Confederate Memorials… and Reason

From time to time I’ve deviated from the main topics of this blog – or shall I say the strict content line – to discuss matters surrounding the memorials for Civil War subjects.  It’s not too far off my preferred line of discussion.  After all, in the functional sense, markers, monuments and memorials tend to be lumped together in the public eye.

But there is enough functional differences that we should keep such in consideration.  To me a marker is public-facing display that is intended as purely informational, conveying historical facts, settings, components, context, and such.  Granted, some markers may “have a passing acquaintance with the truth” the function is still the same – misguided, it may be.

Monuments, in my definition, are something a bit more advanced in the mind.  Their function is specifically to remind one of an event, most usually one in close proximity, in terms of space, to the monument.  We have regimental monuments on many large battlefields that indicate where a unit fought.  We have monuments to people at locations where they may have done great deeds.  The point I’ve always made about monuments is, again with function, they are meant to inspire or at least remind the audience, but with less concern with the all raw historical facts.  They tend to grow out of that kernel of history which someone wishes to remain at the fore.  Certainly something to be remembered, but tied to THAT place at THAT time.  Take a monument away from that context of place and time, and it lies flat.

Memorials, on the other hand, tend to be less about the history and more about what the agent (the party placing the memorial) want to have remembered.  And that word, “remember,” I think is the active part in the function of a memorial.  The intent is that something would be maintained in memory.  The memorial speaks, more so than a monument, to the emotions of the audience.  It is not so much there for a history lesson, but as a construct of heritage.

Those categories cast, it is the memorials that have the world’s attention these days.  Though unfortunately the other two types of public displays are getting lumped into the mix.  In my little corner of the world, the Confederate memorial at the county courthouse has been in the news of late.  I’ve even had my spot on TV discussing the memorial (yes… “day off” scruff and a t-shirt… If I’d know I’d be on TV….) Long time readers know where I stand on these issues.  I have no need of Confederate iconography.  For the most part, it’s heritage and not history.  There are places where that iconography may provide a visual supplement to a point of history, to be sure.

And it is the history that I seek.  And it is the history that is being walked past in our rush to judge the memorials.  The problem here is we are practically ignoring the greater history as if attempting to purge the “bad” out.  I’ve written on this before and need not spend time reiterating the concern.   I will say that the Southern Poverty Law Center’s study continues to get a lot of placement, though it is at best a flawed study of the subject.  Toward that point, the “chilling effect” I mentioned years ago has lead to the removal of some markers (which were clearly markers) and even vandalism against some decidedly non-Confederate public displays.  That trend, I would say, needs to stop and stop now.

Regardless, as I say, I’m not attached to the memorials… though I am concerned that the general public doesn’t know what a memorial is!

Specifically to our Loudoun County memorial, different local politicians have come forward with their ideas.  One has suggested that the memorial be moved to the Confederate Cemetery, across town, a section in the, perhaps ironically named, Union Cemetery.  Such is impractical as there is already a Confederate memorial there… not to mention cemeteries tend to be short on space.  Another has suggested the memorial be relocated to the Balls Bluff National Cemetery.  That would be the place managed by the Veterans Administration where FEDERAL dead are buried.  Most unfitting for a Confederate memorial.  Of course, others have suggested placing the memorial at Balls Bluff, just outside the cemetery.  But, well, there’s already a Confederate memorial there.  I could go on discussing more “move here” options floated.  None of these are reasoned or practical.

We could take the memorial down, right?  Well there are some folks who would disagree.  And they would offer their own reasons and purposes.  I’ve found it best, as a historian, to let those reasons be heard, where supporting merit exists.  And, though I’m not going to enumerate those here, some reasonable people have made a reasonable case for leaving the memorial as it stands.  Don’t read into that.  Reasonable doesn’t automatically mean “right.”  Rather, that the presentation has its merit… and we should discuss that merit, not dismiss.

On the other side, what if that memorial is left in place?  Well, I don’t think anyone can say it represents all of today’s Loudoun.  It is, at best, a reminder of what Loudoun was in 1908, not 1861 or 2017.  And there is a lot of the Loudoun of 1908 that does not set well with the Loudoun of 2017.  Again, I won’t enumerate all the reasons offered for removal.  But I will say those sound reasonable.  Yes… having merit and not to be dismissed.

