MOC: Southern Support In A Historical Context

Yesterday I briefly commented on my surprise surrounding the apparent lack of support for the Museum of the Confederacy by Southern Heritage organizations during as the  museum struggles with low attendance and financial problems.  Donald Thompson shared this newspaper article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 1936:

The fact that no Southern heritage groups have gone on fund raising missions for the Museum of the Confederacy won’t be surprising after reading this excerpt from the February 16th, 1936 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

40 Years Ago The Confederate Museum Opened
In Four Decades, Records Show That Many More Northerners Than Southerners Have Paid Homage at This Shrine of Shrines
By Ross Wells

Down from the North–the feet of thousands of pilgrims have worn a well-defined path to the White House of the Confederacy.

Up from the South–scarcely a twig has been broken or a blade bent in the trek to this greatest of all Southern shines as compared with the flow from Yankee-land.

This "Believe It or Not" condition has been observed casually through the years, but it remained for the close scrutiny of the register, made for the observance of the fortieth anniversary of the dedication of the Confederate Museum by the Confederate Memorial Literary Society, custodian of the historic building and collection, which occurs next Saturday, to reveal in all its startling clarity the fact that of the average 13,000 visitors annually to the Clay and 12th Street building, a large majority come from north of the Mason and Dixon line.

Nina Silber provides the best analysis of Northern visitation to Southern battlefields following the war and other sites, which lasted into the twentieth-century.  If I remember correctly, Silber argues that that as the North continued to develop economically many grew attached to this idealized image of the Old South, which culminated in the movie Gone With the Wind.  With more Northerners taking vacations by the mid-20th century perhaps there should be no surprise that they outnumbered their Southern friends at the MOC.  Hey Sarah, what do you think?

Museum of the Confederacy Will Move

Many of you no doubt have already read that the Museum of the Confederacy (MOC) will be looking to move in the next few years.  The plans also involve keeping the White House of the Confederacy in its present location.  From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

The Museum and White House of the Confederacy, which maintains the world’s most comprehensive collections of Confederate artifacts, manuscripts and photographs, has been losing visitors and income for years as the continued development of VCU has nearly swallowed its small campus. Since the early 1990s, annual visitation has dropped from 92,000 to about 51,500. The museum’s deficit is expected to reach $700,000 this year.

In response to its financial woes, the institution cut its operating hours last month. The museum is now closed on Wednesdays from Labor Day to Memorial Day, and the White House will be closed for public tours in January and February.

Anyone who has visited the MOC in the past few years has put up with having to deal with the traffic and parking in the middle of VCU’s medical facilities.  As I’ve said all along, moving the MOC is really the only possible solution.  What that means for the White House remains to be seen. 

As much as the gradual decline in visitation can be attributed to the MOC’s location there may be other factors involved.  The sharp increase in the number of public controversies involving the Confederate flag has perhaps alienated a certain number.  There may be the perception that a visit to the MOC is some kind of public statement in support of the flag. 

I pointed out in my review of the new American Civil War Museum at Tredegar that their focus on slavery and a more sophisticated overall interpretation may in the end alienate certain groups who are interested either in a heavy dose of the military and/or an overall sanitized interpretation of the war.  One of the things that continues to strike me is the almost complete absence of support for the MOC from SCV organizations and other Southern Heritage groups.  No fund-raisers and as far as I can tell and no literature to inform the public about the Museum’s dire situation.  So, how should we explain this?  Not too long ago I commented on a news story involving the Edmund Ruffin Fire Eaters Camp (SCV) who called for the removal of Waite Rawls who is currently the Executive Director of the MOC.  I can only conclude from this that there is a perception out there among heritage groups that the MOC’s interpretation/mission has moved too far from the outlines of the Lost Cause. 

As a historian who concentrates on memory and the South I couldn’t be more pleased with their recent exhibits and overall push to bring a more mature interpretation of the Confederacy and the South to the general public.  A final thought: Perhaps as the staff prepares for this important move they should also think about changing the name of the museum.

