Unfortunately, I was not able to attend this year’s Virginia Sesquicentennial conference on Race and Slavery at Norfolk State University owing to a school visit by former First Lady, Laura Bush. For those of you looking for some excellent commentary on today’s proceedings I urge you to head over to Jimmy Price’s blog, The Sable Arm. I am sure at some point the conference proceedings will be made available, but one of the highlights has to be Governor McDonnell’s opening remarks in which he announced that he will not “move forward with a proclamation to claim April 2011 as ‘Confederate History Month.’ Instead, he will proclaim next year’s observation as ‘Civil War in Virginia Month’ as a way to settle longstanding disputes within the Commonwealth over its history as the former capitol of the Confederacy during the Civil War.” The governor’s remarks were spot on and I especially appreciate the following:
In the century and a half since the armistice was executed at Appomattox, few states have undergone as many changes, or witnessed such stunning growth and progress, as our Commonwealth. Our borders have been fixed for 147 years; but our culture, community, and breadth of opportunity have been incredibly dynamic. These changes have made Virginia a stronger and better place.
But they have also made our collective “memory” — how our diverse society remembers and processes the events in its collective history — much more complicated. In earlier times, Virginia’s dominant culture was defined by relatively few, and basic civil rights were excluded for many. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of that culture, and both were present in abundance, as in any human enterprise – there was a common lens through which to view history. Those in power wrote a single, narrow narrative. It left out many people, along with their powerful stories. And so, while talking about our history has become more complicated today, we can all agree it has also become a much richer conversation.
I couldn’t be more pleased with the governor’s decision as well as his incredibly thoughtful address.
Museum officials announced a groundbreaking date of Sept. 23 for the construction of its new facility at Appomattox, which is slated to open in 2012. This is wonderful news given the museum’s recent financial difficulties owing, in part, to its location in Richmond within the growing sprawl of the VCU Hospital. Now residents from around the state and country will have even more of an opportunity to view one of the most important collections of Confederate/Civil War-related artifacts as well as a wide range of exhibits and educational activities. I am looking forward to taking my classes to the new museum.
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.