Some have even suggested the memorial be removed, but the pedestal remain for “introspection.”  Well, that might remove the bronze statue, but would leave the words that really drive home the point (which are inscribed on the base).  Besides, I tend to see memorials such as this one reflecting a great scar upon our national history – for better or worse.  What good would it be to attempt to remove the scar, yet leave remains of it?  A partially open wound which may be periodically rubbed with salt?  We sort of have that already.  Better to just have a patch of grass there, in my opinion.

You see, I don’t think there are any simple solutions here.  Remove, move, or leave in place… if we put that out as a referendum, the results would be mixed at best. None of those options are going to leave even a slim majority of people happy.  It is a complex problem…  derived from a complex history.

But it is a problem we need to sit down and discuss.  Reasoned discussion, that is.

Like anyone else on this issue, I don’t have a quick, simple solution.  Though, I do have a complex one….

Before anyone decides what to do with Loudoun’s Confederate memorial, I think there should be an deeper discussion that brings to the fore the full historical background.  Starting with this:

Richmond_Times_15May1908_Page5_Col2

What was said at this event?  John Daniel’s speech might be found in his papers, in the University of Virginia’s library.  To tell the truth, I’ve never gone looking (him being a post-war figure).  But if the speech given at Leesburg does exist, then that’s the first place to look.  Beyond that speech, what ELSE did Daniel say about the Confederacy, its legacy, and the world of 1908?  I have some presumptions of what I THINK was said.  But that’s not how history works… you actually have to use the sources, not what you think of the sources.  I would want that speech, if it can be found, given full distribution for evaluation… as a source document for direct, and spotlighted, interpretation.

And that is just the starting point.  There’s a lot more of the history that SHOULD be discussed.  Including things that happened in, and around, the location where the statue stands today.  Furthermore, unlike what some in this discussion might want you to believe, there were reasons – REASONS, plural – for the memorial’s placement. We should let the words of those who placed the memorial help frame the discussion of the memorial. That’s called full historical context.

From that context, we need to promote understanding of the history.  Right now, there are simply too many emotional reactions – from all sides of the issue – to the memorial clouding the history.  We need to put that emotion to the side.  We need to circle the history, determine it, describe it, and, finally, USE IT!

Use that history to explain the complexity of the issue.  From that, we can … and should… come to a common understanding.   That, I would submit, would be the foundation for a solution that more than a simple majority will agree upon.  Leave it, or move it, or remove it… let the decision weigh from the evidence of history.

P.S.:  I’ve used the word “reason” a lot in this post, taking advantage of the several definitions of that word. And that was for a reason!

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Pokemon Go… where the markers, monuments, and battlefields are!

Over the last week, Pokemon Go has successfully replaced Trump, Clinton, and even the Kardashians in the news cycle.

PokemonGo

The game is the hottest “new thing” in a world that embraces “new things.”  We call it “viral” now days… a word use that would prompt face-palms from the Civil War generation.  The best I can offer as a guide to this crazy game is an article from Vox.  (With some luck, the aide-de-camp has not expressed an interest in the game… yet!)

There are a lot of rocks being thrown at the game and the gamers.  Tales of gamers running off cliffs or getting hit by cars in the obsessive quest for little virtual characters.  And beyond the physical world, there are some virtual security precautions that participants in the game should consider.  Tales of woe that give pause for anyone… anyone above the age of 25 without a YOLO-death-wish outlook on life that is.

But that’s the down side.  And the aspect that gets much play in the news.

There is an upside.  Consider:

The National Park Service could, with justification, make a “No Pokemon Go” stance.  But Director John Jarvis opted to encourage the activity with caution.  And I like the hook in the end to “find” a park along the way.