It’s A Woman’s War

Just a quick follow-up to yesterday’s post about student interest in Civil War military history.  I failed to point out the most surprising development this year and that is the extent to which the female students have asserted themselves in class discussions.  In the past the classes have been populated primarily by male students. I don’t know why I am surprised by this, but perhaps it does go against some implicit gender assumptions surrounding the way we identify with the Civil War.  It was not too long ago that some Civil War Roundtables barred women from joining in their monthly meetings.  It may have simply been a matter of men wanting to feel comfortable sharing their testosterone-driven thoughts about battlefield glory with other men or the worn out cultural belief that women need to be shielded from discussions of blood and guts.  Whatever the story is, I am pleased to see that times have changed.  Not only has it changed, but some of the most talented Civil War historians working on military topics are women.  I am thinking of Jacqueline Campbell’s short, but rich study of Sherman’s March; Carol Reardon’s work on memory and Pickett’s Charge, and Chandra Manning’s studies of Civil War soldiers.  Finally, there is Anne Bailey’s work on the war in the West and Lesley Gordon’s forthcoming study of the 16th Connecticut Regiment in history and memory.

Yeah, you sometimes have to deal with the old male insecurities that women are intruding on male territory, but hopefully most people simply dismiss these all-too-common "feminist critiques" as silliness.  Whether women bring a different sensibility to the study of history can and should be debated.  No one seriously debates whether women can engage in the same kind of hard-nosed analytical style that is the mark of our best historical studies.  From my point of view it simply comes down to a matter of numbers: the more historians working, the more we learn.

It is comforting to know that that there is a wide-range of talented female historians that I can point to to encourage my students to pursue their interests in a field that has a history of being perceived as male only. 

Who Won The Overland Campaign?

Last night Gary Gallagher addressed the Charlottesville Civil War Roundtable. His topic was the Overland Campaign and the more specific question of which side could claim to have come out ahead by the beginning of the siege of Petersburg.  Gary has been a guest every year, even going back to when he was teaching at Penn State before he moved to Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. Not surprisingly he gets a large turnout every year.  I’ve read most of Gallagher’s scholarship and am rarely surprised by his topics or conclusions.  I enjoy watching him engage the audience and the chance to share what many of us know to be his great passion in life.  He’s got a real knack for combining a serious interest in the war with an entertaining speaking style.  His criticisms are typically couched in a dry, but serious wit.  At the beginning of his talk he criticized his own colleagues in the academy who teach or study the war without any reference to the military side.  Most of the audience enjoyed this little swipe at the academy, but Gary was quick to counter with the fact that most of the people in the audience study nothing but the battles and have little or no appreciation for the broader issues.  "Somewhere between both of these approaches," Gallagher concluded "is where the real Civil War resides." 

I am not going to go through Gallagher’s full presentation; those of you familiar with his books and edited collections know where he stands in terms of the broad outline.  While he admitted that it is easy to conclude that both armies had reasons to be optimistic about the way the campaign evolved, Gallagher seemed to tip his hat to Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.  And the main factors involved had to do with the campaign’s political ramifications.  Gallagher argued that morale was actually higher in the Army of Northern Virginia at the beginning of the Petersburg Campaign compared with the Army of the Potomac.  Based on my reading of the manuscript and other primary sources in reference to the Crater I have to agree.  I was very surprised by how Confederates and those on the home front responded to the Confederate victory on July 30, 1864.  It rallied both soldiers and citizens around the belief that Grant’s army could be dealt with successfully at least until the fall elections.  And the presence of black soldiers reinforced for many white Southerners just what defeat would involve.  Gallagher was careful to emphasize the steps that the Democrats and "Copperheads" took to win the presidential election.  I highly recommend Jennifer Weber’s new study of the Copperheads.  She argues persuasively that we have not fully appreciated their growing influence in the North and especially in states like Indiana as the Overland Campaign and engagements around Petersburg left horrendous casualties and a sense that the war was not close to being won.  The Copperheads exercised tight control on the Democratic Party platform which was formulated in August 1864 and even managed to get one of their own on the ticket with McClellan.  Weber does point out that the Copperheads’ fatal flaw was in never presenting a reasonable alternative to seeing the war to a successful conclusion through military means; they failed to answer important questions about the legality of secession and emancipation (slavery).  This oversight alienated most of the soldiers in the army and guaranteed their support for Lincoln and even led to violence against individual Copperheads while on leave. 

