Monthly Archives: June 2009

Stonewall slept here

Historic house museums are tricky places to manage.  You’re not just dealing with the conservation and interpretation of a collection of artifacts within a controlled environment—the whole building is an artifact that has to be maintained and interpreted.  This presents some considerable challenges.  The Stonewall Jackson House in Lexington, VA is a first-rate example of how to overcome them successfully.

The first thing I noticed on my visit is that the house has been impeccably restored.  In fact, of all the historic house museums I’ve visited, the restoration job at the Stonewall Jackson House is one of the absolute best.  You’d never believe that it’s 150 years old, or that it was converted into a hospital after Jackson lived there.

Equally impressive in presentation are the visitor areas.  This museum is a first-class operation from the moment you step in the door.  The lower floor entrance opens into a small but beautifully-furnished reception/gift shop area.  In addition to the usual souvenirs, you’ll find a great selection of scholarly books on sale, from Robertson’s definitive Stonewall bio to studies of his campaigns and more general works on the war and the Confederacy.

An orientation theater offers a brief film that discusses Jackson’s life in Lexington, and there’s also a small exhibit in this room that covers his life and career.  Where this museum really shines, though, is on the actual house tour.  Our guide was a very gracious, very southern, and extremely knowledgeable lady whose delivery was smooth and extraordinarily professional.  The whole tour was expertly paced, bristling with content and detail but not so long as to be tiresome. 

I should point out here that historic house guides are some of the unsung heroes of the museum world.  They’re the equivalent of the enlisted infantrymen and NCOs in the army—the ones at the actual point of contact who get the job done, though they rarely get the lion’s share of the glory.  They’re the single most important factor in determining the visitor’s experience at historic homes, and if the tour I took is any indication, then the guides at Stonewall Jackson House are some of the best in the business.

One of the things that a tour of any house museum belonging to a significant historical figure should do is to strike the right balance between the interpretation of the rooms and interpretation of the individual who lived there.  The tours at the Jackson house do this very well.  You’ll learn quite a bit about life in a comfortable, nineteenth-century household, but the focus is on Jackson himself.  In this case, I think that’s the right approach.  Jackson’s impact on southern history is undeniable; futhermore, he was a fascinating and enigmatic man in his own right.  I think the interpreters at this museum are correct in devoting much of the tour to his personality and character.

That’s not to say that the tour is one long sermon on Jackson’s virtues, or that the guides are trying to make him out to seem more than human.  I’m simply saying that the tour is rich with the sort of personal insight that you’d find in a good biography.  The emphasis is more on Jackson the human being than Jackson the commander, which I think is the sensible track to follow for a house museum.

I was extremely impressed with this site because it takes all the necessary elements of a historic house museum and handles them all very well—preservation, interpretation, visitor services, you name it.  Every Civil War buff should make an effort to visit this place, every casual tourist would find it a worthwhile stop, and every museum professional should take a tour in order to see a model of historic house management done right.  Of all the sites I visited over the course of last weekend’s trip, this was probably the highlight.


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Tombstones and TomToms

In the wee hours of this morning I got back from a two-day trip to Virginia, which I enjoyed thoroughly.  Loyal readers of this blog will know what that means—there’ll be a few of my always-handy historic site reviews coming over the next few days.  Right now, though, I’d like to add a brief follow-up to an earlier post I wrote about using automotive GPS devices to do heritage touring.

I’ve found my TomTom to be worth double its weight in gold on my history field trips, but this weekend I did find a small chink in its armor.  Historic cemeteries aren’t among the pre-loaded destinations, or “Points of Interest,” as the device calls them.  The POI categories for each city doesn’t include one for cemeteries, and when I typed in the name of the cemetery I was looking for, it wasn’t there.

I found this case odd, because the graveyard in question was Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery in beautiful Lexington, VA.  It’s quite a tourist attraction in its own right and is saturated with historic significance, so its absence from the TomTom’s POI list was a little surprising.   Anyway, if you’re planning a history-related trip and you want to hit the cemeteries of the famous and the infamous, it wouldn’t hurt to get their addresses and load them onto your device ahead of time.  The cemetery’s name alone probably won’t be sufficient, but if you already have the street address, it’ll get you there without a problem.

By the way, my traveling companion and I did manage to locate the graveyard, and if you’re in the Lexington area, it’s well worth a visit.  The original and final resting places of Stonewall Jackson himself are the main draws here, but you can also see those of his family, William N. Pendleton (Lee’s artillery chief), Scott Shipp (who commanded the VMI cadets at the Battle of New Market), and Andrew Moore (VA statesman and veteran of the Revolution).

Of course, the only home Jackson ever owned was also in Lexington.  The house is now a museum, and my next post will be devoted to a review of its restoration and interpretation.  See you then.

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Did the Civil War cause itself?

A recent guest post by Douglas Harper at Old Virginia Blog challenges the notions “that the Southern Confederacy was a nation based on, and fighting for, slavery,” and that “the Civil War was ‘about’ slavery.”  The Upper South, as he notes, “was willing to stay, till it saw the course of the Lincoln Administration with regard to force, not to slavery.”  In other words, Union coercion of the Deep South is what drove the Upper South out of the Union, so slavery wasn’t the only factor.  The Upper South left after Ft. Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops.

