Tag Archives: Fredericksburg

Fredericksburg’s Newest Museum Opens Tomorrow

Tonight my wife and I will be driving to Fredericksburg for a “Gala Reception” in celebration of the grand opening of the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center. The museum opens tomorrow and includes a a schedule of talks and other activities throughout the day. Our good friend Sara Poore, who is the director of education for the museum, has been working tirelessly over the past year to get the program up and running as well as the exhibits. We are looking forward to helping her and the rest of the staff celebrate this joyous occasion. The weather should be nice this weekend so if you live in the Fredericksburg area make sure you pay the museum a visit.

Click here for a news item in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.

Note: Next week I will be back in Fredericksburg to deliver the keynote address for the NPS’s commemoration of the battle of Fredericksburg.

The Anatomy of a Commemorative Talk

I don’t mind admitting that I am just a little nervous about the upcoming commemorative speech that I will give in Fredericksburg on December 14.  I’ve never delivered such a speech before.  It’s much easier to present a traditional conference paper where the speaker at least appears to be detached from the subject at hand.  A commemorative talk on the anniversary of a famous Civil War battle, however, demands that the speaker share something more personal and in a way that facilitates an other-regarding emotion in the audience such as empathy or sympathy.  I assume most of the people who attend will want to hear something uplifting, perhaps something that reinforces a personal connection through an ancestor who fought in the war or maybe even something that dovetails with our popular perceptions of the Civil War, which at times border on the celebratory.  In the end we want to know that they (the soldiers) matter and that the bloodshed, death, and sacrifice continues to occupy a central place in our broader national narrative, one that is characterized by its exceptionalism and intrinsic goodness.

It seems to me, however, that to get to this point one must engage in a great deal of reductionism from the complex to the overly simplistic.  Doesn’t this constitute a significant portion of the history of Civil War commemoration from end of the twentieth century onward?  By their very nature commemorative talks must look beyond moral complexity, contingency, and doubt to embrace the whiggish principles that Americans so easily embrace.  I’ve never felt comfortable approaching the past in this manner.  An example of what I am getting at can be found in Mark Grimsley’s most recent post at Civil Warriors which includes a refernce to an essay by Kent Gramm:

In the introduction to a recent book on Civil War combat, historian Kent Gramm opens with a surprising comment: “One of the most harmful consequences of the Civil War results from our very interest in the war, and our attraction to it.” As a Civil War buff, he explains, you can vicariously march with the indomitable veterans of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, you can learn from the men of the Army of the Potomac’s Iron Brigade what it means to be a hero, you can return in imagination to a moment when “the hopes of a nation are still young and still full, and a kind of clarity and innocence are still poised to win the future — and the smoke and noise and dirt of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have not yet swept in behind the buzzing machines of our age.”

“Who would not love such a war?” Gramm asks. But that war, he continues, “is a war of fantasy, myth, and entertainment,” not a war of carnage, horror, and desolation. “By replacing this actual Civil War with an imaginary and beautiful war,” he argues, “we misunderstand our own natures, and we allow ourselves to fall for what Wilfred Owen called ‘the old lie’: that it is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country. Falling for that old lie, we enter more easily into what should be entered into only as one would enter a corridor to hell: you go that way only because all the other ways are shut.”

I venture to suggest that while much of my audience operates within the confines of the first paragraph I have my feet firmly planted in the latter.  No doubt, this has much to do with the fact that I have no familial connection to the war and no childhood experiences of traveling to Civil War battlefields or dreaming of what might have been at Gettysburg.

Still, I can’t help but think that there is a commemorative element in how I use Civil War battlefields such as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville as teaching tools.  Just the act of visiting and walking the ground serves to collapse the distance between present and past.  Yes, I tell plenty of stories of heroic acts, but the goal of the visit has very little to do with celebrating heroism or war in any of its guises.  How can I celebrate something that I have no direct experience with?  I am much more interested in planting questions in my students than giving them answers.  What do these battles tell us about American democracy?  Did the Civil War lead to a rebirth of freedom?  Was the outcome of the Civil War worth the price in blood and suffering?  It’s not my job as a teacher to answer these questions because they are not questions that can be answered by any one individual.

