Ulysses S. Grant #POTY1863

Earlier today the Museum of the Confederacy held their symposium to determine 1863’s Person of the Year.  Most of the choices were once again predictable, though a few are just downright odd to me.  Robert Krick’s selection of Stonewall Jackson is neither surprising or interesting in any way.  I want to hear more about why Jennifer Weber believes Clement Vallindigham is so important.  Ed Ayers decided to change things up by giving a nod to the United States Colored Troops.  That makes perfect sense to me.  Here is the final tally.

Joe Glatthaar should have had it much easier by selecting Ulysses S. Grant, who is the logical choice.  Jackson coming in a close second is just downright bizarre.  And how the USCTs placed last even with a charismatic advocate like Ed Ayers is inexplicable to me.  Oh well.

I am sure everyone had a fun time, which is ultimately what this is all about.

Interpretation of Slavery at Civil War Battlefields

While browsing the Museum of the Confederacy’s website I came across this panel discussion from 2002 on the interpretation of Civil War battlefields.  I attended this panel, which was held at the University of Richmond.  It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years.

I decided to watch it once again though I was struck by just how much this question of whether we should approach battlefields creatively and broadly has become such a non issue.  Ten years later and none of the concerns expressed by the late Jerry Russell and Robert K. Krick have come to pass.  Go to any Civil War battlefield and the focus is still on the soldiers and the fighting.  The only difference is that in many of these same places visitors have the opportunity to understand more and better.  Russell’s and Krick’s emphasis on Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s involvement provided an opportunity to distract the audience from the fact that NPS historians/staff have debated these issues going back to the early twentieth century.  The question of whether the causes of the war, the home front, etc. should be interpreted on battlefields is an old one.  At one point Russell actually says that any discussion of the cause of the war, regardless of whether the focus is slavery, states rights, etc., is inappropriate on the battlefield.   It really is as if the men who fought these bloody battles just fell from the sky.  Looking back it is also clear that Krick completely missed the mark. Show me a battlefield that has become a “political platform.”

During the Q&A [1:36:20] John Coski read a question directed to Jerry Russell concerning the proper interpretation of the 9-11 attacks in New York City.  I happened to be sitting next to Peter Carmichael, who wrote the question down on an index card provided by event organizers.  Jerry held to his guns and suggested that the causes of the attacks should not be discussed in any future museum or interpretive panels at Ground Zero.  Thankfully museum interpreters did not listen.

This panel is well worth watching, but it does reflect how far we’ve come.  In the end, Dwight Pitcaithley and Ed Ayers were on the right side of history.

Review of the Museum of the Confederacy – Appomattox

What follows is a guest post by Thom Bassett, who recently took a trip to Virginia to explore Civil War battlefields and other sites.  He took the time to visit the new MOC museum at Appomattox and sent along this review.  Thom teaches at Bryant University in Providence, R.I. He has written numerous essays for the New York Times Disunion blog and is currently working on a novel about William Tecumseh Sherman.

It’s unfortunate that in the minds of many the Museum of the Confederacy’s newly opened branch at Appomattox is associated exclusively with the ginned-up controversy about display there of the Confederate battle flag. For one thing, the museum staff seem heartily sick of the issue and those who protested the museum’s design: As I carefully began to ask about it during my visit this weekend, one of them interrupted me to scoff, “What the hell else did they want? We put the damn state flags outside!”

For another, and more important, the MoC-Appomattox overall is a superb example of sophisticated, accessible, evocative, intellectually honest public narrative about the Civil War. While it’s in some respects still very much a work in progress, the museum nonetheless already meaningfully informs and engages the public about the war and its significance today.

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Scalawags and Stink Faces

The first videos from Appomattox are being posted on the YouTube page of the Virginia Flaggers.  In this short video members describe visitors and representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans as “scalawags” and “stink faces.”  How very classy.  Apparently, the SCV’s General Executive Committee issued a resolution requesting that all members boycott participating in the opening ceremonies.  A few chose to participate.  What I don’t understand is why the SCV didn’t encourage more to attend: more units, more flags.  In fact, by the looks of it the MOC did nothing to prevent visitors from carrying Confederate flags on the grounds.

This protest reminds me of the situation in Lexington.  In both cases no one is being prevented from waving a Confederate flag.