyramid, completed in 1869, is a monument to 18,000 Confederate enlisted men buried nearby.  They went into battle for what then seemed a noble cause of protecting their homes from northern aggression.  When the pryramid was erected, Southerns still called the war “The Lost Cause.”  Now we know that the cause was not a lost one.  These men’s lives, together with those of their norther counterparts, were given to forge a single and better nation. Their blood, shed in battle, gave birth to a new America, one that in another century would restore and protect freedom around the world.  Because so many whose sacrifice refined America lie here in Hollywood Cemetery’s sacred ground.”

I am going to quote the above passage tomorrow as part of my interpretation of this site to get at the continued influence of the Lost Cause and the overall theme of reconciliation in our collective memory of the war.

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Richmond’s Civil War Memory

Tomorrow I am taking 32 students and three colleagues to Richmond to tour Civil War related sites.  Since the courses that I am teaching this trimester are focused on memory we are going to spend time exploring various statues that offer case studies on how different groups, and at different times, chose to remember the war.  It will also offer a unique opportunity to analyze and discuss the contested nature of memory and public spaces.  We’ve spent quite a bit of time in class discussing how to interpret monuments and public spaces, including the way in which they reflect the values of the individuals and organizations responsible for their placement as well as the profile of local government.  It’s another thing entirely to see these sites in their actual settings.

We will begin with Monument Avenue.  Since we spent 10 days discussing the evolution and ascendancy of Lee in memory we will start with the Lee statue.  From there we will stop at both the Stonewall Jackson and Arthur Ashe statues.  I want to use the Ashe statue to discuss the bitter public debate that took place in Richmond over its placement on Monument Avenue as well as its dedication in 1996.  Some of you may remember that both Arthur Ashe as well as his wife wanted the statue placed in front of the African American Sports Hall of Fame, located in a black neighborhood, rather than the “Avenue of Confederate Heroes”.  The city council, including Viola Baskerville, overruled the Ashe family insisting that the monument be placed in a more visible location where it could be seen by all Richmonders and visitors alike.

From there we head on over to the Tredegar Iron Works to view the Lincoln-Tad statue, which is another monument that caused a bit of an uproar when it was unveiled in 2003.  Both the Lincoln and Ashe statues reflect not only changes in the make-up of local city government in the post-civil rights South, buta broader understanding of who and what is deemed worthy of remembrance.   Anyone following the recent story of the SCV’s offer of a statue to the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar of Jefferson Davis holding hands with his biological son and a black boy who briefly stayed with the family in 1864-65 knows all too well that this is also contested ground.  I plan to discuss these recent developments in some detail.

Our final stop will be Hollywood Cemetery.  Our focus will be the way Hollywood was used by white Richmonders to commemorate their Civil War dead and give meaning to their Lost Cause.  Stops will include the section devoted to the Gettysburg dead as well as the Confederate memorial (pyramid structure) designed by Charles Dimmock and dedicated in 1869.  We will stop briefly by the Pickett gravesite where I will talk a bit about LaSalle Pickett and her postwar writings as well as the controversy surrounding the placement of her remains next to her husband not too long ago.  I also want to head over to President’s and Davis circle, which will give me plenty of time to talk about the beginnings of the cemetery in 1849, its early struggles, and how it functioned as the city of Richmond continued to expand in the years leading up to the war.  Along the way I will amaze my students with all of the dead people that I can point out and discuss intelligently.

It’s supposed to be sunny with a high of 48 degress.  We couldn’t ask for a better day.  Of course, I will post all of the pictures for your enjoyment.

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President

President Barack Obama

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Citizens

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Lee Accepts the Surrender of Grant in His Vicksburg Boots

let_us_have_peace_vhsThis is my favorite painting of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox in April 1865.  It was painted in the 1920s by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris and clearly reflects the ascendency of Lee in our national memory and imagination.  Ferris titled his painting, “Let Us Have Peace” even though these words were not spoken by Grant for another three years as a campaign slogan at the start of his presidential bid in 1868.  We spent quite a bit of time with this painting in class last week and a number of my students were struck by the placement of both Grant and Lee as well as their hand gestures.  In fact, a few students thought that if a viewer didn’t know any better they would have to conclude that Grant was surrendering to Lee.  Notice Grant’s hand as it embraces a much more forceful and self-confident Lee who appears to be in charge of the situation.  The relaxed pose of Grant’s officers in the background reinforces this contrast.

