Monthly Archives: March 2012

Bloodstains at Bentonville?

That’s what a forensic team is about to find out.  Pretty cool.

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What better time than the sesquicentennial

…to slash federal funding for Civil War battlefield acquisition in half?

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation

If a Confederate monument falls in Reidsville, does it make a sound?

Yes, it does.  In fact, it raises quite a ruckus.

REIDSVILLE, N.C.—Mark Anthony Vincent says he was tired and distracted as he drove his van through this city early one morning last May to deliver auto parts, and dozed off. Mr. Vincent says he looked at his GPS just before 4:47 a.m., when the 1999 Chevrolet ran off the road and slammed into a 101-year-old Confederate veterans monument in Reidsville’s central roundabout.

The van struck the 32-foot-tall granite pillar, jostling a 6-foot marble statue of a Confederate soldier, which toppled onto the van and broke into at least 10 pieces. The soldier’s head slammed through the van’s hood, crushing the engine.

Example #28476193 of why cars and monuments don’t mix.  Watch where you’re going, people.

Many in Reidsville thought insurance would pay for a replacement and that would be that. Instead, two groups with different views of what the monument symbolized are squaring off in a debate over the statue’s future. The fight reflects the South’s continuing struggle over how to commemorate the Civil War.

No, it doesn’t.  It reflects the continuing struggle between heritage groups over how to commemorate the Civil War.  The other 100 million people in “the South” have other things to worry about.  Read on.

The statue’s owner—the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which collected $105,000 in insurance money for the piece—plans to repair the base of the monument, replace the statue and move the whole thing to a cemetery away from downtown. The statue’s broken pieces now lie in the city’s public-works yard.

City officials, who say they have no authority over the statue, applaud the UDC decision. “Once it’s down, I think it sends the wrong message to put it back up,” said James Festerman, the 69-year-old white mayor of a city that is 42% black. “I don’t want industries that might want to move here to think this is a little town still fighting the Civil War.”

Too late for that, dude.

The Historical Preservation Action Committee, a local organization that backs keeping the statute at its former site, has led numerous protests at the roundabout, with members and supporters often dressed in Confederate uniforms. It has gathered almost 3,000 signatures of support. A “Save the Reidsville Confederate Monument” Facebook page has more than 1,900 “likes.”

“How sad that the City is attempting to eradicate the history and memory of those that sacrificed so much,” one fan wrote on the Facebook page.

Look, if municipal authorities had ordered the monument torn down, then it would be a case of the city “attempting to eradicate the history and memory of those that sacrificed so much.”  The UDC claims ownership of the monument, they want to repair it and relocate it, and the city agrees with them.  Not exactly a case of eradicating history.

 The HPAC—which contends that either the city or the state owns the statue—joined with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a national heritage group, to hire a lawyer to press the state to intervene. The state refused. Now the HPAC has started raising money for a possible lawsuit against the city or the United Daughters. The threat of legal action has left the statue’s repair and replacement in limbo.

The SCV is pitching in to call for government involvement to thwart a decision by the UDC.  There are so many levels of irony here that I’m getting dizzy.

Wait, it gets even more bizarre.

Conspiracy theories abound that Mr. Vincent, who is black and lives in Greensboro, about 22 miles from Reidsville, wrecked the statue on purpose, even though it almost killed him and destroyed his van. Police found no basis for such theories, Mayor Festerman said. Mr. Vincent has an unresolved traffic citation for the crash.

Yes, they’re accusing a distracted driver of a kamikaze attack on a monument.  Heritage controversies—the cure for all those occasions when life makes too much sense.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Flash forward

Here’s some harmless fun courtesy of Google Street View.

This is the first American line at Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781, as depicted by Dale Gallon:

Image from Gallon Historical Art, Inc.

Roughly same view, present day:

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What was the largest slave revolt in U.S. history?

Before you answer “Nat Turner” or “Gabriel,” watch this short video from  It’s a pretty interesting story.

