Tag Archives: Civil War memory

The big one

Several years ago, when I was in the museum business, we decided to do a temporary exhibit on the Gettysburg Address. I e-mailed the NPS to see about borrowing a few artifacts, and they graciously obliged us with some fantastic material. Somebody had to drive up to Pennsylvania to pick it up.

I had never been to Gettysburg, and I was always looking for an excuse to get out of the office anyway, so I booked a rental van to haul the artifacts and got a good friend of mine to tag along, and off we went.  Both of us had been on a Civil War quiz bowl team in high school, and everybody on the team had talked vaguely about making a collective trip to Gettysburg over the years, but it had never worked out so that all of us could go at the same time.

Some history road trips get added value from the landscape along the way, and this was one of them.  It was a beautiful drive northward through the Shenandoah Valley along I-81.  The background music, unfortunately, was ill-suited to the occasion.  This was the year that Nelly Furtado’s song “Promiscuous” was released, and for some reason it seemed to be playing incessantly on every single radio station during the drive up.  To this day, I associate that song with Gettysburg.  (Weird, I know, but your brain is gonna do what your brain is gonna do.)

We got there just after sunset, with just enough daylight left to make out some monuments and wayside markers.  There are football towns and college towns and music towns; Gettysburg was a history town.  The restaurants were named after generals, the stores sold Confederate t-shirts, and our hotel had Troiani prints in the lobby.  It seemed like there was a museum or attraction on every corner.  The place had this irresistible mixture of historic architecture and landscape alongside examples of tourist kitsch, a combination I’ve never encountered in the same way anywhere else.  It sounds jarring, but it worked; it had an appeal all its own.

The old visitor center was still open then, but many of the artifacts had been moved out in preparation for the opening of the new building. We watched the electric map show and checked out the exhibits, case after case after case full of rifles, swords, and bullet-riddled doors.  Then it was out onto the battlefield itself.

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We did the “must-see” highlights, the high-water mark and Little Round Top and all the rest of them.  All those places mentioned in books and labeled on maps were really there, not as ink on paper but as soil and rock and vegetation.  It was like meeting a celebrity and realizing that behind the magazine covers, movie posters, and TV appearances is a real live human being who is standing right in front of you.  Right there was the stone wall, and over there was the copse of trees, and there was that hill, all of them instantly recognizable and looking like they hadn’t aged a day since Gardner had taken his photographs.

Like a lot of historic sites, this one had a personality all its own, with its open fields framed by hills and mountains.  It looked the way Gettysburg should look, an appropriate arena for a great contest, as if the landscape had known that two armies would be meeting there and had been arranging itself for the occasion.  Maybe not for the war’s most decisive battle, but certainly its definitive one.

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Some assembly required

In case you were wondering what might have befallen us if the Confederacy had gotten its hands on the Super-Soldier Serum, here it is.  I’m guessing the next installment will have Horace Hunley as Tony Stark and Belle Boyd as Black Widow.

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PBS features story of Loreta Velazquez, a reinvented Rebel

If even half of her controversial autobiography is true, then Loreta Janeta Velázquez led one of the most fascinating lives of the nineteenth century.  She’s the subject of Rebel, a new documentary airing Friday, May 24 to open this season of Voces on PBS.

Loreta Janeta Velazquez, in and out of disguise

According to her 1876 book The Woman in Battle, Loreta was born in Cuba in 1842 to  a prominent Spanish official.  Sent to New Orleans as a young girl, she displayed a rebellious personality from a young age, dressing in boys’ clothes and eloping with an army officer at the age of fourteen.  Deciding to see something of combat, she was one of hundreds of women who disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War.  Calling herself Harry T. Buford, she experienced some of the war’s most famous battles, including 1st Bull Run, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh.  After her exploits as a soldier, she took up spying, enjoying a remarkable career as a double agent.

That, at least, is the story she told in her memoir.  How much of it is true has been a subject of debate ever since its publication.  Jubal Early, who met her in Virginia after the book’s publication, denounced her as a fraud.  Some historians have likewise found her claims hard to swallow, although researchers have found enough documentation to verify a few parts of her story.