Yes, there is a risk that in pursuit of Pokemon creatures someone will wade into the World War II Memorial or traipse across a National Cemetery.  But those egregious possibilities aside, is there anything wrong with the pursuit of Pokemon across the battlefield?  I’m inclined to say there is not.  Those fields are set aside for us to walk over and consider.  Some go there to consider the acts of war that took place.  Others go there to consider the wildlife.  And others go there for reasons far removed from the original intent of these parks.  We’ve come to accept those reasons so long as the acts are compatible with the primary goal of the park.

I don’t see anything particularly unsettling with a group of kids running across the battlefield, so long as they are safe.  Certainly less obtrusive than some other uses that come to mind.  And as the director alludes to, such just might open eyes to the greater purpose of the park system.

And that brings me to another aspect… an upside, if I may suggest… to the Pokemon Go craze.  The game actually uses a system of what they call PokeStops, were these creatures – the goal of the game – are located.  Virtually that is.  From the IGN wiki on the game:

These will be located at select places near you, such as historical markers, monuments, and art installations.

In layman’s terms, these physical placemarks serve as an anchor point for the game’s augmented virtual reality.  SciFi folks might call them “portals” into the game.  How ever you want to spin that.  The bottom line is the game pulls in the coordinates of many public exhibits and features to build a virtual game playing space.

… And one of the inputs to that list of coordinates is the Historical Marker Database (HMDB).  Gamers being gamers will always look to out game the game.  So if these virtual creatures seem to live around historical markers, what better to do than go looking for historical markers?  The owner/editor of HMDB tells me use of the website went up three-fold last week.  Pokemon Go players are hitting the site and use the “markers nearby” feature to move among potential PokeStops.

Now, one would hope that some of those visits to PokeStops involve pauses to read the marker, consider the memorial, or appreciate the art.  We know that even without Pokemon creatures about, only one in about fifty of the average visitors will stop to do that anyway.   At least for those in quest of Pokemon, they are consulting a list of what is nearby.  So it is not all bad.

Indeed, an enterprising mind could well see opportunity here.  What if the participant’s chance of catching said virtual creature was enhanced by display of knowledge of the historical site (or other such criteria relative to the physical site)?  What if someone flipped this game format to something other than a quest for Pokemon thingys?  You know, sort of like a scavenger hunt of old?

… my mind wonders back to my youth and days spent hiking Shiloh on the “Cannon Trail” to earn a Boy Scout patch. Mind you, that’s a major reason you have this blog to read….

Whose heritage? Well….SPLC, who’s counting?

On Thursday last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) posted a thought provoking article in regard to Confederate symbols or other public-facing displays.  Rather lengthy article, but is worth a sit-down read.  In the article the SPLC offers:

Following the Charleston massacre, the Southern Poverty Law Center launched an effort to catalog and map Confederate place names and other symbols in public spaces, both in the South and across the nation. This study, while far from comprehensive, identified a total of 1,503.*

These include:

718 monuments and statues, nearly 300 of which are in Georgia, Virginia or North Carolina;
109 public schools named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis or other Confederate icons;
80 counties and cities named for Confederates;
9 official Confederate holidays in six states; and
10 U.S. military bases named for Confederates.

An administrative note here.  I’ve included the asterisk after the total number offered here in the quotation.  It is not clear why the asterisk is there as it does not seem to correspond to a notation within the article… at least not one denominated in the traditional sense.   Though I think what the asterisk is trying to indicate is the process by which those numbers were derived.  An explanation of the sources, if you will.

That explanation appears towards the end of the article:

In researching publicly supported spaces dedicated to the Confederacy or its heroes, SPLC researchers relied on federal, state and private sources. Each entry was verified by at least one other source. When possible, preference was given to governmental sources over private, less-reliable ones.

For federal databases, researchers used the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the National Park Service, and the National Register of Historic Places. Researchers created a list of prominent Confederate heroes and identified municipalities, counties, schools, buildings, monuments, military bases, parks and other spaces named for them.

Further down, the SPLC mentioned some of the other sources consulted.  One of which, I am very familiar with:

The Historical Marker Database is another database with entries that are submitted by the general public and confirmed by an editor.

