“Chilling” reporting on the “chilling” inscriptions leads to a “chilling effect” on Civil War study

I’m going for a racy, edgy, and inaccurate title just so I can get in on the game too.

This weekend I noticed Slate had used the data at Historical Marker Database to create an animated map to depict the growth of the “commemorative landscape” of the Civil War.  Great… a movie-map for the masses to consider….  That’s nice… Not!

Up front the first thing which bothered me was the caption provided (and used in the share tag line):

Watch as 13,000 Civil War monuments fill the U.S. map – and read the chilling inscriptions

Chilling inscriptions?  Such as…

ChillingInscriptions

Such as the Cadmus War Memorial in Cadmus, Kansas… Here’s the “chilling” text on that memorial:

In honor of the Veterans of the
Civil War 1861-1865

In honor of the Soldiers, Sailors
and Marines who served in the
World War 1917-1918

In honor of the Loyal Women
of this community

In honor of the Veterans of the
Spanish-American War 1898

Dedicated Nov. 11, 1919

I don’t know about you, but reading that… I had flashbacks to Carnival of Souls.  Chilling!

But what about that other memorial…or what I would call a marker to be precise…  for Fort Anderson?  Its “down south” so you know it has to be steeped in Lost Cause-isms, right?

Begun 1861. Named in honor of General Joseph R. Anderson, then commanding military district. The Fort, under command of Brig. Gen. Johnson Hagood, suffered a severe bombardment by a Federal fleet and attack by Federal army under Maj. Gen. J. M. Schofield in February, 1865 and was evacuated.

Just imagine Freddie Krueger reading that one, OK?  Getting goose-bumps?

And cited in the article directly, as an example of these “chilling” inscriptions is the 8th Vermont Volunteers Memorial from the Winchester National Cemetery:

Honor the Brave. Erected to commemorate the Bayonet Charge of the Eighth Vermont Vol’s. led by Genl. Stephen Thomas. Sept. 19, 1864. Committed to the care of those once a brave foe. Now our generous friends.

I’d better stop, or you readers will start calling for WordPress to rate my blog “R” or at least “PG-13.”

The content of the article is just as disconcerting.  The writer used HMDB data, but didn’t have the presence of mind to contact anyone at HMDB to discuss how the data was compiled, organized, edited, and presented.  Just like eating raw sugar in the spoon and calling it “candy.”  I could go on ranting about how Slate misused this data, but I’ll not bore you with the scathing details.  What troubles me the most is how this is pitched … as examples of how the “racist” Civil War has polluted our country and now needs to be cleansed…. and I quote:

The monuments tell the story not just of Lost Cause sentimentality, but of a nation perhaps all too eager to put the conflict, and its underlying causes, behind it.

Every monument is attributed to Lost Cause sentimentality?  I’d wager that the Union Veterans who put up so many of those monuments – including that one in Cadmus, Kansas – might take issue with the Lost Cause sentimentality.

In fact, let us drill deeper into the numbers… and let me offer some detailed analysis based on my many years examining Civil War-related public interpretations  (something that I offer up free of charge here, and a service I would have gladly offered up to Slate, had they asked).

First off, we can’t call all those dots on the map “monuments.”  Nor can we call them “memorials.” A vast majority of those depicted are properly “markers.” Those are nouns.  As some famous general is reported to have said, “a noun is the name of a thing.” So those words have some meaning.  And we ought to be using those meanings:

Monument – a statue, building, or other structure erected to commemorate a famous or notable person or event.

Memorial – an object which serves as a focus for memory of something, usually a person (who has died) or an event.

Not all monuments and memorials rate an entry into HMDB.  Particularly, buildings are not HMDB entries.  In other cases, the editorial standards for HMDB come into play.

But Marker?  I define a historical marker as a sign, plaque, or other form of publicly-accessible interpretation which is designed to inform the visitor of a matter of historical significance.  (In my view, some day geo-referenced  data-points visible on smart devices may be “historical markers” based on function.)

That said, let us get to the gist of what Slate was driving at – this sprawling of Lost Cause celebration across the map of our country.

ChillingInscriptions2

Notice how all those dots fill up Virginia?  Particularly Northern Virginia.  Is that because Northern Virginia is full of Lost Cause celebrating racists?  Well, I think Northern Virginia is full of something.  But I’d submit Alexandria and Great Falls are not exactly hotbeds of neo-Confederacy.

Something else is at work here.  Those dot concentrations match to the great battles and campaigns of the Eastern Theater.  I could be quaint and give Slate a lesson in Civil War history here.  But you know the deal. That collection of yellow dots pretty much covers from Adams County, Pennsylvania down to Richmond, Virginia.  If you don’t know what happened to cause the incidents for which those dots interpret, then I invite you to start reading my blog posts from about June 2011 forward to this date.  Thanks in advance for the page views!

So those interpretive markers cannot, if we are treating this fairly in our assessment, be cited as direct results of the “Lost Cause.”  So let’s take those out.  I know, someone will argue that if there was no Lost Cause, we really wouldn’t care about the battlefield.  Um… well… let’s take that on directly.

Look to the west of that mass of yellow Virginia dots.  For a state in which only a handful of skirmishes were fought, Ohio has a whole lot of dots.  Why would that be?  Well you see, the Union veterans were not only active at places like Winchester, Virginia or Cadmus, Kansas.  They were active in every locality in the north, putting up memorials so that generations which followed could stand in awe of their deeds.  Rightfully so!  They saved the union after all!  They ensured we’d have a country to call a country!  They freed the slaves!  They fixed bayonets and did what needed to be done, right?  So they put up memorials so we would remember all that stuff.  (Lot of good that did, as we forget to put that stuff in our textbooks…. but that’s another story.)  And some of the grandest memorials which those Federal veterans pressed for were preserved battlefields.  That’s one major reason for the swath of yellow dots through Virginia – that and follow on work by later generations to continue that preservation.

I could make a case that in terms of raw numbers of memorials on court-house squares, public commons, and cemeteries, Ohio is only behind Pennsylvania and New York.  If we think per-capita number of memorials, Ohio might have the edge.  But I can’t say that for sure, as we don’t have every memorial in those states cataloged for HMDB.  (You can help, by the way… and it is free.)

In my view, this allegation of Lost Cause-based memorialzation run amok across our landscape is a false premise from the start.  It is nothing more than a sensational journalistic ploy meant to stir up more shouting and suck more oxygen out of the room.   We do need to discuss the Civil War, but not in a loud, screeching tone.  There should be a proper conversation, using history as a basis and logic as the guiding hand.

But that’s not happening.  Instead, we are reaching a point where no discussion of the Civil War can be rational.  This, in turn, is going to have a “chilling effect” on Civil War studies.  How long can I run a blog on Civil War subjects before someone lumps my writing – with no foundation in fact – under a blanket, derisive complaint about “chilling” web-relics of the Confederacy?

3 thoughts on ““Chilling” reporting on the “chilling” inscriptions leads to a “chilling effect” on Civil War study

  1. […] These are some great days if you are the type to enjoy intersecting Civil War history into current events.  The word “Confederate” has appeared more often in the news over the last three weeks than over the collective years of the sesquicentennial.  Though I would point out that the words “Federal” and “Union” are once again getting little air-play.  Yet, darn near every day someone passes another link my way calling for a Confederate monument … or all of them… to be torn down.  Maybe that is the way things are heading.   A great deal of effort has been spent in what I see as “windmill tilting.”  Or perhaps, for some, building straw-men.    As mentioned in an earlier post, I see trouble in this trend. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s