Much has been made of the attire of the respective commanders, which is also quite telling as a reflection of what we find worth remembering.  Supposedly Lee’s immaculate dress and Grant’s muddy boots point to fundamental differences in character rather than the exigencies of the day.  At times it seems as if the contrast is meant to imply that Grant didn’t really deserve to accept Lee’s surrender.  The emphasis on dress in the McLean Parlor continues to find voice.  Consider this short piece in the Vicksburg Post by Gordon Cotton who speculates on whether those boots were gifts from two Vicksburg sisters, Sallie and Lucy Marshall.  It’s a legitimate question, but would it matter at all if a particular narrative of this moment in time had not been burned into our Civil War memory?

One of the reasons I find the study of historical memory to be so fascinating is that often it is not about history at all, but about what the remember believes he/she needs to make sense of the present.  In some cases the form of remembrance eclipses entirely the historical subject in question and its borders become porous.  Robert Moore’s most recent post is a thoughtful reflection on our remembrance of Lee-Jackson Day:

It is fine to both privately and, to a degree, publicly reflect upon the lives of historical persons. It fulfills various needs of the living. Look at a historical person (or persons) and consider the part of the historical person’s character, actions, etc., and consider how one may take meaning from these reflections. For some, these reflections might even translate into incorporating qualities that some find desirable in the historical person into the way they conduct themselves in their own lives. As long as reflection does not become something greater than a source of inspiration, and I suppose, guidance (as long as it is positive), then it seems innocent enough.

Mr. Cotton includes the following tribute by Ben Hill, which appeared in the Confederate Veteran in 1901 at the end of his article: “He was a foe without hate, a friend without treachery, a soldier without cruelty, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public official without vices, a private citizen without wrong, a neighbor without reproach, a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile.  He was Caesar without ambition, Frederick without tyranny, Napoleon without selfishness, and Washington without his reward.”

Perhaps he was all these things and more.  I couldn’t possibly know one way or the other without having spent significant time with the man.  It may even be the case that Lee’s boots were a gift from two residents of Vicksburg.  Mr. Cotton notes that it is impossible to know for sure.  What I do know is that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant in the McLean house on April 9, 1865.

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H.K. Edgerton Goes to Washington

get_imageI guess I should have anticipated a decision by H.K. to use the Obama election/inauguration to unify white and black American around the Confederate flag.  My local newspaper is reporting that H.K. is making his way up Rt. 29, which will take him right through Charlottesville, Virginia to Washington, D.C.  I can’t tell where along the highway he is, but if I find out I am going to make an attempt to meet him in person.  No doubt, he is freezing his ass off, but that is a small price to pay when the goal is to highlight the loyalty that African Americans demonstrated as Confederate soldiers throughout the war.  Some choice quotes from the article:

I’m an African-American and I’m a Southerner and I believe my heritage, which is represented by the flag bearing the Christian Cross of St. Andrew, is being ignored and destroyed. It’s continuing to divide the black folks and the white folks who have a lot in common.

Mr. Obama said he is about unity and bringing this nation together. If he is truly a man of unity, I hope he will consider showing the Southerner that [the Southerner] is an important part of this country.  He could have a Confederate color guard at the White House,” he said. “He could give the Confederate flag a respected place as part of the history and heritage of this country.

It does not represent slavery, although slavery was a fact of life. The flag represents a heritage, a way of life that my forebears had. It represents the men and the families that lived together and fought together to preserve their country from invasion.  My family volunteered for the Confederacy and fought side-by-side with white Southerners and Indian Southerners. They are all my family.

I am Southerner. This flag is not about slavery, it’s about family and God and country. I have more in common with fellow Southerners like George Wallace than I do with [the Rev.] Al Sharpton. I’m from the South. I’m of the South and my family is Southern, be they white, red, black or yellow. We share a heritage and a way of life.

I’ve commented extensively on the issue of black Confederates/Confederate slaves so I will refrain from belaboring the point.  However, it is worth reflecting a bit on Edgerton’s emphasis on the Confederate experience as somehow constituting a point of unity between black and white Americans.  It’s not simply a reflection of poor history, but also of the Confederacy’s overwhelming place in Southern/American memory.  Of course this is no surprise given its importance to the region and the nation, but it clearly overshadows in a way which minimizes other significant moments in the history of the South that had the potential to bridge the racial divide.  Consider the Populist Movement led by Tom Watson, not to mention the Civil Rights Movement itself.

It’s unfortunate that H.K.’s embrace of American history is ultimately a gross distortion of it.  Fortunately, it wouldn’t take much to correct it once he arrives in D.C.  I recommend that he approach the reenactors in the 54th Massachusetts and request to march in the inaugural parade as part of a legitimate historically-based unit.  You want to honor black Southerners who sacrificed everything for their families and nation (even at a time when the Dred Scott ruling was still on the books) than don that blue uniform and acknowledge the heroism of your fellow black Southerners (1).

(1) Of course,  I am aware that the 54th was made up primarily of free blacks from the North, but you get my point.


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