Most readers know I have entered more than 4,000 entries to that database.  I’ve lost count of the number which I edited or contributed to in some way, shape, or form.  I offer that not to brag so such, but to establish some bona fides here.  I’m no longer an active editor, but I know quite a bit about how that source was built and the editing practices.

Knowing what I know, I have to pause and question the data, and therefore the numbers, presented by SPLC.  Even a cursory glance demonstrates a lot of “data leaks” or overlooked, but expected, entries.  SPLC did not share their “rule set” or go into specifics about criteria for inclusion.  So readers are left to ponder what exactly they arbitrated as a “Confederate” public display.  What are those rules?

Consider, SPLC deemed the “Old Men and Boys” and the “Hagood Brigade” Monuments at Petersburg to be examples of such Confederate iconography.  These are very much what I consider monuments, as opposed to memorials.  Monuments, under my definition, have some specific tie in to the location they occupy.  In the case of those two examples, both were placed on sites where the units mentioned fought.  Both monuments were placed during that big spike (around the start of the 20th century) by southern veterans advocacy groups (one by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the other by a surviving member of the unit).  So this implies one rule used is – A monument, on the battlefield, placed by a southern veterans advocacy group during the time of Jim Crow. 

We also see a monument for Wilcox’s Brigade outside Mechanicsburg.  The main difference here is the memorial, by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was placed in 1999. Likewise, we see from the Fredericksburg battlefield, the Sons of Confederate Veterans placed “The Heights at Smith Run” in 2014.  So an addendum to the rule – A monument placed, even after Jim Crow, on the battlefield by a southern veterans advocacy group.

So given the rule, and it’s amendment, shouldn’t we also see an entry SLPC’s data set for the 11th Mississippi monument at Antietam?  It is a recent addition, famously dodging the park boundaries, and placed by a veterans’ advocacy group.  There is another 11th Mississippi monument, further north at a placed called Gettysburg, which was also placed in recent memory.  That last one is across the street from the North Carolina Memorial (notice the change of my denomination here.. memorial as not tied to historical details and specifics, but more so as a memorialization of event, person, group, or such…).  And of course just down the street…. Confederate Avenue, for those who might be evaluating street names for the data set…. we have the Virginia Memorial.

Picketts Charge 10 Aug 08 513

Is there anything that calls forward notions of the Lost Cause more than a statue of Robert E. Lee at the spot where those battle flags were unfurled prior to that most famous charge?  Seriously, this is the very essence of the Lost Cause depicted in stone and bronze!  I cannot think of anything in the known universe that would better fit in SPLC’s listing.  So why is this memorial not on the map?

And while we are working along that row, what about this memorial at Shiloh?

Vacation 226

A Western version of that Virginia Memorial.  The United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated this memorial at Shiloh in 1917.  Again, we have to ask why this display failed to make the list.

Likewise, we “walk” to another part of the battlefield and see a memorial placed by Arkansans to memorialize their regiments that fought at Shiloh.  In terms of context, there is little difference from the Arkansas Memorial at Shiloh and the Wilcox Brigade or Hagood Brigade memorials mentioned above.  So shouldn’t it be on the list?

Stepping back from statues, let’s consider plaques… more what I’d argue are properly “markers” in function.  Circle back and consider that “The Heights at Smith Run” entry mentioned above. The content is mostly factual.  The only real memorialization here is the dedication line.  Even more detached from any memorialization of the Lost Cause is the SPLC’s listing of General Johnston’s Headquarters in Dalton, Georgia.  That plaque is nothing but “here’s what happened here… just the facts, ma’am.”  So we have another implied SPLC rule in place here – A plaque which relates historical facts related to the Confederacy.

OK, another round of considerations.  There is a tablet standing next to that Arkansas Memorial at Shiloh, that lists Confederate units and details what those units did at a particular phase of the battle.  So if the “Smith Run” and “Johnston’s Headquarters” deserve a pinpoint on the map, shouldn’t that tablet also get a plot?  Oh, and before you answer, consider the US Government, specifically the War Department, placed that tablet around about the same time frame as we see that big “spike” on SPLC’s time line.

