Monthly Archives: September 2010

Comin’ through, comin’ through. . .

From Gettysburg, witness the distressing phenomenon of automobiles colliding with monuments.

Gettysburg Daily notes that in this particular instance, the road in question sees a lot of non-visitor traffic.  I’d imagine that most folks who are seeing the field from their car are moving pretty slowly, and you’d assume that anybody who managed to knock a stone marker perpendicular to its axis of placement would have to be moving along at a pretty good clip.

Then again, you’d be surprised what cars can do with relatively little brute force.  Here’s a statue of Lincoln that stands at the entrance to my alma mater.

Photo by Mark Persons at

A friend of mine slid right into this thing while turning into campus on an icy morning.  He was driving a small sports car and wasn’t going particularly fast, but he still shoved both Abe and the solid base on which he stood off-kilter.  It took a crane to set the Great Emancipator back into position.  Several thousand John Wilkes Booth references later, we let him live this one down.

Anyway, this kind of vehicular monumentcide highlights one of the ironies of historic preservation.  By making sites accessible to visitors, we also expose these sites to the wear-and-tear or even outright damage those visitors might inflict.

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Early Tennessee leaders behaving badly

Knoxville historian Jack Neely revisits a venerable frontier tradition—conspiracy to commit treason.  Here in East Tennessee, two of our founders flirted with European powers on separate occasions, one of whom did so while participating in an illegal statehood movement.

It’s surprising how tenuous allegiances on the Revolutionary-era frontier could be. Neely speculates that in the case of Tennesseans John Sevier and William Blount, it might have been a generational thing.  “They were too young to have earned a place in the pantheon of the founders of a nation,” he writes.  “But they were too old to have grown up—as we did—revering our Founding Fathers as Immortals, something a little beyond merely human.”

I think Neely’s piece is the first one I’ve read that tries to find some link between the early separatist schemes in American history.  The fact that these guys came into their own at a time when the federal government was still congealing is very suggestive. Sending out feelers to a foreign power probably didn’t have the psychological ramifications that it does now, when U.S. sovereignty is more of a given.

In the case of the Blount and Wilkinson conspiracies, most accounts that I’ve read stress the agency of particularly ambitious and unscrupulous actors who were looking out for number one.  The best and most thorough study of the Franklin movement also emphasizes the leadership of regional elites and land-hungry men of means.  Many of these schemers no doubt acted out of motives that were (to put it charitably) something other than altruistic, but I think the support and approval they received from large numbers of frontier inhabitants is important, and we shouldn’t overlook it.

The leading Franklinites may have been ambitious bigwigs, but to your run-of-the-mill frontiersman the Franklin movement still offered possible solutions to the problems of distant and unresponsive state and federal governments and threats to the ability to navigate the Mississippi.  And even Blount, acting on his own behalf rather than as part of a larger protest, remained wildly popular back in Tennessee, which indicates that these Revolutionary-era plots may have been more attuned to the needs and beliefs of frontier inhabitants than we might assume by looking at their sometimes self-interested architects.

We still don’t know enough—or at least I don’t know enough—about the common frontiersman of the late eighteenth century.  He’s an elusive figure, but I suspect that we’d all be surprised at how much of his worldview we could recover.

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Unexpected risks of archival work

…now include exposure to radioactive material.  Suddenly I don’t feel so bad about eyestrain from microfilm readers.

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When political philosophy collides with historical reality

I’ve done quite a few posts on Glenn Beck’s crackpot historical forays, but I haven’t written many at all on the ways that folks on the other end of the political spectrum have misinterpreted or misappropriated the past.  The problem is simply that I’ve had a harder time finding examples of bad history coming from the Left.

I mentioned this to a friend of mine as we headed to lunch yesterday.  I noted that readers might start to suspect I’m a flaming liberal if I didn’t take the Left to task for some historical transgression or another.

“That’s the thing,” he said.  “Liberals don’t talk about history, so you’re stuck with bashing the other side.”

