Before I get to the subject of this post I wanted to mention that I’ve just finished previewing a forthcoming episode of American Experience on Robert E. Lee. The show will premiere on PBS on Monday, January 3 at 9:00 p.m. ET. Back in 2007 I received a call from one of the producers to chat about their plans for the episode. We talked for quite a bit and I had a chance to offer some suggestions on various interpretive threads as well as suggestions on who to contact for additional commentary as “talking heads.” The producers were able to bring together an excellent line-up of scholars that includes Peter Carmichael, Gary Gallagher, Emory Thomas, Michael Fellman, Emory Thomas, Lesley Gordon, Ervin Jordan, Elizabeth Brown Pryor and Joseph Glatthaar. The folks at American Experience did a fine job.
The Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission now has all of the panels from the recent conference in Norfolk available on their YouTube page. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed going through them. While I enjoyed Dwight Pitcaithley’s presentation he never really got around to discussing the challenges of interpreting Civil War causation within the NPS. He did, however, say something relevant to my recent post on my tendency to steer clear of referring to people as Neo-Confederates. In response to a student’s inquiry into whether he teaches the “true history” of the war, Pitcaithley points out to his audience that it is important to remember that people who subscribe to various strands of Lost Cause thought “come by it honestly.” It’s important to remember because it seems to me that by calling folks “Neo-Confederates” we assume an accusatory stance that implies a conscious denial of a more complete understanding of what the war was about.
Update: Thanks to those of you who have already commented. That is exactly the point of this post. I’ve received a number of emails expressing curiosity and even disgust over my decision to feature this guest post. Many of you know that I’ve strived to offer different perspectives on controversial issues in an attempt to get people to think “out of the box” or to try to steer a discussion down a different road. I understand that emotions are strong, but we can have an intellectual discussion about this if we choose to do so. Finally, please don’t assume that this guest post reflects my own view of the situation. At the same time I do believe that Professor Cebula offers a perspective that deserves consideration. Thanks
The Civil War Preservation Trust has just released a video decrying the proposed building of a casino near Gettysburg National Battlefield. I think the video is wretched and illustrates nearly everything that is wrong with how we remember and memorialize our history in this country.
Some background: A developer wants to open the “Mason-Dixon Resorts Casino” within an existing hotel and convention center a half-mile from the boundary of Gettysburg Park. Pennsylvania has allowed casino gambling since 2004, starting with slot machines and now including table games such as poker. A 2005 attempt to build a casino in Gettysburg was defeated. Now the developers are trying again, and the Civil War Preservation Trust and others are fighting back, in part with this video:
My objections to the video, and the cause, are as follows:
1. Why do we care what Sam Waterston and Matthew Broderick think about this? They are actors, people! They only pretended to have fought at Gettysburg. McCullough was the only real historian they used for the production. Show me David Blight and we’ll talk.
2. The battlefield as it currently exists is hardly pristine–whatever that might mean in such a context. You can hardly swing a dead cat without hitting one gigantic monument or another. Now these monuments, many erected by battle survivors in the years and decades after the fight, are interesting historical artifacts in their own right. But they represent a tremendous departure from the way the field of battle might have looked on July 1, 1863. Beyond the matter of the monuments, the landscape is different from what it would have been in 1863. The trees have grown in (though the National Park Service is currently working to restore the 1863 landscape), the open fields are full of grass instead of crops, jets fly overhead. The smell of powder and rotting flesh are gone… It is not as if the battlefield were immaculately preserved and about to be ruined.
3. My strongest objection to the video is the fetishistic treatment of warfare as a sacred activity more meaningful than other human activity. We can’t have people gambling, for God’s sake, it cheapens the memory of three solid days of people slaughtering one another. Susan Eisenhower (whose expertise is helpfully captioned as “Grandaughter of President Eisenhower”) complains that the casino is an attempt to “exploit the brand that is Gettysburg.” But surely gambling is more wholesome than people lining up to blow one anothers’ limbs off?
I know, I know, Lincoln started it: “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract…” The Biblical idea of consecration by blood was very popular in the 19th century. The 19th century is where it belongs.
4. This is selective outrage. The proposed casino will be a half-mile from the boundaries of the park and in an already existing hotel complex. (I had to look that up, the Civil War Preservation Trust would have you believe they are ready to bulldoze Little Round Top to make way for the slots.) A quick Google Map search for “shops” shows dozens and dozens of commercial businesses roughly the same distance from the battlefield, including the Cannonball Olde Tyme Malt Shop and Dirty Billy’s Hats. Thr problem with this business, as the video makes clear around the half-way point, is that people will be gambling, and gambling is bad. I actually agree that gambling is a bad thing, but it is also legal in Pennsylvania, just like selling ice cream and hats.
5. My God, the over-the-top rhetoric in this video is terrible. It discredits not only the cause but the very idea of historic preservation. We are told that the casino will somehow “prostitute” the site. If this casino is built, we are assured, other casinos will pop up like toadstools at the Washington Monument, Arlington National Cemetery, Ground Zero, Lincoln Memorial, and presumably, your grandma’s grave.
