Monthly Archives: December 2010

Looks like Stonewall Jackson’s house will be under new management

The organization that runs Stonewall Jackson’s house as a Lexington, VA museum is in the process of turning it over to Virginia Military Institute, according to the Post. As you might have guessed, this lousy economy has a lot to do with it:

In May, the foundation approached VMI about acquiring the historic house as a way to protect the building and its collections, which the foundation purchased in 1994. Foundation executive director Michael Lynn said the Jackson House, as well as other small museums, are facing difficult times with the downturn in the economy and fewer visitors.

“This is the best possible solution for the long-term viability of the museum,” she said. “Surveys always show a high level of visitor satisfaction with the museum but there just are not enough of them coming.”

I’d imagine this is a difficult decision, but it’s also a sensible one.  I’ve worked at two museums which were parts of much larger entities, a university in one case and a county government in the other.  For all the frustrations that can come with operating a museum as a department of a bigger entity, it has definite advantages.

I’ve always compared it to the difference between living on your own and being a younger child in a big family.  If you’ve got your own place, you don’t have to wait in line for the bathroom and you can crank the TV up as loud as you please…but you also have to keep yourself in the black, or you’ll be out on the street.  The third child in a big family has to learn to play nice with his siblings, but he’s pretty sure there will be food on the table tomorrow.

Since this economic mess has so many independent museums closing their doors, entity-within-an-entity museums can sometimes have a sort of relative security that free-standing museums don’t.  I emphasize relative, of course, because plenty of entity-with-an-entity museums are facing an uncertain feature these days, too.

I hate to learn that the Stonewall Jackson Foundation is in a bind, since they’ve done a fantastic job of interpreting the site, but it’s good to know that VMI is willing to step in.  The house is a wonderful place to see.  Here’s a review that I posted last summer, in case you’re interested.


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Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

Feeling right, wrong, and right again

Sometimes historical research can take you on an emotional rollercoaster. Here’s a personal example.

For my master’s thesis, I looked at evolving interpretations of the Battle of King’s Mountain from the time of the war itself through the late nineteenth century (the late nineteenth century being the time, I argued, when most of the popular perceptions about the battle took shape).  In the last chapter I examined the conceptions about Appalachia that emerged after the Civil War and the role these notions played in shaping the way Americans remembered the Patriots who fought in the battle.

One of my contentions was that over the course of the late 1800’s, East Tennessee basically claimed the Battle of King’s Mountain as its own.  This was partly inevitable; many of the men who fought came from what is now East Tennessee, the two officers who were most active in organizing the expedition led contingents from that area, and the battle was the (future) Volunteer State’s most significant contribution to American victory in the Revolution.

But there were other reasons why the legacy of King’s Mountain fell to East Tennessee.  Other states involved in the battle didn’t emphasize it as heavily as Tennessee did.  The largest contingent of troops at King’s Mountain was a group of Virginians serving under Col. William Campbell, and it was Campbell who served as honorary commander of the expedition.  Campbell and his Virginians, however, didn’t figure prominently in traditional histories of the Revolution written by Virginians.  I argued that Virginia chroniclers neglected the battle because they had bigger fish to fry.  If you want to portray the Revolution as a great day for the Old Dominion, you can always point to Washington, Jefferson, Henry, and Yorktown.  King’s Mountain had to take a backseat.

More surprising to me was what I found when I examined nineteenth-century accounts of the war written by South Carolinians.  The battleground is in the Palmetto State, and South Carolina militia fought on both sides in the battle, some of them not far from their own homes.  Yet South Carolina historians of the 1800’s weren’t as gung-ho about King’s Mountain as the Tennesseans were, either.  There were some impressively lengthy accounts in some period books, but King’s Mountain didn’t seem as central to South Carolina’s memory of the war as it did to Tennessee’s, at least not to me.  I figured the reason was similar to that for the Virginia accounts.  There were so many engagements fought in South Carolina (including pivotal battles like the bombardment of Ft. Moultrie and Cowpens) that King’s Mountain was one turning point among several.  For Tennesseans, it was the pinnacle of the war effort.

Since East Tennessee claimed the battle, writers of the late 1800’s interpreted it through the lens of the Appalachian stereotypes that were emerging at that very time.  The battle’s memory therefore became regionalized.  It became a victory won by mountaineers from Appalachian Tennessee.  That, at least, was my argument.  I revised that thesis chapter for an article which Tennessee Historical Quarterly was kind enough to publish, and seeing it in printed form was very gratifying.