It was a very general remark, but he had a point.  I certainly don’t think that people on the Right are more interested in history than those on the Left.  Academic historians are famous for being predominantly liberal.  I do think, however, that the Right probably finds the past more useful than the Left does simply because of the differences in their respective rhetorical positions.  Conservative rhetoric invokes the past because conservatism often claims to be a restorative ideology.  We must get back to the Constitution, back to the principles of the Founding, back to the Puritans’ godly city on a hill.  Liberalism, by contrast, portrays itself as the political system of possibility.  Liberalism clamors to use whatever means are at our disposal to slay the social and economic dragons that have menaced us for so long.

Given these contrasting postures, it’s natural that conservatism would invoke the past with more frequency, or at least with more affection.  I have no desire to offer my own views here as to which vision is correct, but it’s worth asking if one or the other is more congenial to an understanding of the past.  Personally, I find both visions lacking when it comes to a sense of history, though for different reasons.

Part of the problem with the Right’s restorative use of history is that it neglects the past’s otherness.  When we identify with the past too readily, when we urge the nation to get back to the good old days (whenever those were), we can forget that those days weren’t ours, and that those people weren’t us.  They offer lessons and examples, but the analogy will never be exact.  This is particularly true when it comes to the Founding.  Those men and that era created the language we use to express our own ideals, so we can find them sounding remarkably like us.  Occasionally, though, they use that language and those ideals within a context that gives them a very different meaning, one we wouldn’t recognize.

But the Left’s vision of possibility has its problems, too.  I don’t think Gordon Wood had liberalism in mind when he wrote the introduction to The Purpose of the Past, but his remarks are applicable here.  He notes that having a real historical sense involves an appreciation of the complex array of factors that limit the range of possibilities when it comes to human activity.  “Realizing the extent to which people in the past struggled with circumstances that they scarcely understood is perhaps the most important insight flowing from historical study,” he writes.  “To understand the past in all its complexity is to acquire historical wisdom and humility and indeed a tragic sense of life.  A tragic sense does not mean a sad or pessimistic sense of life; it means a sense of the limitations of life.”  The study of history “tends to inculcate skepticism about our ability to manipulate and control purposefully our destinies” (p. 14).  The past teaches us that circumstances limit our ability to shape our future.  Indeed the past is probably the most powerful of those limiting circumstances.  This is not good news for modern liberalism’s promise to use the means at its disposal to shape circumstances for the better—the application of government and other institutions to achieve “positive liberty.”

Of course, in describing both positions, I’m committing a fallacy of my own—drastic over-simplification.  It’s hard to speak briefly about political philosophies without broad generalization, and the risk is that you’ll reduce these ideologies to caricatures.  I’ve probably done so here.  Still, I think the larger lesson here is valid.  The past proves difficult to shoehorn into any particular philosophy, because when we’re talking about the past, what we’re really talking about is reality in all its complexity and ambiguity.  The study of history should serve to regulate our abstractions and philosophies by reminding us all that our opinions about the way we think things are must come to terms with the way they have actually been.


Filed under History and Memory

A new blog appeared this month

…that looks worth keeping an eye on.  It’s called Historical Digression, and it’s maintained by the director of a historical society who was kind enough to stop by this site and leave a comment.  Check it out.

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Bringing down the house

I’ve never been a fan of John Hagee, the bombastic pastor of San Antonio’s Cornerstone Church.  I find his theology bizarre and his sermons too laden with his own geopolitical concerns.  You might remember him as the guy whose endorsement for McCain made the news because of remarks he’d made about the Holocaust.

When I stumbled across his broadcast the other night on my circuit through the channels, I found him talking about the founding of America.  Thinking this would provide some entertainment, I stuck with it.  It turned out to be your standard civil religion jeremiad.  America is going down the tubes, we’ve forgotten our roots, etc. 

 By way of illustration, Hagee ran through a list of men who signed the Declaration of Independence and later suffered devastation and ruin because of their support for the Revolution.  If this rings a bell, it’s because it comes from a patriotic chain e-mail called “The Price They Paid” that usually makes the rounds on July 4.  It’s mostly hogwash, riddled with the sort of errors that anybody with Internet access can debunk in a few minutes.

