Craig “To the Sound of the Guns” Swain and I have been tossing some ideas back and forth regarding monuments and markers. Ultimately, Craig wrote a post, but opted not to include it on his blog as it doesn’t follow with the theme there. I offered to post it here, he accepted, and I’m glad he did. I think what he has to say leaves us with much to consider.
Over the last few weeks, Robert and I have been passing emails around about markers and what can best be described as the “editing of public displays of historical interpretations.” The discussion mostly began with the Appomattox marker in the Freeman series. Lately some of the Shenandoah markers have come up in conversations. As always Robert makes some very good points, some about the baggage we bring to our understanding of history; some about the way we’ve chosen to remember history.
Now as far as Major Stearns is concerned, I feel I understand what military fame is – to do some noteworthy act on the field of battle and have your name misspelled on the historical marker! Yes, the Department of Historical Resources should make a correction (and perhaps relate more than 25 words on the marker) should resources be available in the future. But I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. White-out doesn’t work well on outdoor metal signs. And I fear showing up with a can of spray paint might well lead to an overnight stay in a less than comfortable facility.
However what does trouble me is the sentiment expressed in some venues that public expressions of our history should be edited and modified to fit a particular interpretation. Well, I’m soft chewing that. Let me be blunt – people who feel we should remove either entire monuments or at least re-work the wording in order to conform with our currently accepted version of events. Now I’ll say with regard to historical markers, even the state markers such as the one mentioned at Stephens City, I have some concerns, but can see the need to upgrade over time. I’d say so long as the agency making such a change does record the “old” and document the “new,” that’s a natural progression. This actually makes things interesting for us who document the markers.
On the other hand, memorials and monuments? Those are a little different in my mind, as they carry a slightly different purpose. Historical markers say, “Here I am, read about our history and heritage!” Education and edification are part of the purpose. Memorials and monuments, on the other hand say, “Please remember this person/this group of people/this event.” Sometimes they convey factual information or provide interpretation, but above all such displays call to our collective memories in order to bring forth remembrance and in some cases evoke emotional responses. As such, monuments and memorials are just as much public representations of history, as they are a looking glass to what the people felt and thought about at the time the display was created.
When I see a memorial, such as Mississippi’s at Gettysburg, I don’t start talking about “that’s not the way it really happened.” Nor do I worry that the artist depicted the soldiers tucking their pants legs into their socks (now the feet are another question entirely….). I start looking at what this statue says about the citizens of Mississippi who paid to have it placed in 1973. In other words, the point I see from the pubic display isn’t the history lesson, but the expression of public sentiment from a point in time of our past. Is the memorial honorable and respectful? Yes. Is the memorial true to all historical facts? Well some would say more so than Gods and Generals, the movie. Is the monument in tune with our public sentiments as they stand in 2009? Well maybe not perfectly in tune. I’d advance that if the State of Mississippi wanted to place this monument at Gettysburg in 2009, even with the upcoming anniversaries, there would be at least a few op-ed pieces.
But isn’t that the point? Our perceptions of the past, as a society, change over time. The veteran’s generation in the 1880s and 90s only begrudgingly allowed Confederate monumentation on the field. Later generations had a different approach. Consider the holy war that would have ensued in 1905 had someone proposed a Longstreet Memorial in Pitzer’s Woods? By 1998 the public had different sentiments. That’s the interesting part about this all. On the same field that a “new” statue of Longstreet stands (on a small pony in the woods), there is another honoring the Marble Man, Robert E. Lee himself, in grand style. Meade, Hancock, and … even… Dan Sickles all share the field, in spite of what they may or may not have done in the battle. In a way, are these not layers of history to be excavated by the knowledgeable trowels of historians? Each one an artifact to be interpreted itself?
When I come across a monument such as the Meriwether obelisk in North Augusta, Georgia, I first want to discover what exactly happened to inspire such emotional thoughts as conveyed by the inscription. I want to learn more about the incident in question, not only the “both sides,” but also why the incident would stand out in the memory of people so strongly as to prompt such a public display. What this says about the people of South Carolina around the end of the 19th Century is interesting (and I’m guessing the monument was placed around the 1890s or so). Do you realize the fine people of South Carolina spent money, in their cash strapped post-Reconstruction years, to place the Meriwether monument, yet waited some fifty to sixty years to place a memorial at Gettysburg? Were the people just more impressed with Meriwether? Or did they feel as Gettysburg was a loss best forgotten? Who knows? But we would never know unless some historian (amateur or academic) is moved to use the “trowel” and dig a bit deeper than the surface of the subject. If the Meriwether monument were erased, would any such historian have cause to do so?
No, removal of such a monument would be akin to censorship, if not outright book burning. In effect, it would be saying “here is the interpretation of history you will accept, and anything even slightly contrary is banished.” Or even more to the point, “we will not record any artifacts of the past that are objectionable, as the past is too detestable to remember.” As if we haven’t learned any lessons through time – that shouting down any dissent is the proper way for a people to record their past. Yes, that does sound like another country in another time.
At the same time, a monument in nearby Augusta, Georgia, has prompted discussion about the word “Colored” with reference to African-Americans who served in the Great War. Odds are the term was specifically meant to differentiate between two types of units in which the men served served – all white units and all black units. And COMBAT units I should add. (In World War II, the use of African-American combat units was much more limited, and arguably only done under political pressure.) Was it a form of racism to have such segregated units? You get no argument here. I would say the African-Americans who served as infantry in those units actually had a harder service than their white counterparts, and deserve special recognition. In fact, by “desegregating” the list on the monument, do we not in some small way downgrade their service? I for one would say we should remember those men served in segregated units – that they took up the cause in defense of our country in spite of segregation; that they did so with honor; and finally, that the society at the time felt the need to keep their names listed separately but equal (in terms of size and style of type at least).
To me that tells part of a story. If I were a teacher there in Augusta, one of my class trips would be a stop there. I’d ask the students to consider this as an artifact of the society that was. I’d ask them if the names under the “Colored” and white sections were men of the same convictions. If not, explain the differences. And I’d ask them to find out for themselves how the country evolved from that point to where we are today.
Was that a good evolution or not? Recent events (and events to occur in the next week in particular) say “YES!” And certainly we will continue to evolve as a nation to better things, in spite of the difficult times. But a nation that is going to erase its past is probably just a few turns away from a nation no longer. If the past is truely our prologe, then these monuments and memorials are the three-dimentional key to understanding.
I’m going to treat this as if it were Craig’s post entirely, and respond in a comments box.