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Filed under History and Memory

A walk at Wildcat Mountain

In the fall of 1861, Felix Zollicoffer, the Confederate general responsible for the troublesome eastern section of Tennessee, moved north from Cumberland Gap along the Wilderness Road into the mountains of Kentucky with about 5,400 men.  Union forces in the Bluegrass State responded by sending a small detachment of raw recruits to Wildcat Mountain near present-day London.

The Confederates badly outnumbered the force at Camp Wildcat, so on Oct. 2oth they were reinforced by the arrival of additional troops under Brig. Gen. Albin F. Schoepf, bringing their total to 7,000.  They arrived just in the nick of time; the next day, the Confederates launched an attack on a hill occupied by the 33rd Indiana.  The Union troops’ stubborn resistance convinced Zollicoffer that Wildcat Mountain couldn’t be taken by assault, so the next morning saw the Yankees still in possession of the ground and the Confederates returning southward toward Cumberland Ford.

The Battle of Wildcat Mountain/Camp Wildcat was small by Civil War standards—the Union forces suffered around 2o casualties, the Confederates around 50—but Zollicoffer’s withdrawal the night of Oct. 21st marked the end of his first attempt to secure control of eastern Kentucky, and gave the Union its first victory in that state.  Today the Camp Wildcat Preservation Foundation preserves and interprets the site of the battle.  I got the chance to pay a visit this week.

Getting to Wildcat Mountain is both easy and difficult.  Easy, because I-75 cuts right through the part of eastern Kentucky where it’s located; difficult, because the site itself is in a rugged, wooded, mountainous area, and the only access is via a narrow gravel road.  But it’s well worth the effort.  An interpretive kiosk offers visitors an overview of the events leading to the battle and the way in which the struggle played out on the wooded slopes.  There are two trails, one of which takes you past the original bed of the old Wilderness Road to a monument near the site of the Union camp.

The longer trail, about an hour’s hike, takes you to Hoosier Knob, the hill where the most intense fighting took place.  Both trails feature signage and various interesting sights along the way; to see the whole battlefield requires about an hour and half to two hours.

What impressed me most about the battlefield was the obvious dedication of the CWPF in developing the site.  Its location and the nature of the terrain present considerable difficulties to anyone trying to interpret it, but there were a number of visitors there when I arrived, and a large tour group stopped by later in the day.  It’s a great place to learn about the Civil War in the Appalachian border region, so see it if you get the chance.

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

Tennessee State Museum mounts War of 1812 exhibition

If you’re going to be in Nashville between now and June 24, swing by the Tennessee State Museum and see the special bicentennial exhibit Becoming the Volunteer State: Tennessee in the War of 1812.

Nashville Scene has an article on the exhibit and Andrew Jackson’s role in the war.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Pachyderm pays ultimate penalty

The University of Virginia is about to mount a theatrical production about an East Tennessee hanging that took place in September 1916, which wouldn’t really be all that interesting, except the individual who got hanged was a five-ton circus elephant belonging to Sparks World Famous Shows.

The show was traveling through the Southeast that fall when the regular elephant trainer had to leave the tour in St. Paul, VA, forcing the owner to take on an extra hand.  On Sept. 10th or 11th, the circus hired a young man named Walter Eldridge, who had been working as a janitor at a local hotel.

Just think—one day you’re mopping up after tourists, and the next you’re responsible for a herd of multi-ton animals.  Who says there’s no such thing as the American Dream?

Eldridge’s second day on the job turned out to be his last.  On Sept. 12th, the circus arrived in Kingsport, TN, where the janitor-turned-pachyderm-handler was responsible for escorting the elephants to and from their watering break.  Accounts of what happened next vary a little, but here’s the way one eyewitness remembered it:

There was a big ditch at that time, run up through Center Street, …And they’d sent these boys to ride the elephants… There was, oh, I don’t know now, seven or eight elephants… and they went down to water them and on the way back each boy had a little stick-like, that was a spear or a hook in the end of it… And this big old elephant reach over to get her a watermelon rind, about half a watermelon somebody eat and just laid it down there; ‘n he did, the boy give him a jerk. He pulled him away from ’em, and he just blowed real big, and when he did, he took him right around the waist… and throwed him against the side of the drink stand and he just knocked the whole side out of it. I guess it killed him, but when he hit the ground the elephant just walked over and set his foot on his head… and blood and brains and stuff just squirted all over the street.

