Monument to South Carolinians Unveiled on Spotsylvania Battlefield

_2MM1779.JPGThis weekend the Sons of Confederate Veterans from South Carolina unveiled a monument to McGowan’s brigade on the Spotsylvania battlefield.  The monument commemorates the fighting that took place at the “Bloody Angle” on May 12, 1864.  New monuments are barred from most battlefields, but the federal legislation creating the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in 1927 permits states to continue to place markers on the field.  As of 4/12/09 there were two comments following the article:

1. The McGowan Brigade Monument is a fitting tribute honoring brave soldiers who died in a misguided attempt to subvert the Constitution and attack the United States of America. No one should misinterpret this monument as a tribute to the Confederacy.

2. Thank you for this well writen article. I enjoyed it very much. I realized how far from home our Confederate soldiers traveled in their attempt to preserve our Constitution in their 2nd War for Independence.

“The Robert E. Lee Memorial: A Conflict of Interpretation”

The following is an abstract for an essay that I am contributing to an edited collection on tourism in the American South, which is being edited by Karen Cox.  Your feedback and questions are strongly encouraged.

In recent years Civil War landscapes (especially battlefields) have come under increasing pressure from various interest groups to broaden their site interpretations beyond a traditional narrative of national reconciliation and the heroism of the Civil War soldier. The evolution of Civil War historiography over the past few decades as well as the changing racial and gender profile of public and private institutions has led to calls for increased attention, among other things, to slavery and race along with the roles that women and civilians played in the war.  As the custodian of some of the most prominent and sacred Civil War sites, the National Park Service has been on the front lines in working to manage the tension between and within groups who continue to struggle for control over this nation’s collective memory. Overlooking Washington, D.C., Arlington National Cemetery, surrounding the Robert E. Lee Memorial, which is also known as Arlington House, serves as a repository for the U.S. military dead while the home functions as a shrine to the life and legacy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  Like other Civil War sites, the problem of how to meaningfully interpret slave life has proven to be the most vexing for National Park Service staff in recent years.  Specifically, a 2004 report on the subject highlighted just how little information is being shared with the general public as well as a certain amount of resistance from visitors who question whether slave life is even relevant to understanding Robert E. Lee, Arlington House, and the surrounding grounds.

The challenge for the NPS in bringing their interpretation of Lee’s home more in line with recent scholarship and in integrating competing narratives long ignored has much in common with other related landscapes.  When in 1925 the NPS took over Arlington House, it concentrated on Lee himself by restoring the home to the period just before the Civil War, thus providing the proper context in which to emphasize his decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army and eventually align himself with the Confederacy.  In doing so, the NPS presented the general public with a heroic story of Lee that highlighted his ascendancy to the pantheon of American heroes.  As late as 1962, the NPS maintained Arlington House as a “national monument to one of America’s greatest men.”  Absent, however, was the presence of a large slave population that worked the grounds as well as a Freedmen’s Village at the end of the war.  The challenge of presenting slavery at Arlington House within this “Lost Cause” paradigm is, of course, not unique to this particular site.

What makes the ongoing debate about how to interpret the history of Arlington House worth examining, however, is its location within the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.  Specifically, the use of the grounds as a final resting place for fallen U.S. soldiers adds another layer of meaning to the landscape and one that the NPS has struggled to effectively integrate. It is here at Arlington House that visitors arrive after having walked by the “Eternal Flame”, the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”, and row upon row of marble headstones – all of which are symbols of national pride and sacrifice.  Such a situation presents NPS interpreters with a set of unique challenges. First, the NPS must bring their site interpretation more in line with recent scholarship on slavery, the Civil War, and Lee specifically because we cannot fully understand the home or Lee without a fuller understanding of slave life at Arlington. Secondly, they must do this in an environment where visitors may not be prepared to contemplate these controversial topics: slavery and race versus the solemn landscape of fallen heroes. One speaks to what binds us together as Americans while the other reminds us of what once divided us and continues to prove difficult to understand.

Capital of the Confederacy Remembers Lincoln’s Visit

lincoln-richmond01One hundred and forty-four years ago this weekend, Abraham Lincoln visited Richmond for the first time.  A large crowd of Richmonders welcomed the president in the wake of the Confederate government’s abandonment of the city.  To mark the occasion, the Valentine Museum, Library of Virginia, and American Civil War Museum at Tredegar have scheduled a series of events to mark the occasion.  Choose between talks on Lincoln and emancipation as well as another on Lincoln and the fall of the Confederacy, a photography collection of Richmond in 1865, and a Lincoln walk titled “Step Toward Freedom”.  Click here for information on the weekend’s events.  Don’t expect to see Brag Bowling at any of these events.

Update: The wife and I decided to check out the Lincoln walk. You couldn’t ask for a more beautiful day to submerge yourself in Richmond’s heritage. Check back later for photographs.

Old South v. New South?

45856914Can someone please send me directions to the cultural war between the Old South and the New.  Sorry, but interviewing the commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans concerning plans to spread Confederate culture to every municipality in the country and including an image of some dude wearing a Confederate flag jacket as part of the 2006 Redneck Games doesn’t cut it.  How many people do you think Charles McMichael speaks for?  My guess is that the number doesn’t even appear on the radar screen.  Luckily, the reporter included an interview with a reputable historian:

Commemoration of the Confederacy as a noble cause began shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865, said Jonathan Sarris, associate professor of history at North Carolina Wesleyan College. The multicultural angle is an effort to appear more inclusive, he said, but it ignores the facts.

“To say that it is not racist but about multiculturalism is an attempt to adopt a modern mind-set,” Sarris said. “You can call it a victory for the forces of multiculturalism when even the defendants of the Confederacy feel they have to pay some lip service to the idea of tolerance.”

Sarris is absolutely right. [By the way, I highly recommend his recent study, A Separate Civil War: Communities in Conflict in the Mountain South]  The fact that the SCV has pushed toward emphasizing the multicultural “appeal” of the Confederacy is a sufficient indicator that even they have left the realm of the past for a mythical one that allows for continued identification and celebration.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the SCV’s emphasis on their multicultural heritage makes them the hippies of Confederate remembrance.  Sadder yet is the reduction of Confederate history and symbolism to the kinds of games pictured above: bobbing for pigs feet, hub cap hurling and the Redneck mud pit belly flop contest.  Yeah, I’m sure that’s exactly how their Confederate ancestors hoped to be remembered.

There is no war over how to remember the Confederacy nor is there a cultural war between two Souths.  Sure, you can find pockets of partisanship here and there, but do we really believe that a substantial portion of the nation is aware of any of this or feels as if it has a stake in the outcome?