And at the same time, how do we reconcile a pinpoint for the regimental tablet at Shiloh, or the 11th Mississippi Monuments, with the presence, in some cases just steps away, of dozens of memorials to Federal regiments and units?  Indeed, if the Confederate displays are all the physical manifestations of “Jim Crow,” then are all the Federal memorials, monuments, and markers automatically “Civil Rights” memorials?  Careful, that’s a slippery slope we are on.  Watch your step or else graffiti becomes a hate crime…..

Another round of questions as to SPLC’s evaluation of listings comes up when considering the Hayward Shepherd memorial at Harpers Ferry.  There is “complex history” and then there is “really complex history.”  This is the latter.  One might fill several pages looking at the angles there… in fact, I think Robert Moore has done just that at some time in the past.  What rules were applied that warranted that memorial’s inclusion, might we ask?

Now am I saying that SPLC’s listing should have thousands more pinpoints?  Not exactly.  What I am saying is that SPLC’s work is sloppy and they should clean it up.  The current data set appears more of a “throw something on the map and see what sticks” approach. The map given given by SPLC calls to mind the “Chilling Civil War” map offered last summer by Slate. More to the point, I am saying that SPLC should have contacted someone who has decades of work spent in the field analyzing these sort of public displays at the ground level.  Someone who could have helped them build a clear set of rules to use when categorizing these public displays.  Clearly, given the information we have, that was not done.

As it currently stands, the SPLC listings are simply unable to support the premise offered in the article.  It is not “firm” or “solid” data.  Is that to say their conclusions are wrong?  No.  But I am saying that we cannot, with a straight face, accept the data as an argument to support the premise that is drawn.  It is a structure placed on a wet sand foundation.

My advice to Loudoun’s BOS: Fund historical markers, memorials can come later

I’ve mentioned the concerns expressed here in Loudoun County with respect to the Confederate memorial on the courthouse square (here and here).   Most I have spoken with, locally. have called for additions to the courthouse lawn …  and not removal of any memorials. Last week, Leesburg Today ran a story noting an initiative at the county level toward that end:

York To Push For Slave, Union Memorial At Courthouse

It’s looking more likely a remembrance of slaves sold on the Loudoun County courthouse steps could be coming to Leesburg.

County Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) said Monday that he would ask his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 2 to support placing such a memorial on the courthouse grounds.

The commemoration could also note the history of Loudoun residents who fought for the Union army in the Civil War, York said, or that bit of history could be memorialized in another way.

The chairman also said he will ask the supervisors to approve a contribution of $50,000 in county funds toward the cost of the memorial or memorials. The money would be donated only after the rest of the fundraising was complete, York said, in the same way that the county dedicated $50,000 toward the creation of a Revolutionary War statue, which is scheduled be placed on the courthouse grounds this Veterans Day….

The article goes on to discuss an effort, backed by the local NAACP branch, to place a Virginia State marker at the courthouse:

Phillip Thompson, the branch’s president, said Monday that he was pleased with York’s proposal, but he also noted that a lot of work still would need to be done before any memorial comes to fruition.

He met with York and other county government and community leaders Aug. 18, and he said that the NAACP and the Friends of the Thomas Balch Library’s Black History Committee will aim first to ask the Virginia Board of Historic Resources to approve the placing of a state historical marker at the courthouse noting the slave sales and Underground Railroad recognition.

“That’s an easier initial push,” Thompson said of the silver-and-black markers, which are generally placed along the sides of roads….

Certainly a positive step forward in all regards.

However, I would offer some observations from my seat.  Some background for those not from Loudoun is in order.  The Revolutionary War memorial mentioned by York is the product of a long running project that began in 1999.  To put a memorial up, the project needed $325,000. Not until 2012 did the project reach it’s halfway funding mark.  In December 2013, the county voted a $50,000 grant, the same figure proposed by York for the proposed slave memorial, to complete the project.  And the project will reach fruition nearly two years later when the memorial is dedicated on Veterans Day later this year.