Take, for example, the story of Thomas Nelson, Jr, member of the Continental Congress and commander of militia.  In 1781 he succeeded Jefferson as governor of Virginia.  He owned a fine home in Yorktown, supposedly used as the headquarters of Cornwallis during the siege.  According to “The Price They Paid,” and as repeated by Hagee, Nelson was aware that the British commander would have taken up residence in his house and requested French and/or American artillery to open fire on the building.  The cannons demolished the house, and Nelson died broke.

It’s a great story, but it’s at best highly exaggerated.  How do we know?  Well, here’s a modern photo of the site of Nelson’s home:

From Wikimedia Commons

Note  the big freaking house sitting on top of it.  Nelson’s home is still there, and while it did indeed suffer cannon damage, there’s no evidence outside of tradition that Nelson himself ordered troops to fire on it.

In fact, according to Jerome Greene’s highly detailed study of the siege, Cornwallis did not even use Nelson’s house as his headquarters.  Instead, he set up shop in the home of Nelson’s sixty-five-year-old namesake uncle.  Allied guns struck this home, too; Greene reports that cannon fire killed one of Nelson’s servants.  Some versions of the legend maintain that it was this house to which Nelson directed fire, but again, it’s an unsubstantiated tradition.

Personally, I think these myths actually trivialize the actions of the signers.  They took real risks in publicly identifying themselves with an unlikely cause because they thought it was the right thing to do.  Embellishing their stories implies that this wasn’t enough, that they weren’t real patriots until they lost everything they had because of their allegiance to the cause.  It’s the willingness to risk that makes someone a hero, not the outcome.

From Wikimedia Commons

You’d think a guy like Hagee, who makes a fortune as a speaker and writer, could do better than a sappy chain e-mail for a sermon illustration.  But if his congregation thinks they’re getting their money’s worth, then I guess they might as well have at it.

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Budgets, employment, and all that other stuff historians never have to worry about

Here are two over-generalizations that I’m sick to death of hearing.

1) People who become professional historians don’t live in the real world.  They don’t have to deal with things like budgets, making payroll, paying suppliers, shuffling invoices, and all the other aspects of keeping an operation running that the rest of us learn to manage by our quick wits and the sweat of our brow.

2) Our choice as citizens is between historic sites and jobs.  It’s, like, 2010, not 1860, and what we need are jobs, jobs, jobs.  We need to stop worrying about maintaining historic sites and start worrying about getting people in our communities employed.

For a corrective to these notions, read A. Wilson Greene’s recent piece in Civil War News.  Greene runs Pamplin Historical Park near Petersburg, VA.  Here’s an excerpt:

The Foundation’s chairman notified me in the late autumn that it would be necessary to cut the Foundation’s contribution to our Park by some 62 percent in the fiscal year beginning Jan. 1, 2009. This meant an end to business as usual and severe steps would have to be taken to balance the budget during the coming year.

I feel confident that although the percentages might vary, there are few employees, board members or supporters of private historic sites to whom this scenario seems foreign. During the last several years, virtually all of my colleagues working in public history have shared similar horror stories.

As comforting as it was to know that we were not alone in this financial dilemma, there was little time for self-pity or mutual commiseration. We had to take immediate steps to ensure that adequate funds were available to meet our financial obligations and then develop a new fiscal model that would lead to mid- and long-term sustainability.

The majority of most park and museum budgets pay for personnel. There is only so much that can be saved in utility and maintenance costs and the purchase of goods and services. We had no choice but to lay off more than half of our talented work force — an awful experience for everyone involved.

Funny thing about historic sites: People actually work there, they generally prefer getting a regular paycheck, they pay state and local taxes out of those checks just like everybody else, and when the site takes a hit they might lose their jobs.  Which means, you know, less of that “employment” thing that development apologists like so much.

You can support Pamplin Historical Park during this difficult time with donations, by volunteering, or through their affiliation with the program.


Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites

Little soldiers are a big deal

The Museum of the Confederacy’s online gift shop is selling a black Confederate toy soldier.  Kevin Levin pointed out that this is a problem, but some of his readers think he’s making out of a molehill.  Let me tell you why I’m with Kevin on this one.