It seems to me that this argument is missing something.  Harper quite rightly draws our attention to the role of Lincoln’s call for troops in convincing the Upper South to secede.  He reminds us that there were different periods of secession—before the outbreak of war, and then again after.  And therein lies the problem.  When Lincoln called up volunteers to defeat the rebellion, it marked the outbreak of war.  If the war had already started, then we’re no longer talking about causes of the war.  We’re talking about the Upper South’s decision to secede, which came after the war was already a going concern.  This line of thought adds another layer to the issue of secession, but not to the causes of the war, which came about as a result of previous secession movements that had already taken place.

It’s sort of like the case of a woman who spends too much time in the tanning bed and develops skin cancer as a result.  The cancer spreads to her internal organs, and the doctor tells her, “Well, Mrs. Jones, your tanning habit has finally caused you to develop cancer inside your body.” 

She replies, “Don’t give me that nonsense.  It was the skin cancer spreading that did that.”  In the same way, explaining secession and the war by looking at the Upper South’s withdrawal seems to be an argument that secession and the war caused themselves.

The original Confederate states in the Deep South didn’t need Ft. Sumter or Lincoln’s call for volunteers to convince them to leave the Union.  They seceded on the election of Abraham Lincoln—the first president from a party made up of a coalition to stop the spread of slavery.  The issue of the Upper South’s secession still leaves this matter of the Deep South open, and therefore it doesn’t really address the causes of the actual shooting war.  We’re still left with the original Confederacy and the role of slavery in their decision to secede.

Mr. Harper offers what looks like a persuasive challenge to the role of slavery in decision-making: “And if you insist that every slave-holder, or slave-holding state, must make choices solely on the basis of interest in slavery, then I will argue that the Border State [sic] that remained in the Union did so to protect their slaves. Why else would slaveholders fight for the Union?”

But who’s arguing that every slave-holder, or slave-holding state, made every decision solely on the basis of an interest in slavery?  We’re talking about a single (but momentous) decision on the part of the original Confederate States to withdraw from the U.S., and the contention of most historians is that a desire to safeguard the institution of slavery was the primary cause. 

Mr. Harper also argues that, from a rational point of view, the Upper South’s slaves should have led these states to remain in the Union, not secede from it:

Virginia, Tennessee, even North Carolina, with a hostile anti-slavery United States on their frontier, could never hope to maintain slavery as a viable economic and social institution. Their pre-war complaints about fugitives prove they knew it. The mere presence of ‘free’ states nearby in the 1850s exerted an economic pressure that was rapidly draining slavery out of the Border States.

All excellent points, all reasonably argued.  But, as historians like Bernard Bailyn and Richard Hofstadter have demonstrated, political decisions aren’t made solely on the basis of reason.  Mr. Harper draws an analogy to the American colonies: “What moved the colonists to break the ties with the ‘mother country?’ Taxes? Tea?”  In a sense, yes.  These were the issues at hand.  And on the face of it, they seem minor.  But they’re not as minor when your prevailing political rhetoric leads you to see them as conspiracies by government officials who are bent on expanding their own power and enslaving you.  This was, in fact, what American colonists thought was happening.  The problem wasn’t the nature of the immediate issue at hand, but the colonists’ interpretation of the issue, and England’s response.

In the same way, there was more than cold, rational, political calculation at work when the Deep South seceded.  And so even while Lincoln was repeatedly assuring the Deep South that he had no intention to take away their human property, many southerners argued that Lincoln was out to do exactly that, and to implement racial equality in the bargain.  Reams of secession-era speeches, letters, essays, editorials, articles, and other material invoke these convictions.  Mr. Harper isn’t very fond of this sort of evidence, arguing that it denotes laziness in research.  It allows the historian to assemble “a hatful of quotes and you’re done. The Confederate leaders and documents supply them in abundance.”  This strikes me as a little odd.  If you can’t use contemporary sentiments to get a sense of what people were thinking, what in the world can you use?  Harper, in fact, employs a number of quotes in the post, and also cites Republicans’ “private correspondence.”

Drawing attention to the role of the war’s outbreak in convincing the Upper South to secede is a worthwhile endeavor.  But it still leaves an important question unanswered.  Why was there a Confederacy in place for the Upper South to join?

(Broadside from Armed Forces History, Division of History of Technology, National Museum of American History)


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CWN on Philly’s Civil War museum

Check out this story from Civil War News, which features an update and background information on Philadelphia’s Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum.  This is the museum that was promised funds for a new building by the state, packed up its collection, left its old quarters—and was then denied the funds needed to move to a new home.

I had the privilege of seeing the collection a few years ago, and it’s a fantastic assemblage of material: Meade’s uniform, Reynolds’s death saddle, Grant’s death mask, and more escutcheons and firearms than you can shake a stick at, among other treasures.  If you live in Pennsylvania, contact your state officials and tell them to release the funds the CWURM was promised, so these items can be back on public view, where they belong.

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