And that effort serves as a good teaching point.  The memorial is indeed something the county will be proud of in the future.  It will fill a role, noticeably lacking, in the county’s historical landscape.  But it required a decade and a half, significant fundraising efforts, and (what I have not covered for brevity) a lot of discussions.  My point?  Memorials are good things, but they require long gestation periods and generous resource allocations.  Furthermore, memorials might not have firm “grounding” in the community, leaving them less effective.

On the other hand, I like options offered in this case – historical markers.  In fact, I would prefer that the funds be offered as grants towards historical markers.  Grants… as in plural.

My role as a member of the Loudoun County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee has given me some perspective on this.   Prior to the 150ths kicked off, there were twenty-seven historical markers, outside of those on the Balls Bluff battlefield, with substantial Civil War content.  During the sesquicentennial years, worked to place fifteen new markers in the county, an increase of over a third.  And there are two more “in the works.”  Of those markers, three (plus one of the pending markers) focused on unionist activity in Loudoun.  And three of the markers focused on wartime activity of slaves and free blacks, to include USCT.  That’s not counting the marker placed at the courthouse which, while trying to cram four years of wartime activity into 250 words, begins, “Before the war, the courthouse square was the location of slave auctions and militia recruiting activities.”

I don’t laud those achievements to say “our work is done.”  I bring those markers up to show, while progress has been made in public interpretation in the last five years there is much more to do.  For instance, we identified five other cemeteries which contained graves of USCT.  If we want to tell the complete story about Loudoun’s history, specific to the Civil War, and talk about slavery, then we should consider those sites for interpretation.

And that brings me back to that proposal from last week.  I’ve learned a lot in the last five years about how to use markers.  Likewise, I’ve learned some of the failings of memorials.  Not to say memorials are not needed.  Rather to say they are not always a good investment as compared to historical markers.  Going back to the Revolutionary War memorial, we see that will cost over $300,000.  Looking to the Mount Zion Cemetery marker featuring the USCT, that cost $2600.  The cemetery marker is part of a broader Virginia Civil War Trails system and thus is one in a larger, well-advertised, and established marker system.  And even more, the cemetery marker offers content which serves to educate where it stands.

I look at it this way – $50,000 would fund part of a memorial.  But $50,000 would go to fund almost twenty historical markers.  Those twenty markers would serve as direct educational products for the community.  If spent on such, that $50,000 would be an investment of sorts.  With placement those twenty markers could, by increasing community awareness and appreciation for the county’s history, pave the way for something substantial… perhaps on the courthouse lawn, though I’m thinking more so within the minds of the community.

Something to think about … before we tear down those Confederate memorials

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.

I would encourage you to read a column by William C. Davis, posted this weekend, titled “The Right Way to Remember the Confederacy.” The column is far to lengthy for me to quote or even summarize sufficiently here.  Davis weaves through a whole litany of topics – from the veneration of Lee to the Black Confederate myth.  Best for you to devote some time in your schedule to read and digest it all.  Your mileage may vary….

A section that stands out for me is this:

All of which demands that we ask: Can we ever separate the memory of the Confederate experience from the memory of slavery? Is there any positive legacy to be drawn from the Confederacy? Can we admire Confederate leaders, even the all-but-deified Lee, without tacitly endorsing their cause? Ultimately, can we make the Confederacy worth remembering for the descendants of the slaves and those following generations of freedmen whom the whole nation betrayed by ignoring their new rights and liberties for a century?

This paragraph reminds me much of the insightful talk offered by John Hennessy at Longwood, last winter.

Both of which remind me the Civil War is a topic with few absolute right angles.  Instead, complexities that require the historian to bring more than a crosscut saw, box of nails, and hammer.  Indeed, a set of woodworking tools is more so required just to define the subject.  Davis, a good historian, brought some of those woodworking tools for that column:

To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, America has ever been a laboratory for that democracy. The Confederacy is its most notable failed experiment. The debate over the relation of the states to the federal government had been present since independence. The idea that secession was an alternative if conflicts over sovereignty couldn’t be resolved arose often enough that it was likely to be tried eventually, and so the Confederates tried. They failed. But good scientists don’t erase their laboratory failures; they learn from them.

That, my readers, is why we study history.  It’s not for the “good” parts only, but for “all the parts”  Every piece of it need be considered.