I am even more reluctant to wax poetic about Civil War soldiers.  I’ve never been able to walk a battlefield and reduce the fighting to time-honored heroic categories that are staples of Civil War commemorations and remembrance.  In fact, it seems to me that this is a straight-path toward simplifying their stories to the point of triviality and meaninglessness.  I want my students to embrace and understand both the individual and collective stories of these men without coming away with an overly sanitized view that has no connection beyond the battlefield and the divisive questions that were of paramount concern and which help to explain why they fought to begin with.  To ignore these tough questions is to use these men and the past as a means to our own ends.

To be continued…

My Fredericksburg Battlefield

Just sitting here thinking about what I might say in my keynote address marking the 145th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. I am going to center my remarks on how I use the battlefield to teach. I’ve brought my students to the Chancellorsville/Fredericksburg battlefields for the past 5 years. It’s always a new experience depending on where we go as well as the interests of my students. One of my favorite walks begins in the downtown area of Fredericksburg where we discuss the crossing of the Army of the Potomac and the civilian experience, including the town’s slave population. One of the more interesting stops on our route towards Marye’s Heights is the slave auction block, which is located at the corner of William & Charles Streets.

Thinking about the scope of my comments is difficult as I have an inclusive view of what a battlefield ought to include, especially when my students are involved. It’s never simply about the movement of troops, but the experiences of the men involved along with the bigger issues that defined the war, including its cause and aftermath.  I guess all I want to say is that without this auction block there is no Fredericksburg battlefield.  They are inextricably linked.

A few questions to consider: (1) How many Southern towns have preserved sites such as this?  (2) Why did the city of Fredericksburg preserve this particular site after the war?

“It is Well that War is so Terrible…”

001confSince my trip to Fredericksburg last week I’ve been thinking about the words Robert E. Lee supposedly uttered to James Longstreet during the battle on Telegraph Hill.  If you look up the quote Online you will get any number of versions.  Here are just a few:

1. It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we would grow too fond of it.
2. It is well that war is so terrible — lest we should grow too fond of it.
3. It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we should grow too fond of it.

I’ve always been struck by the slight differences between the three interpretations so I decided to look for the origin of the quote.  I started with both George Rable and Francis O’Reilly’s recent studies of the battle.   Both point to the 1907 publication of Edward Porter Alexander’s Military Memoirs of a Confederate, which references Lee as follows: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.” (p. 302).  Keep in mind that these words were supposedly uttered to James Longstreet, but he makes no mention whatsoever in his own memoir, From Manassas to Appomattox, which was published in 1896.

In the introduction to his edited collection on Fredericksburg, Gary Gallagher offers a few remarks on the Lee quote.  He notes that Douglas Southall Freeman cited John Esten Cooke’s 1871 biography of Lee with a few alterations to the quote itself and also mentions Jackson’s failure to reference the comment.  Cooke served on Stuart’s staff so I guess there is the possibility that Lee said it; as far as I know Cooke’s is the earliest reference.  Freeman’s referencing of the quote is worth reading:

Lee’s eyes flashed as he saw them, and the blood of “Light-Horse Harry” fought in his veins with the calmer strain of the peace-loving Carters.  Turning to Longstreet he revealed the whole man in a single sentence: “It is well that war is so terrible–we would grow too fond of it!”  As he uttered the words, he seemed in the eyes of a British correspondence who stood by to have about him an “antique heroism.” (2:462)

First, if that ain’t a dose of psycho-history I don’t know what is.  I guess we could suggest that Longstreet’s failure to cite the sentence in his memoir was intentional given the critical nature of much of the book.  However, it’s just as likely that Lee never said it at all.  There is something about the quote that is too good to be true.  It functions to reinforce our preferred image of Lee on the battlefield.  Consider Gallagher’s brief assessment:

These two brief sentences have done much to define Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia for generations of readers: the brilliant soldier, his martial ardor aroused, quietly exulting as the men of his famous army demonstrated their prowess on yet another battlefield. (vii)

I am not for a moment denying Lee’s leadership skills and military prowess on the battlefield, but I have a sense that the pervasiveness of this quote tells us more about our own attitudes toward the Civil War than it does about Lee.  That may sound strange, but if we assume for a moment that Cooke may have heard something said to Longstreet during the battle, by 1871 (and Lee’s death) it may have become ever so slightly altered to fit into his already growing mythical status.