6. Where does it end? There were perhaps 10,000 conflicts within the Civil War. This National Park Service page lists hundreds of them. And notice that the anti-casino forces are objecting to something that is not on the federally defined battlefield at all, but nearby. One calls for a “buffer zone” around the park–but how wide that buffer is supposed to be, and what commercial activities will be allowed within it, are mysteries.
The campaign to block the casino is not a legitimate effort of historic preservation. It is a moral panic being propagated by Puritan scolds. And it reminds me terribly of another current attempt to use history to block American citizens from exercising their rights to build a legal facility on their own land. Civil War Preservation Trust, meet Sarah Palin.
Numbers play an important role in the Lost Cause view of the Civil War and the Petersburg Campaign in particular. The image of the Army of Northern Virginia as hopelessly outnumbered and hanging on by a thread continues to exercise a strong hold for many. There is something attractive about a narrative that pits a half-starved Army against an enemy that we believe must win owing to their unlimited resources. There is a certain truth to this, but like most of the Lost Cause interpretation it quickly shades into a distorted view of the situation. On Saturday evening one of Prof. Mark Snell’s former students, who is now working as a living historian for the Gettysburg Foundation, put on an excellent presentation that covered the state of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1864. He suggested that during this period the army was fairly well supplied with clothing, which stands in sharp contrast with images of half-naked soldiers in the trenches. In addition, it turns out that although the men in the trenches faced hardship, Lee’s soldiers were not starving. Of course, much of this is borne out in the most recent literature on the campaign.
Back to the numbers. Throughout our tour of the Petersburg Battlefields this weekend Will Greene made it a point to emphasize that the earthworks had worked to minimize the sheer advantage that the Federals enjoyed in terms of numbers. They would need at least a 3 to 1 advantage when storming Confederate earthworks. Such a view explains Grant’s tactics of continually pushing to extend the Confederate line in a series of offensive thrusts throughout the late Fall and early Spring of 1864-65. Of course, one way to bypass any attempt at careful analysis of the balance of power is to simply exaggerate the numbers beyond any recognition of reality. This was done early on in the case of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
It can also be seen at the Five Forks battlefield on a marker that was dedicated during the Centennial by the Dinwiddie Civil War Centennial Commission. Well, at least they got they number of Confederates under Pickett’s command about right, but 50,000 Federals is way off the deep end. Philip Sheridan had around 21,000 men at Five Forks. Perhaps Dinwiddie County’s Sesquicentennial Commission can spray paint the right number on the anniversary of the battle in 2015.
I just put the finishing touches on my paper and accompanying visual presentation for the George Tyler Moore Center – Pamplin Park Conference that begins tomorrow afternoon. Back in 2007 I took part in this conference, but this is the first year that Mark Snell and the rest of the gang at Shepherd University have decided to take the conference on the road. Teaming up with Will Greene and Pamplin Park was a smart move given that the conference has sold out. We will spend three days exploring the battlefields around Petersburg and discussing the experiences of the men in the trenches. Will Greene is the scholar-in-residence and will be be leading the tours. Additional presentations will be made by Earl Hess, Christopher Stowe, Dennis Brandt, Walter Powell, and Mark Snell.
You may remember a series of posts I did last summer that explored the ways in which the Confederate response to the presence of USCTs at the Crater connected to the challenges of maintaining slavery during the antebellum period as well as reports of slave rebellions both in the South and Caribbean. Since then I’ve developed these ideas for inclusion in the first chapter of my Crater manuscript as well as in an article that will appear in the October issue of Civil War Times. I am going to present a version of that article on Friday. I want the audience to think beyond the trenches as did the soldiers themselves. It is important to remember that during the final year of the war the Army of Northern Virginia was defending a civilian population. Many of the men in Mahone’s Virignia brigade were from Petersburg and the surrounding counties. Aaron Sheehan-Dean makes a compelling argument in Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (UNC Press, 2007) that during that final year soldiers and civilians grew increasingly alienated from one another. He suggests that many of the men believed that civilians had failed to appreciate the sacrifices that Lee’s men were making on a daily basis outside of Petersburg. I argue that the Crater reinforced their connection with the home front and served to remind civilians of just what was at stake in the event of a Confederate defeat. I am looking forward to the opportunity to try out some of these ideas on Friday.
While I am looking forward to seeing a number of old friends, I am especially looking forward to meeting Earl Hess for the first time. Back in 2004 I conducted some research on William Mahone for a seminar class at the University of Richmond. It’s funny how word gets around, but somehow Chris Calkins, who was then the chief historian at Petersburg National Battlefield Park (PNB) found out about it and suggested to Prof. Hess that I might be able to help gather source material for his study of the Petersburg campaign. I was more than happy to help out since I was planning on turning that essay into an M.A. Thesis on historical memory and the battle of the Crater. Professor Hess had me working at the University of Virginia, Virginia Historical Society, Library of Virginia, Museum of the Confederacy, and PNB. The source list was extensive and provided me with a great start on my own project. It definitely saved me a great amount of time and ultimately went into what I consider to be a pretty good thesis. It will be nice to be able to thank Prof. Hess in person. By the way, Prof. Hess is slated to release his own study of the Crater in September. That makes four books on the Crater in the last few years, but why do I have a feeling that Hess’s book will be the best of the lot.
I hope to blog a bit from Petersburg, but from what I understand there is a happy hour scheduled for each night.
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.