Let me run with what Davis offered in that column…  and localize it a bit for me.  Of late this statue in downtown Leesburg has come up for discussion (again):

LoudounCWMemorial

There are calls from some sectors to have the memorial removed.  And I can understand the underlying logic, even if I find the arguments lacking.  That statue depicts a man bearing arms in defense of slavery.

But that’s me, a historian, drawing a right angle where there isn’t one.  I’m making it TOO simple and avoiding the complexities here.

What does that inscription say?

In memory of the Confederate soldiers of Loudoun County, Va, erected May 28, 1908

Not exactly chilling, is it?

And let me go back to those “nouns” again. This is a “memorial” in the proper sense of the word.   A memorial designed so as the visitor would be called upon to contemplate society’s collective memory of something.

So what was that something?  Well it says what we are supposed to remember… right there on the stone – Confederate soldiers.

Not the cause.  Not the flag.  Not Jefferson Davis. Not even General Lee (who by the way, stayed a block and a half down the street while in town).

This memorial calls for us to remember the soldiers sent off to war.  In that respect, it is not far removed from the other memorials that grace the courthouse square:

LoudounWarMemorials

These are not memorials to “Black Jack” Pershing.  Or Ike.  Or to Westmoreland. Or to the Enola Gay.   Nor to “Peace in our Time.” Or to “The Arsenal of Democracy.”  Or to the “Domino Theory.”

These are memorials that speak to the service of young people whom the community sent forward to represent the society in wars.  The county honors the sacrifice of those who’s names appear, and those alluded to in the inscriptions. And it is important to understand that the community sent those men into war.  Some volunteered.  Some were conscripted.  But it was the community… society, in the larger, national sense… that made the call.  The individual answered that call in the manner which they felt best.

Every war has a “cause.”  I’ve personally seen three wars.  Each has had a “cause.”  Some will say one of those causes was control of oil.  Maybe so, though I’d sort of like to think from my ground level the cause was something else. You see, there’s a fine example where the “right angle” we hope to impose is spoiled by the complexity.  I could care less about what you pay for gas at the pump, as there were other things which hastened my stride.  Whatever the cause for which society deemed important enough at the time, we heeded the call with our own personal motivations.  And none of those motivations will ever get a single letter on any memorial.

We can certainly say the same for the Confederate soldiers of Loudoun.  The “almost” right angle on this subject might be the cause of the Civil War.  As Davis said,

The shibboleth that “state rights” caused secession is a suit of clothes desperately lacking an emperor. Only slavery (and its surrounding economic and political issues) had the power to propel white Southerners to disunion and, ultimately, war.

But that is a “cause.”  The memorial is not celebrating a cause.  It is calling on us to remember individuals. Why did they put on those grey uniforms?  What motivated them?   We might find some answers in the words recorded by those men.  But we will find no right angles there.  Those answers will vary and scatter like leaves in fall before the storm.  It’s complex.  And it is interesting.

Is that memorial for ONLY the true, die-hard Confederates who wanted to uphold slavery?  What about those who thought little about slavery, but were concerned of the protection of their homes?  What about those conscripted to fight?  (Mind you, Loudoun is somewhat a special case for Virginia, what with a strong unionist enclave just a few miles from where that statue stands today.)  What about those who volunteered, maybe felt different about that decision later, yet continued to serve as they had little other option?  We practice redemption in our society, don’t we?   In other words, is “being” Confederate something we can define with such a sharp degree to measure only against a single word?

In a complex way, that memorial is both inclusive and exclusive.  It is for all of those from the county, regardless of motivation, who fought for what their community, at that time, felt was a compelling reason – a cause – to wage war.  And please note the complexity of that sentence.   I can’t find the words to make it less complex.  You, the reader, have to study that sentence.  That’s what this subject requires.

Think about what actions that translated to.  Not just the Civil War, but any and all wars, require individuals to commit acts which are – lacking a better word – inhuman.  Yes, inhuman, which the dictionary says is “lacking human qualities of compassion and mercy; cruel and barbaric.”  Walk that through the bold-face sentence above.  When turning to war, society finds the cause so vital and important that it must ask individuals to turn their nature.  That’s a heavy thing.