Not exactly the kind of thing you can walk off.

In actuality, the circus had five elephants rather than seven or eight, and the elephant that killed Eldridge was a she, not a he.  Her name was Mary, and she’d been with the circus for twenty years.  That wasn’t enough to get her off the hook for Eldridge’s death.  The crowd who saw the whole thing happen started calling for blood, and in any case a rampaging elephant was bad for business, so the circus owner decided that Mary had to be put down.

But imposing the death penalty on an elephant is one thing, carrying it out quite another.  Guns proved ineffective, and the idea of smashing Mary between two railroad engines seemed a little grotesque, so the circus decided to try hanging.  The nearby town of Erwin had a large rail yard, where about 2,500 people turned out to see Mary hoisted by the neck from a derrick.  Hoisted twice, actually, since the chain broke on the first attempt.

That’s admittedly pretty horrible, but the good news is that somebody had the presence of mind to take a photo.

This sordid episode has enjoyed quite a bit of notoriety on the Interwebs, and is also the subject of a short book.  If you’re curious about the play, copies of the script are available on Amazon.  Believe it or not, this is only one of two plays about this incident; another one premiered in 2009.


Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

This is why we can’t have nice things

The much-anticipated Appomattox branch of the Museum of the Confederacy is opening soon, and this occasion offers all of us an opportunity for substantial and sober reflection about a host of important topics, such as the challenge of interpreting complex and emotionally charged subjects through exhibits, the proper stewardship of collections at a multi-facility institution, the place of military history in public history as a whole, and the relationship between scholarship and popular memory.

So naturally, instead of considering any of these issues, we’re going to get up in arms over what sort of flags they’re flying in front of the building.

Appomattox, VA – A new battle is brewing around the Museum of The Confederacy in Appomattox. Southern Heritage groups are calling on people to boycott the museum because the Confederate Flag will not fly outside.

All of this is surrounding 15 flag poles outside of the building, called the Reunification Promenade.

It will display state flags in order of their secession leading up to the U.S. flag.

Virginia Flaggers says they’ve offered to pay to add the Confederate Flag to the display, but the museum isn’t interested.

The museum’s president notes that the outdoor flag display is actually intended to illustrate the relationship of the seceded states to the rest of the country, which accounts for the Confederate flag’s otherwise conspicuous absence. Furthermore, the museum will include the biggest exhibit of Confederate flags anywhere in the history of mankind, which suggests that keeping said flag under wraps isn’t exactly a priority for the MOC.  But this isn’t enough to assuage the concern of people who are evidently more concerned about the museum’s front porch than they are about the actual content of the exhibits.

If questions about outdoor vexillology aren’t enough to convince you that nefarious anti-Southron forces are at work here, then consider the assertion that the facility’s location is, and I quote, “evidence that Yankee interests have invested the museum.”

Is the first opening in the lovely Shenandoah where Jackson beat three Union armies in one campaign?  No.  Oh I know, it’s off Interstate 95 at Chancellorsville, the site of Lee’s greatest victory!  NO.  OK, maybe up closer to Washington, D.C. on the Manassas battlefield where the Confederacy won two major battles?  Nope.  So where?

Appomattox, the place where General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia.   You are kidding!  For a Southerner, only Andersonville could be a worse location!

And bear in mind that while these folks are complaining about encroaching Yankeefication at the MOC, another critic is denouncing the institution as a Confederate shrine.

Make up your minds, guys.  If I’m supposed to go with a knee-jerk reaction, at least let me know which direction.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory, History on the Web, Museums and Historic Sites

I’ve got a few remarks on the Booth bobblehead brouhaha

…over at the Lincoln Institute blog, but Kevin Levin says pretty much the same thing more concisely and bluntly at Civil War Memory.

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