What I was most struck by was the sharp change in public opinion regarding the Democrats following Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in early September 1864.  Support or interest doesn’t gradually decline, it disappeared throughout much of the country.  Gallagher compared this sharp shift with the summer of 1862 and Lee’s successful defense of Richmond and offensive that culminated at Antietam.  It is clear to me that the fighting around Petersburg did not guarantee Lincoln’s re-election; in fact it threatened it.  It was the capture of Atlanta that brought about the dramatic change in the political climate of the North which guaranteed Lincoln’s re-election.  A good case can indeed be made that as late as mid-August 1864 Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had the advantage.

Where Is The War In My Civil War Class?

This is my fourth year teaching the Civil War course and as all of you know I thoroughly enjoy it.  When I planned the first year I was very concerned about the balance between battle coverage and broader political, cultural, and social issues.  Basically, I was concerned that teaching a course on the Civil War in the heart of Virginia would bring young boys with a voracious appetite for the Lost Cause and the kind of battlefield coverage that I am not qualified or even comfortable teaching.  In yesterday’s post Hugo Schwyzer briefly touched on this tension in reference to his own Western Civilization course:

In my survey courses, I do very little military history.  In my Western Civ classes, there are a few battles so vital I describe them in detail: Salamis and the Somme, for example.  But I always fall short of what some of my eager young men want.  Every prof who teaches survey courses knows the type: the earnest lad who comes to office hours, filled with righteous anguish because I chose to talk more about the unique status of Spartan women than the heroics of their husbands and brothers at Thermopylae!  I’ve noted that the most consistent complaints I get as a professor is the lack of military history in my survey courses. I emphasize religious, gender, and social history at the expense of battle tactics time and again, and given the time constraints, I make no apologies for it.

What is interesting to me is that most of my students in this class over the past four years have not pushed or questioned the amount of straight-forward military history in the class.  I’ve never had a student come to my office and complain that I didn’t do justice to Jackson’s flank march at Chancellorsville or Meade’s defense at Gettysburg.  Since this course is structured thematically we tend to touch on broader issues over time rather than a strict chronological approach.  For example, last week we talked about the broader issue of emancipation and the Federal government’s steps towards the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Seven Days’ Battles and the battle of Antietam were discussed in this context, but were not covered in any serious detail apart from their connection to the transition from "Limited" to "Hard War," emancipation, and foreign recognition.  Even our trip to the Chancellorsville battlefield, which is fast approaching and will be focused heavily on the realities of battle, will also be used to address a whole host of issues beyond the battlefield. 

To be honest, I don’t think my students really care about the kinds of things that drive most Civil War enthusiasts.  The "Lee To The Rear" accounts simply fail to stir.  I remember once during that first year where I gave a fairly detailed lecture about the actual battle of Antietam.  Now, I should say that I am a pretty good lecturer, especially when I am discussing something that I care about.  By the middle of the class at least 75% of the students had lost focus or had that look of complete despair.  This doesn’t mean that military history is ignored – far from it.  What it does mean, however, is that at least in my class the battles and campaigns must be connected to the bigger issues of the war.  So, I tend to agree with Hugo’s bold comment in reference to the balance between religion, gender, social history (I should also add politics) and battle tactics.  And I also make no apologies for it.