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.
Many of you are familiar with our friendly black Confederate toy soldier. Brooks Simpson suggested that it would make a nice gift for me over at Civil Warriors a while back. It’s easy to make too big a deal about a toy soldier, but I have to say that I am disappointed to see that it is being sold on the online gift shop at the Museum of the Confederacy. I don’t know whether it is being sold at the museum itself, but I must assume so. Let me point out that I have nothing but the highest respect for the staff at the museum. It’s a Virginia treasure and their projects reflect the best in public history. Most importantly, they do this with a limited budget and the suspicion of many who fail to distinguish between a museum for- as opposed to a museum about the Confederacy.
I know for a fact that the history represented by this toy soldier is not endorsed by the museum. John Coski has authored a number of excellent essays on the subject that have appeared in North and South magazine and elsewhere. It seems reasonable to ask that museum officials pull these items from their shelves. Let’s take a stand on this insidious myth.
Not too long ago I featured a guest post by Michael Schaffner on the subject of Richard Kirkland. Mr. Schaffner did extensive research on Online sources related to the Kirkland story which left him with a number of questions re: the veracity of the story. I thought it was well documented so I decided to feature it on Civil War Memory. I’ve also written a bit about our fascination with the Kirkland story. In the end, while I’ve expressed skepticism about the story based on the available evidence I am much more interested in our continued attraction to this particular story. It’s a wonderful case study for understanding how we, as a nation, have chosen to remember our Civil War.
Former National Park Service historian, Mac Wycoff, has done extensive research on the story and has written up his findings for a series of posts at Mysteries and Conundrums. This is a must read for those of you who are interested in this story. I suggest that if you have comments that you leave them with Mac’s post so that he can address them directly. Finally, let me just reiterate that my goal in writing about Kirkland has never been to “debunk” or use the story to “attack” the South. Such a suggestion is silly and not really worth acknowledging. I use this site to ask questions. If you are uncomfortable with the questions that I ask than you really need to find yourself another blog.
Update #2: The information sheet has been removed.
Update: I just got off the phone with an NPS employee at Governors Island. It turns out that the document was published just this month and was written by an undergraduate at Columbia University. The woman I talked to was very nice and encouraged me to contact the individual in question as well as her supervisor. It looks like the student used titles by Barrow and Rollins and other books that you can find on SCV websites. In fact, I stated specifically that if I did not know anything about the document’s origin, I would have guessed that it was written by the SCV. I will keep you updated. This is a perfect example of why I am so focused on this subject.
Many of you know that I am a big supporter of the National Park Service and their commitment to battlefield preservation and interpretation/education. Unfortunately, it appears that the quality of historical scholarship that exists at many sites is not uniform throughout. At least that is the feeling I am left with after reading the following handout from Governors Island in New York City. I am going to quote the document in its entirety, which includes a section, titled, “Black Confederates”:
Some black Americans in the South left to fight for the Union army, but 65,000 black men served as Confederate soldiers. The Confederate States Colored Troops were officially organized in 1865, just months before the war ended. However, many officers ignored rules banning black soldiers and allowed blacks to fight in biracial units. Other black soldiers fought in state militias. Free black soldiers were generally paid equally to white soldiers, unlike the disparate pay rates received by white and black soldiers in the North. Eligibility for pensions differed by state, but black soldiers often did not receive pensions or received pensions much later than white soldiers. In South Carolina, for example, black soldiers were considered ineligible for old age pensions until 1923. Black men also built entrenchments and fortifications and served as cooks and teamsters. People fulfilling these jobs for the Army today would be considered soldiers, but at the time these sorts of tasks were not considered real soldiering. This contributed to the perceptions of many white Southerners that blacks in the Army were more like servants than soldiers.
Black Southerners had many reasons for fighting for the Confederacy. Like white Southerners, many held strong loyalties to the particular states in which they resided. Some slaves were offered freedom for serving in the Confederate Army, while other slaves were required to fight or serve in support roles. Many black Southerners desired the pay offered by the Confederate Army, as well as the new experiences, adventure, and pride that being a soldier entailed. Other black Confederates were defending their homes from invading Northern troops, who would sometimes capture large groups of slaves to punish white secessionists, as well as rape black women.