So, as we walk around the discussions about what memorials need to be removed, think about that heavy thing.  Maybe those memorials serve a higher purpose.  As Davis pointed out in his column, we need to be reminded of failed experiments of the past.  Perhaps that will give pause at some future time when a “cause” is on the lips of those calling for war.   And at the same time, maybe those memorials will serve to instruct future generations as to the responsibilities and burdens shared by individuals who are part of our society.

“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?

Congaree Creek Battlefield, a new marker, and “black Confederates”

Apologies that my earlier post ran too long to make mention of this related news item of the day.  As we have often seen, 150th anniversaries, large and small, are good times to dedicate new historical markers. The battle of Congaree Creek was not a large event in the war, but certainly worthy of a marker.

Earlier this year, the town of Cayce, South Carolina opened up the Battlefield Connection Trail which linked a couple of existing walking trails along the Congarees (River and Creek that is).  The last time I visited the area, in the 1990s, the best one could do is view the battlefield from the old State Road right-of-way.  So adding a trail into the bottom lands allows us to consider the contest that took place on February 15, 1865 in more detail.

But, a trail without interpretation is like a flat soda…. So unveiled yesterday, is a South Carolina state historical marker at the site of the earthworks used by the Confederates in the battle.  But this is not your “father’s marker” for Civil War earthworks.  Here’s a transcription of the text for SC 32-40:

Congaree Creek Earthworks

These earthworks were constructed in early 1865 and were the site of brisk fighting between the Union XV Corps and Confederate forces on Feb. 15, 1865. Approximately 750 enslaved and free African Americans who were impressed into Confederate service were responsible for building much of the defensive line, which ran from Congaree Creek to the Saluda Factory four miles north.

(Reverse)

The Confederate Congress approved legislation authorizing impressment of black laborers in March 1863 because slaveholders were reluctant to provide slaves for service. Still, labor shortages persisted. Maj. John R. Niernsee, S.C. Militia Chief Engineer, complained that he had to begin work at Congaree Creek with only 12 black workers and his request for 2,000 laborers was never met.

The use of impressed labor is well known and documented.  I’ve mentioned it often in relation to the building of defenses around Charleston.  The story of the work by impressed laborers during Fort Sumter’s many bombardments is one I feel is overlooked as we consider other aspects of the fort’s history.  No small number of laborers lost their lives in the fort during those bombardments.  And I’ve also mentioned it in relation to work done here in Loudoun County, Virginia (I don’t want to say too much… but there might be a marker discussing that subject in the future….)

This is a good marker, I’m sure you would agree.  The text brings us to a point of military history and then uses that context to bring us to something beyond military history.  Good text that lures you into a subject.

But this brings me to another point.  In recent years a trend has emerged that portrays those impressed to work for the Confederacy as soldiers… or at least supportive of the Confederate war effort.  This marker helps provide the proper context… not only to the earthworks which still stand there, but also to the hands that built them.  They were not volunteers.  They were not even draftees.  They were, for all practical purposes, gang labor for the Confederate army.

Off the battlefield … just eight miles off the battlefield… in Columbia, Lieutenant-Colonel John M. Otey, Assistant Adjutant-General for General P.G.T. Beauregard, sent a series of orders out in regard to the supplies remaining in the city.  To Major Roland Rhett, Assistant-Quartermaster in Columbia, Otey sent:

General Beauregard wishes every effort made to remove all quartermaster stores from this place to some point on the Charlotte railroad beyond Chesterville.

Then to Captain J.D. Witherspoon, Assistant Commissary of Subsistence in Columbia, went this directive:

General Beauregard directs that all subsistence stores, except 50,000 rations, be sent from the city in the direction of Chesterville and Charlotte, N.C.

And finally, to the commanding officers of the depots in Chesterville, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina went the same message:

Please have trains unloaded that they may be returned promptly. Impress labor if needed.

Impress labor if needed.  Take a guess what people were to be force to work unloading trains.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, page 1193.)