Kevin Levin recently noted the case of three captured Confederate flags that are going to be sent back home to North Carolina. I think it’s a fine gesture.
Coincidentally, there’s another story about repatriating Civil War artifacts in the news right now. In 1861, the 13th Massachusetts Volunteers decided to make the most of their time in Harpers Ferry by picking up a souvenir—the bell from the firehouse where John Brown made his last stand. They passed it along to a Maryland woman, and it remained in her possession until 1892, when some of the veterans from the 13th Massachusetts retrieved it and took it back to their home state. It’s still there, hanging in a tower in the town of Marlborough. Now West Virginia real estate broker Howard Swint thinks it belongs back home, and he’s going to court to try to make it happen.
According to the article, “Swint thinks the bell is a national treasure that should be returned to Harpers Ferry where visitors can see it.” Fair enough. It’s certainly a part of Harpers Ferry’s history. The National Park Service manages Harpers Ferry’s historic sites, and an exhibit featuring the bell and the story of its journey from West Virginia to Massachusetts and back would give the NPS a pretty neat opportunity to teach visitors about the way the Civil War has been remembered down through the years.
Still, the bell has been in Marlborough for so long that it’s become a part of that town’s history, too. Like all artifacts, the bell has acquired its particular importance from the events that have happened to it. Artifacts, I think, are subject to Lamarckian biology; the events they undergo become permanently wired into their DNA. That, after all, is why we cherish some objects above others.
Some of the comments left on the web article indicated that Swint has stirred up controversy before, so I Googled him and came up with an editorial written by someone with that name just a few months ago, arguing for the removal of a Stonewall Jackson monument on the grounds of the West Virginia capitol. In this piece, Swint (assuming, of course, it’s the same Howard Swint of West Virginia) claims that a Confederate monument at the capitol is inappropriate, given all the Confederacy’s unsavory aspects.
Here, too, I think it’s easy to oversimplify matters. I tend to be dismissive of efforts to put up new monuments, but when it comes to the ones that have been around for a century or more, my preservationist instincts kick in. Yes, slavery and racism are inextricably intertwined with the history of the Confederacy, and yes, Confederate symbols continued to be employed for racist purposes well into modern times. But there comes a point at which things like old monuments or works of art are artifacts in themselves. They tell us something about the way we used to be (or wanted to be, or wanted to think we were), so I say leave them be.
Just as the bell’s long stay in Massachusetts has become an intrinsic part of its history, so the idealized legacy of the most famous West Virginian to fight in the war has become an intrinsic part of the state’s history. Tearing down an old monument seems sort of like getting a tattoo of your ex-wife’s name removed—you won’t have to look at it anymore, but all the baggage goes a lot deeper than the ink in your skin, so you might as well acknowledge it and try to develop some perspective and become better for it.
As for the bell, I don’t know how I’d make that call. Since it’s not my call to make, I guess that doesn’t matter.