Category Archives: Public History

What Happens When Your Monument is Hit By a Truck?

This is an interesting story out of Franklin County, Virginia.  Two years ago their Confederate monument, which was dedicated in 1910 was struck by an out-of-control driver and all but destroyed.  Local leaders raised the necessary funds to build a new monument and plan to dedicate it in August only this time around there is also a push to include a marker that acknowledges the Civil War experiences of African Americans.  Just what that experience involved seems to be a matter of some debate.  First, it is difficult to imagine that an additional marker would be on the table had the original statue not been destroyed.  I suspect that a re-dedication on public land at a time when these symbols have come under increased scrutiny is part of what is at issue here.

The community group responsible for this new marker includes Francis Amos, a doctor; Franklin County Circuit Court Judge William Alexander; members of the Jubal Early Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy; and several other black historians, educators and local leaders.  The marker/pillar would include the following:

In commemoration of the many contributions, service and sacrifices on the home front and on the battlefront by People of Color, enslaved and free, from Franklin County during the War Between the States. (1861-1865).

You couldn’t ask for a vaguer inscription.  In contrast to most Confederate soldier monuments, which clearly state why they fought, died, and sacrificed this marker commits to nothing and yet ensures that any narrative will be framed around a reference to the war that is commonly used by the UDC and other heritage organizations to distance slavery and emancipation from our collective memory of the war.  Florella Johnson, who is the president of the local chapter of the NAACP expressed concern that the additional marker was not enough, though the article does not say why.

Continue reading

California’s Civil War

Hope everyone is having a pleasant Memorial Day and has spent a little time in thought about why we set aside this day.  President Obama decided to spend Memorial Day at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Illinois.  In the spirit of acknowledging sacred sites beyond Arlington National Cemetery here is a news article and video about the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in California.  Both the article and video feature UCLA historian, Joan Waugh, whose book on Grant and historical memory is a must read.  Enjoy.

Governor McDonnell to Speak in Fredericksburg to Mark Memorial Day

Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell will mark Memorial Day with an address at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, which contains the graves of roughly 15,000 Union soldiers.  Over at Mysteries and Conundrums, John Hennessy offers a brief history of the earliest Memorial Day observances, which were organized by the town’s African Americans.  This continued until the early 1880s when Confederate veterans accepted an invitation to take part with the stipulation that African Americans be excluded.

It’s worth asking, in light of April’s controversial Confederate History Month declaration, why the governor has chosen to mark this important day in a Union cemetery.  I am curious as to what he will say.  In fact, I think I may attend.  What do you think?

Where Should the New Chancellorsville Vistor Center Be Located?

Note: It looks like I did a poor job of reading Eric’s post.  For some reason I was under the impression that there were plans to build a new VC.  That said, I have heard talk about the possibility of a new location so let’s proceed with that in mind.

The new group blog, Mysteries and Conundrums, authored by NPS historians at Fredericksburg has quickly become my favorite Civil War site.  John Hennessy and the gang have done a fantastic job of sharing the challenges associated with interpreting and preserving some of our most important Civil War ground.  I particularly enjoyed reading Hennessy’s last post in which he asks readers to consider a name change to the Stonewall Jackson Shrine.  Many of the responses reflect deeply held views, but I commend Hennessy for his continued commitment to asking the tough questions.

Eric Mink’s latest post provides some interesting background information on the Chancellorsville Visitor Center; it looks like his next post will let us in on the decision-making process that went into the decision on the location of a new visitor center.  [Update: Just as this was published Eric Mink posted his second installment.]  I’ve brought students to Chancellorsville for the past 8 years and since I am pretty familiar with the battlefield I thought I would take a shot at suggesting a new location.  The best place for a new visitor center would be on ground that covers the fighting that took place on May 3, 1863.

I’ve been bringing students to Chancellorsville for the past eight years and so I am fairly familiar with the ground and have thought quite a bit about how to approach a battlefield tour.  We spend about 5-6 hours touring various sites, beginning at the present VC and proceeding to the Zoan Church, Chancellor House, and the final meeting spot between Lee and Jackson.  From there we walk a bit of the original road that Jackson used for his flank march and discuss tactics and the difficulties associated with fighting in the Wilderness.  We stop at the Flank March spot to discuss ethnicity and the Union 11th Corps along with the effects of Jackson’s attack.  From there we drive back where I do a play-by-play of the events that led to Jackson’s wounding; it’s a narrative that closely follows Bob Krick’s brilliant analysis of this important moment in the battle.  Finally, we make our way over the Fairview where we eat our lunch and discuss the events of May 3.  While there we discuss Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, which helps us to get at issues related to soldier life.

Continue reading

Edward Sebesta is Back and Without Focus

As he promised in January Ed Sebesta has petitioned President Obama to discontinue the practice of sending a wreath to the Confederate statue at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day.  Actually, this petition goes much further than last year’s in requesting that the federal government “revoke the Sons of Confederate Veterans participation as a recognized charity in the Combined Federal Campaign, deny the SCV permission to host events for the United States Army, and prevent the SCV’s future involvement Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) programs in America’s high schools.”  In doing so Sebesta has moved away from focusing the nation’s attention on a specific public site in favor of a broader look at the neo-Confederate movement.  Unfortunately, any focus on the monument that Sebesta hoped to maintain is lost and I suspect that most people will not pay much attention to the SCV’s political activities and involvement in JROTC.  Before commenting further, I want to share what I wrote last year:

First, let me say that there is much in this new petition that I agree with.  The SCV promotes a Lost Cause inspired narrative of the Civil War that at times borders on racist.  You can indeed see this on the many chapter websites as well as their bookstore on the national site.  As far as I am concerned the fundamental problem for Sebesta is that President Obama made the right decision last year.  Rather than fuel the debate, which only worked to move interested parties further away from one another, the president sent an additional wreath to the African American Soldiers Monument in Washington, D.C.

Continue reading