After the article came out a few things occurred to me that caused me to wonder whether I had overstated my argument.  Specifically, I started to get nervous that I had underestimated the degree to which South Carolina had tried to claim the battle, too.

First, one of the oldest monuments on any Revolutionary War battlefield sits by the side of the ridge.  Erected in 1815, it commemorates the death of Maj. William Chronicle and some of his fellow South Carolinians, shot while charging up the slope.  This monument pre-dates the period when Tennesseans laid claim to King’s Mountain, but it indicates that South Carolinians had made King’s Mountain an early priority.

The Chronicle marker on the left, with a modern replacement on the right

More troubling to my case was the dedication of the U.S. Monument, a gorgeous obelisk erected on top of the ridge in 1909.  While the monument was, as its name implies, a national project, the dedication ceremony for it was a predominantly local show, since it was mostly folks from the surrounding area who showed up.  Here was more evidence of South Carolina staking a claim to the battleground, and this time at the very end of the era when I’d argued that Tennessee was picking up the ball and running with it.

The U.S. Monument

Since I’d just published an article arguing that, in the decades immediately preceding the dedication, Tennessee had claimed the battle as her own and other states had allowed her to do so, you can understand why I was feeling uneasy.

Then something occurred to me that made me feel a lot better.  In fact, I felt it actually bolstered my case.  The Chronicle marker wasn’t just a monument to South Carolinians.  It was a monument to local heroes.  Chronicle and his men came from the northwestern backcountry part of the state, the same region where the battle took place.  Furthermore, the turnout at the U.S. Monument dedication wasn’t just from South Carolina, but specifically local.  These two examples of commemoration revealed local historical pride, rather than state historical pride.

All this suggested that it was mostly those South Carolinians who had the battlefield in their own backyards who were concerned about commemorating it, not the state as a whole.  South Carolinians in general certainly didn’t ignore the battle, but neither did they emphasize it to the same extent that nineteenth-century Tennesseans did, except for those who lived in the vicinity of where it took place.  The Chronicle marker and the local interest in the U.S. Monument were the exceptions that proved the rule.

Of course, if it had turned out that I was completely wrong about the commemoration of a particular Revolutionary War battle, it wouldn’t exactly have meant the end of civilization as we know it.  But finding some new material that vindicated my research still made me feel a lot better.  I had applied some new information to a case I’d tried to make previously, and it still seemed to stack up, which was a pretty good feeling.

Now the only thing that bugs me is that I didn’t bring this up when I made the argument to begin with…

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Lloyd Branson’s lost King’s Mountain painting

UPDATE 11/8/15: Well, apparently the painting discussed below wasn’t the work of Lloyd Branson, after all.  Although some sources attribute the Imperial’s King’s Mountain scene to Branson, contemporary reports claim it was the work of James W. Wallace, another Tennessee artist who was one of Branson’s students.

The good news is that—as you may have noticed—I managed to restore my nifty header image of the overmountain men’s muster at Sycamore Shoals, which kicked off the events leading to the Battle of King’s Mountain.  I’ve discussed this painting and why I like it before, so I’m glad to have a segment of it gracing the top of the blog again.

Here’s the bad news.  Lloyd Branson, the East Tennessee artist who produced this beautiful piece, also painted a scene of the actual battle, which decorated the lobby of Knoxville’s swanky Hotel Imperial.  (An early travel booklet described the Imperial as “beautifully furnished,” and noted that the food was particularly good.)  During WWI the hotel went up in flames and took Branson’s King’s Mountain painting with it.  The loss of the Imperial inspired three Knoxvillians to build a brand-new hotel which opened shortly thereafter, but of course nobody could replace Branson’s canvas.

I’ve been unable to find a picture or description of it.  It’s a shame we don’t have the other “bookend” of Branson’s visual depiction of the King’s Mountain expedition, especially since the muster painting is one of Tennessee’s definitive historical artworks.


Filed under American Revolution, Tennessee History

For Your Non-Consideration

Kevin Levin notes a bizarre case of an author refusing a historical award before it has been proffered.  It’s bizarre because the author seems to be under the impression that the Museum of the Confedracy is some type of neo-secessionist outfit, as opposed to the reputable and scholarly institution it actually is.