Folks who have never worked in museums may be surprised to learn that there is a bustling wholesale industry focused on supplying gift shops in museums, historic sites, and zoos.  Museum gift shop managers receive unsolicited catalogs in the mail from companies that specialize in providing them with souvenirs to stock their shelves.  These publications usually aren’t specific to certain types of museums.  You’ll find every conceivable type of item that any sort of museum might carry—plastic sharks, Martha Washington dolls, dinosaur key chains, reproduction parchment documents, Mona Lisa magnets, Tutankhamun pencil sharpeners, you name it. 

Museums will also get calls, letters, e-mails, and solicitation visits from manufacturers and sales reps who want them to buy their materials for re-sale in the gift shop.  Some of this stuff is educational, some of it’s innocuous, and some of it’s junk.

Knowledgeable visitors who find a dubious item for sale in a museum might wonder why curators or researchers would order such a thing inthe first place.  In most cases, they didn’t.  Gift shop managers usually aren’t curators or historians.  Museums are organic; like the churches described in Paul’s epistles, they’re full of different types of people with varying kinds of talent, each of which is distinct but necessary to keep the thing going. 

A lot of gift shop managers are often people with some background in retail who have been hired specifically to operate the store, or (and this is especially true in small museums) they’re people who wear a lot of hats—perhaps office manager, volunteer coordinator, membership services director, and gift shop manager combined.  They’re hard-working, knowledgeable professionals, and museums couldn’t operate without them, but sometimes they’re not as well-versed in the museum’s subject matter as a curator might be, and hence might not recognize why a particular item is inaccurate.

Sometimes gift shop managers will consult with curators about possible items.  At other times, curators will throw their two cents in whether anybody wants to hear it or not.   Back when I worked for a Lincoln museum, the curator explicitly vetoed a sample item we’d gotten in the mail because the packaging copy was riddled with errors.  Come to think of it, I used to gripe to anyone who’d listen about the quill pens we sold in the gift shop.  (Metal nibs were being mass-produced in America by the Civil War.)

Curators are particular about this sort of thing because when an otherwise harmless object finds its way into a museum gift shop, it gets a kind of implicit endorsement by the institution, whether the institution intended it or not.  This puts museums and historic sites in a difficult position.

Now, here’s the really critical point.  A whole slew of surveys and studies indicate that people are much, much more inclined to trust information they get from museums than from other sources, more so even than information they read in books.  People trust museums to a very high degree.  It’s as simple as that.

That’s why this little plastic soldier can have an impact out of all proportion to his size.  There simply weren’t large numbers of gun-wielding blacks in the Confederacy’s armies, but many people persist in believing that there were.  A souvenir in a first-rate museum (and the MOC is first-rate) could quite easily bolster this erroneous assumption. 

Someone pointed out that if there were even one enlisted black Confederate, then the toy is technically accurate.  I think that’s a stretch.  The toy still lends credence to the notion that such soldiers were common, no matter what the manufacturer’s original intentions were.  Of course, if the packaging had some kind of special label, then I could see the point.  (“The surgeon general warns that black Confederate soldiers were rare.  Use of this product may contribute to a belief that tens of thousands of slaves fought for the Confederacy.”)

I submit that this is worth talking about.  Conveying accurate information about the past is what history museums do.  Dubious souvenirs directly undermine the institution’s mission.  Too much work goes into mounting solid exhibits and programs to let something like a little plastic figure bolster an unsubstantiated myth.  If it’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing right.

Gift shops have the potential to do something more than generate revenue.  They can actually help fulfill a museum’s educational mission.  Good books, educational games, and accurate toys can disseminate information as well as bring in money.  We should be stocking the shelves with the same discernment and care that we use when filling exhibit cases.


Filed under Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

A few thoughts from a non-resident

A reader from the Gettysburg area recently fired off a salvo in response to one of my anti-casino posts.  I returned fire in my comments section, but I think the issues he raised deserve a more thorough and less snippy response than the one I gave, so here it is. 

First, he pointed out that Gettysburg already has more than its fair share of kitsch.  With all the ghost tours, wax Lincolns, and felt kepis, he thinks it’s a little odd to preach about undefiled, hallowed ground in danger of desecration from a casino.  This is a very common argument in preservation disputes. 

