Richmond is for Lincoln

I am hoping to catch Spielberg’s Lincoln movie this weekend.  My plan is to write a review, but please don’t expect a narrowly-focused critique of how well the film reflects current Lincoln/Civil War historiography.  Such an approach almost always fails to capture the intention of why people make movies and why we go to see them.  As a historian and teacher, what I look forward to seeing is theatergoers and students who are sufficiently moved to learn more by picking up a book or traveling to the historic sites themselves.

The state’s department of tourism has already created a website that allows visitors to follow Lincoln’s movie and historical footsteps through Richmond and Petersburg.  They are assuming that the movie buzz will bring people to Richmond.  I assume the NPS will be offering guided tours and other materials to help tourists navigate their way through these two cities and we can assume that other historical institutions in the area will also benefit from increased traffic.

The tour offers a blend of Hollywood and history, with Richmond standing in for Washington, D.C., and historic Petersburg portraying itself. Lincoln spent a good deal of the final days of the Civil War in both cities. As emancipated people cheered, he famously walked the streets of the smoldering former capital of the Confederacy in April 1865 as it fell to Union forces. Lincoln also spent about two weeks in Petersburg, home to the longest military siege on American soil. Its architecture still bears the scars of the war, including cannonballs embedded in brick facades.

I just love the idea of visitors walking Richmond’s streets with Lincoln on their mind just as thousands did when he visited the city in April 1865.  It’s, after all,  American history, folks.

Another View of the Virginia Flaggers

Accompanying text:

This video was taken yesterday outside of an establishment created to foster understanding, creativity and yes…expression. However type of expression has many negative and absolutely hateful associations and should not be tolerated. Young people don’t forget why this should not be tolerated! As for the black woman in the video…yes, the one who is proudly waving the flag…..of all examples to set….why this one?? The choice to do something in public is a choice that only you can make….but please, help me understand why you needed to wave THAT flag in public!!??

Our Struggle to Commemorate the Peninsula Campaign

One hundred and fifty years ago George B. McClellan made his way up the Virginia Peninsula in what many anticipated would be the final campaign of the war.  With the largest army ever assembled on the American continent he would seize the Confederate capital of Richmond and reunite the nation.  As we commemorate the campaign and McClellan’s failure outside of Richmond in the Seven Days Battles 150 years later, however, we seem to be struggling with its significance and meaning.

Part of the problem is the scope of the campaign, which covered roughly three months in the late spring and early summer of 1862.  It’s much easier to frame a useful interpretation of a major battle, where the armies meet and there is a clear victor.  Bull Run and Shiloh is where we lost our innocence; Gettysburg and Antietam connect to the story of emancipation and freedom; the fall of Atlanta ensured Lincoln’s reelection and Appomattox is where the nation reunited.  Regardless of how accurate such narratives might be they help to make sense of and even justify the bloodletting that took place at these sites.

Click to continue

Is Richmond Burning or Beginning Anew?

[H/T to Jubilo! The Emancipation Century]

This popular Currier & Ives print from 1865, depicting the evacuation of Richmond, Virginia, is one of the most popular images of the city in April 1865.  It is impossible not to drive north toward the city on I-95 without it entering your mind’s eye.  Now it is being used by the Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau to attract tourists to the city’s rich Civil War history as well as the rest of the state.

The use of this particular print is a clever marketing technique that almost functions as a gestalt switch between two interpretations.  On the one hand, we know this image as marking the end of the Confederacy, but in the hands of the Visitors Bureau it is now a symbol of new beginnings.  We can freely move back and forth between the two interpretations.

To use this image, however, is to be reminded that the burning and evacuation of Richmond did lead to the emancipation of thousands of Richmond slaves that were freed by the Union army.  It is story that all Americans ought to explore if they are truly interested in the American Civil War.  Of course, we are likely to hear the same tired rumblings from certain quarters, but let’s be clear about one thing.  While good marketing works to sway the perceptions of potential customers it must begin by acknowledging how they currently view their world and what will motivate them to take action.

In this case it is safe to say that this ad builds on certain cultural, social, and political changes that have been at work in Richmond for the past three decades.

A Relic of the Past

Lee Monument, Richmond, Virginia

Last night I received an email asking why I continue to post about the activities and antics of the Virginia Flaggers [see here and here].  It should be obvious given the content of this blog, but let me once again state the obvious.  The Flaggers and their cause provide a clear window into the changing cultural and historical landscape of Richmond and much of the rest of the South.  I should point out that I don’t really have a problem with planting the Confederate flag in front of Pelham Chapel, but apparently the VMFA does and it is their private property.  Andy Hall was kind enough to forward the official UDC response to Susan Hathaway and the Flaggers following their recent incident:

On December 26, 2011, I responded to Ms. Hathaway advising that Pelham Chapel is not a UDC memorial and that our involvement in this issue could be construed as a ‘political activity’ that would possibly put our 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status at risk. I further advised that our Bylaws prevent our involvement in ‘political activity’ and for that reason; the UDC was unable to allow the use of the flag poles located on the front of our UDC Memorial Building. I reminded her that the First National Flag flies daily in front of the UDC Memorial Building in perpetual honor of our Confederate ancestors.

On Wednesday afternoon, March 7, 2012, Ms. Hathaway came to our building and asked to speak with me. Mrs. Lucy Steele, Chairman of the Memorial Building Board of Trustees (who was in the building on other business) and I met with Ms. Hathaway. The request was that they be allowed to ‘gather’ on the front of our property. She was advised that we would not allow that.

The request was then made to allow them to ‘gather’ on the back corner of our property. Mrs. Steele pointed out that the property at the back corner belonged to VMFA but that we did not have a problem with it but she would have to seek approval from VMFA.

Ms. Hathaway then asked if the “No Trespassing” signs that had been posted recently were because of them and if they gathered on our property would the police be called. She was told that, as with any trespasser, we would call the police.

We explained to Ms. Hathaway that there have been instances of people sleeping under the bushes around the building. Recently during a work day, a man was seen crouching between the bushes and the building with binoculars which raised questions as to his intentions. The police were called at that time. “No Trespassing” signs were placed on our property in an effort to protect not only our building but our employees as they come and go, often times during early morning and evening hours.

On Saturday, March 10, 2012, during our Annual Spring Board Meeting, the VA Flaggers gathered on the sidewalk in front of the UDC Memorial Building. A short time later, they were observed leaning and perched on the cannons ignoring signs stating do not climb on the cannons. They then moved from the cannons to the steps leading to our building for a group photo. At this point, Mrs. Steele went out to ask them to move from the steps to the sidewalk – some moved immediately. Others remained on the steps. During this time, the Richmond City Police were called.

The UDC could have found a way to accommodate the Flaggers if they had wanted to do so.  It’s safe to say that their “15 Minutes” expired some time ago.  Their fundamental problem is the same problem that the rest of the heritage community faces and that is a continued embrace of the Confederate flag as the beginning and end of Confederate memory.  It reflects a complete lack of creativity as to how to forge meaningful ties to the past for those people who may be disposed to follow.  Although the community believes that their ability to commemorate the past has been threatened, the irony is that there is no better time in the Richmond area to explore the rich history of the Confederacy and the Civil War era.  There is some evidence that tourists are visiting the area for precisely this reason, but apart from a few poorly maintained websites  (some of which are attached to some pretty shady people) and a YouTube page no one is coming to their defense or providing additional support. It is difficult to see the Virginia Flaggers as little more than a relic of the past.