This prompted Dr. Brooks Simpson to offer a tongue-in-cheek suggestion: “This is funny.  It’s also an excellent way to get attention.  I think more of us ought to think of prizes for which we do not want to be considered, and announce that fact to the world.  In fact, some of us should invent prizes, so others of us can announce that we refuse to be considered for these prizes.”

As a struggling adjunct who has not even completed a terminal degree yet, I need all the attention I can get.  At the same time, however, I hope to start publishing books someday, and as such I can’t afford to offend award committees before I even attempt to become an author of scholarly works.  It’s a heck of a dilemma.

After considerable thought, I think I may have figured out a compromise solution by which I can both get attention by refusing awards and at the same time obtain the ones I actually want.  I have decided to refuse all awards that are irrelevant to my chosen profession.  I will gladly accept any and all awards for historical writing and scholarship, so I encourage all committees to send as many of them my way as possible.  But until further notice, I categorically refuse to accept the following:

  • The Oscar for Best Supporting Actor
  • The Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy
  • The Heisman Trophy
  • The Congressional Medal of Honor
  • The Victoria Cross
  • The Luftwaffe Paratrooper Badge
  • The President’s Inauguration Medal of the Sri Lanka Army
  • The Civil Order of Tuscany
  • The Kuwait Liberation Medal

Via Beauty Pageant News

I also refuse to be considered a candidate for any state or national political office, an English peerage, or the papacy.

I am also going to take Dr. Simpson’s second suggestion to heart by creating a prize which everyone is invited to refuse—The Past in the Present Citation for Studied Contempt, which will be given to the historian, preservationist, archivist, curator, or blogger who does the most to convince me that he or she does not want it.

If you’d like to refuse to be considered for this prestigious accolade, or if you’d like to refuse to nominate a colleague, then please send me an e-mail or letter explaining why receiving this award would be an unmitigated insult to your sense of decency, one so grievous that if I met you in person and absolutely insisted that you accept it, you would slap me briskly across the face with your glove, spit on my shoes, and cast aspersions on the chastity of all my female relatives.  

Special consideration will be given to those nominees who express their disgust by leaving on my doorstep a note reading “Here’s what I think of you and your award,” taped to a cardboard box into which they have defecated.

All refusals should be submitted no later than Dec. 20th.  Good luck!


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Sleeping with ghosts

Back in October I posted a review of Historic Brattonsville, a great site in York County, SC.  Over at the National Trust for Historic Preservation blog, there’s an interesting item concerning Brattonsville written by living historian Joseph McGill, Jr.  He’s found a way to combine reenacting with advocacy, drawing attention to one particular type of endangered structure—the slave cabin.

McGill travels throughout the Palmetto State, spending nights in original slave dwellings and using the ensuing publicity as an opportunity to explain why these buildings are important and need to be maintained.  He’s been chronicling his experiences at the National Trust blog; you can find the first post in his series here, along with links to related news stories.


Filed under Historic Preservation, History and Memory, Reenacting

Two Wilderness updates

…are available over at Civil War News.  First, the Civil War Preservation Trust is raising money to buy a critical piece of the battlefield.  The deal requires the use of private funds, and everything has to be in place by the end of this month.  Head over to the CWPT’s website and contribute whatever you can.

Second is an article on the ongoing effort to prevent Wal-Mart from erecting a superstore at the battlefield’s entrance.  The judge has quashed a motion by the preservationists, but they’re soldiering on nevertheless.  I wish them the best of luck.

By the way, CWPT also has a video up in which James McPherson explains why this field is so significant.  If you know anybody who might be interested in supporting this latest preservation effort and you’re trying to find a way to convey the need for it, you might forward them a link to McPherson’s talk.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation

Christmas with the Carters

I just got an e-mail from the folks at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area in Elizabethton, TN, informing me that they’re hosting an eighteenth-century Christmas this weekend.  It’ll be at the Carter Mansion (one of the oldest houses in the state) at 1031 Broad St. on Friday and Saturday from 6:00 to 9:00 P.M., with music, hot cider, and costumed interpreters.  So if you’re in East Tennessee and you want to kick off the holiday season in Revolutionary-era style, check it out.

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History