Not long ago, the Civil War museum where I used to work sent one of their battle flags to a conservation lab. The red fabric in the canton was frayed and had needed attention for some time, but the museum had to secure the funds first. A lot of history museums have backlogs of artifacts in need of more than in-house treatment, which they send out in dribs and drabs as donations, grants, and appropriations trickle in. The conservation and repair of one artifact can run well into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Multiply that by thousands of artifacts, and you understand why financial assistance is important.
That flag is one of those artifacts that always left an impact on visitors. It belonged to a Confederate cavalry unit from Tennessee—and one of the members of that unit may have been the person who left his blood on it. The stains are still quite visible.
I thought about that bloodstained flag when I read this post over at Civil War Memory. A local SCV group has secured private land and raised nearly $100,000 for a brand-new statue of Gen. Joe Johnston at Bentonville.
Readers of CWM may recall that the controversial statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber, which the SCV commissioned and then had to trot around in search of someone willing to accept it, had the same price tag. Remember, these aren’t historic works of art that have come onto the market and need a home, but entirely new sculptures produced for specific purposes.
Personally, I’m not at all uneasy about monuments to Confederates. I can understand why public displays of this sort bother some people, but the sight of a Confederate flag doesn’t make me any more uneasy than the national flag of Argentina. In fact, when I hear discussions about removing or relocating old Confederate monuments, I lose both interest and patience pretty quickly.
Monuments that are ninety or a hundred years old have historic value in and of themselves. They’re artifacts in their own right that have become a characteristic aspect of certain American landscapes, and they’re evidence of who we were and what we used to believe about ourselves. One shouldn’t go around trying to blot out every piece of culture simply because it’s distasteful. Furthermore, in some cases Civil War veterans themselves placed these monuments, so they provide information about how participants in the war interpreted their own experiences. Occasionally, they tell us where units were positioned during engagements, or at least where its members thought they were positioned.
Here, though, we’re not talking about statues that have been around for decades and have accrued some intrinsic historical or cultural worth. We’re talking about brand-new sculptures which cost a great deal of money, and that money has come from the efforts of heritage groups.
I’m extremely grateful that there are dedicated, generous people out there who are willing to support history with their money and to spend their time persuading other people to do so. I wish, however, that more of this money could be used to meet existing needs, rather than to create new monuments. Honoring brave men is a fine thing to do, but commemorative sculpture doesn’t play the prominent role in public memory and civic education that it once did. What matters now is that we have the raw material of history at hand, and we’re losing it. The sort of money spent on these statues could go a long way toward helping us preserve it.
If the SCV is looking for ways to perpetuate the legacy of Confederate soldiers, there is no shortage of opportunities. The CWPT is trying to raise $150,000 for the site of a remarkable Confederate breakthrough at Franklin, in the face of overwhelming fire and despite devastating losses. That spot of ground is a far more eloquent testimony to the bravery and prowess of the Confederate soldier than any plaque on a monument could provide.
The same organization is also trying to raise $75,000 for part of the field at Gettysburg associated with Longstreet’s assault of July 2. The cost of one of those statues would have secured ground over which southern troops marched during what Longstreet called the “best three hours of fighting” he had ever seen, with funds left over for even more.
Finally, there’s a need for $12,000,000 for a critical portion of the Fredericksburg battlefield, site of one of Lee’s most decisive victories. These are just a few handy examples; there are plenty of other endangered sites, along with historic Confederate monuments on battlefields and in graveyards that need the sort of serious maintenance that this sort of money could provide.
A hundred thousand dollars would renovate a museum gallery. It would cover the salary of a full-time historic site interpreter for three or four years. (There is currently no interpretation at Brandywine, due to a loss of state funds.) It would send a cabinet full of deteriorating uniforms, weapons, flags, portraits, or documents to the conservator.
Of course, the SCV and other heritage groups do, in fact, support such efforts with their money and time. I’m sincerely thankful for that. But I also think that in a tight economy, with governments and institutions slashing budgets for historical causes left and right, it’s important for those who care about history to be especially prudent with their resources.
That applies not just to Confederate heritage groups, but to those who want to preserve the legacies of Union soldiers, Revolutionary soldiers, abolitionists, Native Americans, or any historic group or individual. Is the best way to honor their memory a work of art, or ensuring that what’s left of their world is still around for your children and grandchildren to learn from and appreciate?
One more thing about that flag I mentioned at the beginning of this little tirade. It used to hang in a display case near the uniform of a young Confederate soldier from Virginia, who died in battle at age eighteen. The uniform isn’t on exhibit anymore. It’s in fragile condition, but it might go back on display after some treatment. Just as soon as there’s enough money to do it.