I don’t really know where to begin in critiquing this narrative. I have no idea how they arrived at a number of 65,000. The author apparently missed the fact that in South Carolina the pensions were given to former slaves and not to black Confederate soldiers. There are no documented biracial units in the Confederate army that I know about. At times there is a failure to clearly distinguish between soldiers and slaves. In addition, it is news to me that a significant number of white Southerners were confused about the status of the presence of black men with the Confederate army. I am going to try to find out more about this through some friends in the NPS. Unfortunately, this is as bad as anything you will find on the Internet.
Like many of you I’ve been closely following the heated controversy surrounding the plans to locate the Cordoba Institute within a few blocks of “Ground Zero” in Manhattan. While I have an opinion about this I’ve tried my best to maintain a safe distance from the debate in order to take in the broader picture. Admittedly, such a step is difficult for me to maintain since I lost my cousin on 9-11. Alisha Levin was 34 yrs. old and worked as a Human Resources manager for Fuji Bank in the South Tower. She left a message on her parent’s answering machine to say that she was safe just after the first tower was hit.
For those of us interested in the emotion that often accompanies questions about how to commemorate historical landscapes this recent debate is instructive. The lines between different historical memories are already well entrenched. The many interest groups who lay claim to the site of 9-11 are also easily delineated. Various stakeholders in this contest have already voiced positions on the architecture of the proposed new complex as well as a planned memorial for the site. That an Islamic Center located 2-blocks from Ground Zer0 – as opposed to the schlock that has been sold on the actual site for some time – can generate such a response is also instructive. It should come as no surprise that the debate has been defined by such passion given the nature of the attack, the scale of the destruction, and the death toll. In my view every American has a stake in how the landscape is shaped in the coming years regardless of the legal and constitutional questions involved.
At the same time it is clear that the strong passions of those who claim ownership of this site are a function of different factors. The families are moved by the memories and loss of loved ones; others are clearly using this issue for political purposes; and, a third group is driven as much by fear of Islam as they are by a sense of national loss and a desire to assign blame. Of course, the spectrum of interested parties is much broader. How our collective memory of this site will shift in the coming decades is anyone’s guess. After all, it was probably difficult to imagine reunions between Japanese and American veterans of Pearl Harbor in 1941. The passage of time shifts our focus as subsequent generations become more removed from the emotions of those who lived through the event. With time we are able to explore aspects of a remembered past in a way that cushions still latent emotions. At some point those emotions are more a result of choice than a direct connection to the generation that directly experienced some aspect of the event. Even for those who experienced the event itself or as an extension of one of the victims the passage of time leaves the rememberer in a very different place.
This controversy has also reinforced my own understanding of the way in which certain people lay claim to our Civil War past. You don’t have to look far for the passions that stir our personal and intellectual connections to the Civil War in reference to a public space or document. I experience it first hand on this blog in the form of comments and private emails that express bitterness over something I’ve written. Of course, I do my best to parse out the content from the emotion, and while I am interested in both I give much more attention to the former. It would be a mistake to judge the emotion as right or wrong, but I do question its legitimacy. I don’t believe that the emotion attached to people’s Civil War memory today ought to be understood as a moral claim on the historical event in the way that competing memories of 9-11 continue to do so. The difference for me is the relative remoteness of the rememberer. I find it difficult to pinpoint the psychological difference between the two examples, but I have a sense of what is going on here. On the one hand the events of 9-11 are part of our lived history. It’s a history that for many of us has left a void in the structure of our immediate families; even for those removed from the personal tragedy of the story it continues to give meaning to our lives and to the way we view the nation and rest of the world. I simply fail to see how such a dynamic holds for descendants of Civil War soldiers (Union and Confederate) and the rest of the general population. We may feel connected to some aspect of the war, but the overly moralistic tone and claims to an exclusive ownership of the past or even some aspect of the past is in my view completely unjustified. It’s what I understand when I hear: “Get over it.” Perhaps a better way of putting it is: “Get over yourself.”