My response is that if your bathroom is flooding, the first thing you do is shut off the water.  You don’t start mopping up while it’s gushing all over the place.  If you don’t like touristy schlock, I say great.  I don’t either.  Let’s stop the touristy schlock from spreading, and then we can deal with what’s already there. 

I had referenced a drop in visitation at Vicksburg, mentioned in the report that prompted my post (and to which I linked).  My reader also took me to task here, claiming that I had spoken in complete ignorance of the situation, because Vicksburg has several casinos, and all of them save one are operating in the black. 

Well, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.  I’m afraid that my reader misunderstood me.  Neither I nor the report I referenced said anything at all about a decline in either visitation or revenue at Vicksburg’s casinos.  The report discussed a drop in visitation at Vicksburg National Military Park which coincided with the growth of the gaming industry there.  I’m not sure how the reader understood this to mean casino attendance, but that’s apparently what happened.  He was, therefore, rebutting a point that no one had made.  If he’d care to respond to what I did say—that Vicksburg’s casinos did nothing at all to help the national park there, and in fact seem to have had quite the opposite effect—then I’ll be happy to hear him.  In the meantime, would a casino in Gettysburg balance out the loss of revenue that local businesses would suffer if visitation to the national park dropped dramatically?  I strongly suspect that it wouldn’t. 

These two points, I thought, were pretty easy to counter, but the reader raised another issue that merits lengthier discussion.   That issue is one of residence.  As he reminded me, he lives in Gettysburg, and I don’t.  So there. 

Believe it or not, this is a line of argument with which I can sympathize a great deal.  Right now I live in the same small town where I grew up.  We get quite a few visitors who come for the scenery and new residents who come for the low cost of living.  One of the drawbacks of living in a place like this is being subjected to the suggestions of guests, new arrivals, and short-termers about how to improve things.  They don’t like this, they don’t like that.  We need this, we should get rid of such and such.  

I cheerfully encourage such critics to go sit on a red-hot barbecue fork.  You don’t come over to somebody else’s house for dinner and then tell them that the carpet is ugly, or that they were fools to get rid of the couch they used to have in the living room.  Sometimes I wonder if snowbirds and leaf-watchers are God’s means of punishing us for what our ancestors did to the Cherokee, but I generally have my tongue in my cheek when I do that. 

So I agree that when it comes to the casino controversy, Gettysburghers (Gettysburgians?) have a unique stake in the matter.  Their businesses are the ones that might benefit, their taxes are the ones that might be offset (by a smidgen, anyway), and their municipal services are the ones that might see a slight improvement. 

Still, while the “you’re not from around here” argument carries more weight with me than most other anti-preservation canards, I still believe that outsiders have a legitimate voice in these debates.  Allow me to tell you why.  

A wartime view of Little Round Top, from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. (Call number LC-B817- 7318)

First of all, and most obviously, this isn’t just an insider/outsider issue.  You can’t frame the debate purely in terms of suffering residents who support the casino vs. outsiders who oppose it.  Neither insiders nor outsiders are monolithic groups here.  Plenty of longtime residents also oppose the casino, and some outsiders support it. To dismiss every critic of the plan as someone who doesn’t have a dog in the fight is simply untrue, and it insults local preservationists who have at least as much stake in the community as their opponents do.  Anti-preservation folks aren’t the only residents who genuinely care about their community.

Second, I think anyone who trusts in a casino to send torrents of milk and honey flowing down the slopes of Little Round Top is in for a disappointment.  I doubt that any citizen of Gettysburg would see a drastic improvement in his standard of living, unless he is currently out of work and the casino provided him with full-time employment.  There may indeed be a considerable number of down-on-their-luck blackjack dealers sleeping in Gettysburg’s streets and praying for the Lord to smile on them, but I’m not aware of it.