Rebel doesn’t spend much time separating fact from fiction.  Instead, it focuses on the outline of her story as she told it herself, using it to examine the role of Hispanics in Civil War America, gender in the nineteenth century, and contested historical memories.  The concern here isn’t really whether her account is true, but why its accuracy was a matter of such concern to her contemporaries.  The program suggests that her autobiography offered a challenge to the society in which she lived, not only because she stretched the truth but also because of who she was—a Hispanic woman involved in the business of war and espionage who was determined to go public with her exploits.  It’s a fascinating story, and I enjoyed watching it.

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Southern Lincolns abound

The Old Dominion has embraced Honest Abe, at least according to this article.

The writer claims that Tredegar’s sculpture of Lincoln and Tad is “the only statue of Lincoln in the South, where many people still refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression.”  I must beg to differ.  In fact, if you visit my alma mater here in East Tennessee, you’ll find three of them: a standing Lincoln at the main entrance, a copy of Paul Manship’s larger-than-life “Hoosier Youth” in the museum atrium, and a depiction of Lincoln as a lawyer in front of the library.

There’s also a Lincoln statue at the state capitol in West Virginia, and Kentucky has more Honest Abes than you can shake a stick at.

One more quibble.  I’ve lived in the South for more than thirty years, and I’ve only heard one person refer to the Civil War as “the War of Northern Aggression.”  The guy who said it was a reenactor; ironically, I was at an event in a state that never joined the Confederacy.  Most of my fellow southerners aren’t nursing a grudge over a war that ended before their great-grandparents were born.

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The Lincoln screed checklist

This guy’s got all his ducks in a row.

Reference to the USSR?  Check.  Use of the felicitously vague label “progressive”?  Check.  War attributed to tariffs?  Check.  The Greeley letter quoted in blissful ignorance of the chronology surrounding the decision for emancipation? Check.  Quote from the Charleston debate?  Check.  Lerone Bennett citation?  Check.

Bonus points for conflating the slavery debate as the cause of the war with abolition as a Union war aim from the get-go…”Moreover, if, according to the progressive version of history, abolition of slavery was the cause of the Civil War, why didn’t Lincoln free the slaves right off the bat?”

…and for overlooking the wee matter of the Battle of Antietam: “Why did he wait for many months — and do it only when the war took a bad turn for the Union, and, more important, when the superpowers of the day, Great Britain and France, were about to recognize the Confederacy and come to its aid?”

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Support a Civil War film project

I just got this message from a filmmaker named Alexander Fofonoff:

I am in my last year at NYU Tisch for film, and about to embark on my thesis film. It is a 19th century post civil war period piece that deals with how returning soldiers dealt with not only the transition from war to peace, but a national transition, how to accept half the country that’s been considered an enemy for the last four years, and what price is paid for that acceptance.

I recently launched an indiegogo campaign, in an attempt to have my project crowd-funded (small donations from a lot of people).

You can get more information at the film’s WordPress site, and make a contribution toward the production at Indiegogo.

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Do we need a law against moving monuments?

Now, here’s the sort of thing that’s perfect for stirring up debate in the historical blogosphere:

A new bill proposed in the Georgia legislature would prohibit local governments from hiding or removing statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee or other Confederate army heroes indefinitely.…

Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, introduced the proposal at the request of the Sons of the American Revolution and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The bill, if passed, would require that monuments be kept in a prominent place. It would also make it illegal to “deface, defile, or abuse contemptuously” any memorial dedicated to the Confederate army.

“We’re not saying they can’t move them,” Benton said. “We’re just saying they can’t just put them in a field somewhere.”

You can read the proposed bill yourself by clicking here. It’s pretty short, so go ahead and give it a look.

Of course, I’m in favor of throwing the book at anybody who mutilates or damages historic monuments and markers, but I would assume Georgia already has vandalism laws to cover that sort of thing. As for the bill’s more novel provisions to stop such monuments from being “relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered,” I’m not sure what to think.

My inclination in disputes over older monuments is usually to let them be and keep them in good condition, since they have intrinsic historic value. But I’m not sure it’s a good idea to have a state law prohibiting local government agencies from moving monuments except in cases of construction projects, since the bill (if I understand it correctly) makes no distinction among monuments “dedicated to a historical entity” based on their age or significance.

What do you guys think?

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Filed under American Revolution, Civil War, History and Memory