Tag Archives: Stonewall Jackson

Repatriating the Civil War

Kevin Levin recently noted the case of three captured Confederate flags that are going to be sent back home to North Carolina.  I think it’s a fine gesture.

Coincidentally, there’s another story about repatriating Civil War artifacts in the news right now.  In 1861, the 13th Massachusetts Volunteers decided to make the most of their time in Harpers Ferry by picking up a souvenir—the bell from the firehouse where John Brown made his last stand.  They passed it along to a Maryland woman, and it remained in her possession until 1892, when some of the veterans from the 13th Massachusetts retrieved it and took it back to their home state.  It’s still there, hanging in a tower in the town of Marlborough.  Now West Virginia real estate broker Howard Swint thinks it belongs back home, and he’s going to court to try to make it happen.

According to the article, “Swint thinks the bell is a national treasure that should be returned to Harpers Ferry where visitors can see it.”  Fair enough.  It’s certainly a part of Harpers Ferry’s history.  The National Park Service manages Harpers Ferry’s historic sites, and an exhibit featuring the bell and the story of its journey from West Virginia to Massachusetts and back would give the NPS a pretty neat opportunity to teach visitors about the way the Civil War has been remembered down through the years.

Still, the bell has been in Marlborough for so long that it’s become a part of that town’s history, too.  Like all artifacts, the bell has acquired its particular importance from the events that have happened to it.  Artifacts, I think, are subject to Lamarckian biology; the events they undergo become permanently wired into their DNA.  That, after all, is why we cherish some objects above others.

Some of the comments left on the web article indicated that Swint has stirred up controversy before, so I Googled him and came up with an editorial written by someone with that name just a few months ago, arguing for the removal of a Stonewall Jackson monument on the grounds of the West Virginia capitol.  In this piece, Swint (assuming, of course, it’s the same Howard Swint of West Virginia) claims that a Confederate monument at the capitol is inappropriate, given all the Confederacy’s unsavory aspects.

Here, too, I think it’s easy to oversimplify matters.  I tend to be dismissive of efforts to put up new monuments, but when it comes to the ones that have been around for a century or more, my preservationist instincts kick in.  Yes, slavery and racism are inextricably intertwined with the history of the Confederacy, and yes, Confederate symbols continued to be employed for racist purposes well into modern times.  But there comes a point at which things like old monuments or works of art are artifacts in themselves.  They tell us something about the way we used to be (or wanted to be, or wanted to think we were), so I say leave them be.

Just as the bell’s long stay in Massachusetts has become an intrinsic part of its history, so the idealized legacy of the most famous West Virginian to fight in the war has become an intrinsic part of the state’s history.  Tearing down an old monument seems sort of like getting a tattoo of your ex-wife’s name removed—you won’t have to look at it anymore, but all the baggage goes a lot deeper than the ink in your skin, so you might as well acknowledge it and try to develop some perspective and become better for it.

As for the bell, I don’t know how I’d make that call.  Since it’s not my call to make, I guess that doesn’t matter.

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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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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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