Third, although I’m a non-resident preservationist, that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the community’s general welfare.  On the contrary, I fervently hope and pray that each and every citizen of Gettysburg prospers, just as I hope that every historically significant area prospers.  Aside from the simple fact that wishing the best for your fellow human beings is a moral obligation, there are sound pro-preservation reasons to desire the financial health of historic communities.  Economically robust communities are the ones that can maintain and interpret their historic treasures.  When hard times hit, bureaucrats target museums and historic sites, and people become more willing to trade heritage for immediate profits.  I’d like to see Gettysburg and the surrounding region wealthy and secure beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, so that they won’t have to look to dubious enterprises such as the proposed casino. 

Fourth, I think it’s a mistake to equate serious history enthusiasts with mainstream tourists.  Most of us hardcore heritage buffs don’t share the run-of-the-mill tourist’s indifference toward the communities around the sites we visit.  We’re not just going to blow into town, take a photo at the 20th Maine monument, buy a postcard, and then high-tail it out so we can make it to Hershey’s Chocolate World.  Most of us come to savor the whole place, and not just the park.  We’re not blind to the fact that there’s more to the community than the fields straddling Emmitsburg Road.  We love the surrounding region as much as we love the battlefield itself. 

When we travel, we’re generally unobtrusive folks.  We won’t block your driveway during Bike Week or make a racket tramping around outside your yard during a nighttime ghost tour.  In fact, most of us wouldn’t be caught dead (no pun intended) on a ghost tour.  We’ll shop in your independent stores and eat in your locally-owned restaurants.  In fact, of all the meals I’ve eaten at Gettysburg, I think I’ve only had one at a chain restaurant.  (A friend and I grabbed lunch at a KFC on my first visit because we’d just hiked Pickett’s Charge route and were absolutely famished, so we grabbed the first thing we saw.)  Eating in one-of-a-kind restaurants is one of the joys of historical travel, and besides, the food is better than at some chain joint. 

Finally, if we must assume that a person can’t take sides in this debate unless they have some material stake in the matter, then let me point out that we all have some stake in it, however small that stake may seem.  The battlefield is, after all, the property of the United States, held in trust by the government for you, me, and every other American, and ultimately for every inhabitant of the world who’s alive now or will be in the future.  I heartily agree that Gettysburg residents should determine their community’s future.  All citizens have that right.  But when it comes to the battlefield itself, we’re all citizens, and it belongs to all of us—not just metaphorically, but legally. 

Of course, those of us who are only there for a few days a year don’t stand to gain or lose as much as those who live there.  But area residents themselves have varying stakes.  How do we go about weighing the relative value of their different opinions?  How many county residents from outside the city limits does it take to equal one living in Gettysburg itself?  Does a local resident living a mile from the proposed casino matter less than one living half a mile from it, since the latter will be more directly affected?  Hotel owners stand to lose guests to a new resort, so do we weigh their opinions more heavily than those of, say, bookstore owners?  Does someone who pays twice as much in property taxes as his neighbor have an opinion that’s worth double?  If a resident is currently out of work and could apply for a casino job, then should his opinion be more decisive than that of another resident who enjoys a comfortable salary? 

I realize that Gettysburg’s residents didn’t ask to be put in a position of stewardship over the field.  Nobody ever asks for the burdens that come with being born where they are; I myself don’t like seeing my own region torn apart to supply the nation’s insatiable energy demands.  The truth is, though, that the stewardship role faced by Gettysburg residents is as much a privilege as a responsibility.  

I have to drive ten hours one way to spend a few days walking over those fields, and I consider it well worth the effort.  I’d make the trip weekly if I could physically and financially manage it.  It’s the historic area to beat all historic areas, the one that’s probably produced more Civil War enthusiasts and scholars than all the top graduate history programs combined.  Of all American historic sites, it stands in a class by itself.  The landscape bores its way into your heart and stays there. 

I would hope that anyone who stands on the battlefield today with a desire to appreciate and understand could be considered an insider, just as we’re all outsiders compared to the soldiers and civilians who were there in the summer of 1863.  I trust that plenty of residents know how lucky they are to live on the stage of one of the great American dramas, and that they believe the treasure that surrounds them is something worth fighting for.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation

I second what they said

Several other history blogs have already posted this, but I’m putting it up, too, because it bears repeating as much as possible.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation