The Blue Raccoon

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Secession Decession Decision:
Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy to subdivide and vacate by 2011?

[Image: via]

Few of the billion-eyed audience that visits the Blue Raccoon may care, but in Ruch’-mun’ Vuh-jin-ya, headline-generating news this week that has nothing to do with dog fighting or NASCAR, but concerns our other fetish here, the Civil War. The story pertains to the possible breaking up of the nation’s largest collection of Southern Confederacy artifacts into three separate units to be housed at Virginia national battlefield parks, at Chancellorsville, Appomattox, and, maybe, Petersburg


" that later generations could seethe..."

In May 2007 I had the opportunity to visit the Memorial Hall Confederate Museum in New Orleans that is the second largest repository of Southern Civil War artifacts and ephemera. It’s convenient to the Ogden contemporary arts center, and the National World War II Museum, so Amie could drop me off to get loaded to the gills with history.

The museum is housed in a solemn Richardson Romanesque building designed for its specific purpose that opened in 1891, a year after Richmond’s Southern shrine started in the former White House of the Confederacy.

Touring the place is interesting because the original late 19th century display cases are still there, and the exhibition techniques are of the same period. Due to the age of moldering uniforms and fading cardes de visite, you can’t light them well, and for one who has had some back problems in the past, squatting down to read the typed caption cards can seem as though I’m practicing my yoga moves.

Among the unusual items was the uniform of P.G.T. Beauregard I’d not realized he was such a petite fellow. A photo of his wife showed her to have been a Creole hottie. Major General Franklin Gardner, in comparison, seems to have been a strapping, barrel-chested six footer.

In the back in an altar-like alcove was a Jefferson Davis trove; a top coat and hat, gloves, slippers, and a peculiar crown of thorns woven by the very hands of Pope Piux IX. This gift was given to Davis while incarcerated at Fortress Monroe, and its authenticity was attested to in a written affidavit by Cardinal Barnardo. The gift cheered Davis “when the malignants was taxed to the utmost to fabricate defamations to degrade me in the estimation of mankind.”

But of particular curiosity were the spurs and personal effects of a trooper from John Singleton Mosby’s command. The private’s name was Alexander Dimitry and he was slain on July 8, 1863, a week after the Battle of Gettysburg concluded. In 1867 Dimitry’s mortal remains were disinterred. By who isn’t stated, nor why.

The recounting of the this odd event was typed on a display card:

“His body and effects were found to be in an excellent state of preservation. Before reburial his boots and spurs were removed and preserved so that later generations could seethe [sic.] the equipment used by Mosby’s famous cavalry unit.”

The joined together “seethe” had been that way for a long while, uncorrected. I was standing there near Jeff Davis’ crown of thorns and under the dark arches and stained glass of the Memorial Hall, and I understood the mis-typed sentiment, and wondered if it didn’t reflect some people’s regard of this part of the nation’s history and how it is comemmorated and what that says about us, as a country, and as Southerners. There has for certain been a great deal of seething.


Death of Audacity

The Battle of Chancellorsville, via

At Chancellorsville, April 30-May 6, 1863, Robert E. Lee’s tatterdemalion but ferocious rebel Army of Northern Virginia of 60,000 confronted the 130,000 man Army of the Potomac commended at the time by the difficult and troubled Joseph P. Hooker. Lee working with dificult and troubled but brilliant Stonewall Jackson performed an unthinkable military maneuver by splitting the ANV in three before a superior force, surprising Hooker, and kicking him back across the Rappahannock River. The battle’s caldron claimed at least 30,000 men. One of them was Jackson himself, who was mortally injured when reconnoitering ahead of his lines at night on May 2, was shot and struck by North Carolina soldiers. Jackson’s death, whom some have argued provided Lee’s audacity, was a blow from which the army never recovered. Lee remarked that Jackson lost his left harm, and that he had lost his right.


A system

The proposed concept of a ‘system’ of Museum of the Confederacy exhibiton centers is the culmination of several years planning by the current museum administration and board. They concluded from a consultant’s study that due to the museum’s getting hemmed in by the expanding Virginia Commonwealth Health Systems and medical college campus that it was no longer practicable to operate where the museum couldn’t even be seen or accessed with ready ease.

The famous first line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, an epic masterpiece of passion, scandal and betrayal is, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The sentiment goes for non-profit organizations, too, in particular one of a venerated historical lineage. Anna cannot be truthful, nor does she wish to exist in a lie, and thus, she cannot live with herself. She throws herself under a train.


Not Good Feng Shui

VCU’s growth cut off 12th Street; the route visitors to the White House took when President Jeffererson Finis Davis lived here in what was called—and is today-- the Court End neighborhood. The rude imposition of the street just isn’t good feng shui – and hides the Museum and the Confedederate White House. The latter, by the way, wasn't built specific for the purpose of housing the Southern President and his family. It was built in 1818 by a prosperous banker, and had passed through several hands. Davis rented the house from the Confederate government.

Temporary construction-related street closings, paired to parking challenges, haven’t helped the museum’s visitation rate which when rendered in a graph, resembles steep stairs leading to a cellar. During 1992-1993 visitation totaled 79,000 but by 2005-2006 the number dropped 35 percent, to 51,498.

One way to reopen Court End to the visiting public, as architectural historian Ed Slipek Jr. once suggested, is the demolition of the dilapidated city Safety, Health and Welfare Building that blocks East Clay Street between 9th and 10th streets. The redesign of that lot could provide parking and introduction for the entire Court End district, which includes the Valentine Richmond History Center, the John Marshall House and Monumental Church.

The problem is, the building which contains decrepit court rooms is in a legal limbo—Mayor L.Douglas Wilder wants to move judges to Manchester and VCU has expressed interest in the Public Safety building site to further expand the Virginia Biotechnology Center, according to news reports.


Missed Opportunties

MOC hasn’t in recent years acted with decisive authority about much of anything except issuing occasional trial balloons concerning the possible physical removal of the White House to somewhere else or moving the collection to Lexington, Va., where Lee was post-war president of the now Washington and Lee College, and where he’s buried. And now this brilliant idea.

The MOC hasn’t held a capital campaign in more than 20 years. Board members attempts to direct attention to this important aspect of running a non-profit gained little ground during the 1990s. Efforts to buy additional property or join with what what became the National Civil War Center now at the former Tredegar Iron Works site came to nothing.

Tredegar was a major Confederate weapons factory and is today a keystone in riverfront development. Now the Richmond National Battlefield Parks Visitor Center and the Civil War Center are located there.

The MOC wasn’t quite warm and cozy toward its Court End neighbors, either, the very people and institutions that could understand its plight.

If MOC board members had conducted a Southern barnstorming tour with a big vision and Powerpoint presentations, at Sons of Confederate Vetereans conventions, Civil War roundtable meetings, and interested history organizations, money could’ve been found. Instead, the MOC conducted expensive studies.


"My God, is the army dissolved?"

MOC’s holdings includes the frock coat and borrowed sword that Robert E. Lee wore to the Appomattox surrender; 13 of the 15 regimental flags carried by Pickett’s troops during their final assault during the third day at Gettysburg; 13,000 original images, negatives, and color transparencies; 31 oil-on-board paintings of Charleston Harbor by Conrad Wise Chapman, E.B.D. Julio’s iconic “The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson.” An appraisal a few years ago by Sotheby’s assessed the collection’s value at $100 million.

Richmond was the capitol of the Southern Confederacy. The city was chosen, it didn’t volunteer, and a vast hunk of the place burned in a Wagnerian final act. All this happened, and those who study the war, and tour its battlefields and come to this city to see the war's impact and after effects should have a central place to visit to see all sides of the story.

The MOC’s president and CEO Waite Rawls is quoted as saying, "We are taking the artifacts back to where they were made famous."

The Richmond Times-Dispatch further explains:

Plans call for the construction of an 8,000-square-foot museum at each site, with about 5,000 square feet of exhibit space. That adds up to 15,000 square feet of exhibit space -- more than twice the space the museum has now. Each museum will also house a gift shop, educational rooms and offices.

"The idea of combining artifacts with battlefields will bring new life to both," said Jim Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Preservation Trust. "It will provide visitors a glimpse into the stories of the war, which is the most defining conflict in American history."

The invaluable archives, library an administrative offices would remain in Richmond. But the concrete exhibiton center wouldn't be needed anymore; in this new plan, my guess is it'll be sold to VCU. What will happen with the White House? Perhaps like some Greek temple housed in the skylight-topped courtyard of a European museum, it will be covered over and protected from acid rain by a massive atrium attached to whatever replaces the former museum building.

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War is in 2011; so whatever the MOC does it has to get its act together and move fast. This isn’t something they’ve been good at during the past two decades. Now, though, they’ve put themselves into a corner, and have little choice.

To my mind, this is more like Sayler’s Creek than Chancellorsville. That event occurred just prior to Appomattox. On April 6 at Sayler’s Creek, nearly one fourth of the retreating Confederate army was cut off by Sheridan’s cavalry and elements of the II and VI Corps. Most surrendered, including a passel of Confederate generals, among them "Old Baldy," Richard S. Ewell.

When Lee witnessed the survivors streaming along the road, he exclaimed "My God, is the army dissolved?"


One True Son

Sometimes, I've had to try to explain how and why the Civil War has insinuatd itself into Richmond's psychological sinews. I can't come up with any better example than one Lucas Meredith Jr., whom I met in 1996.

Meredith was a florist in Petersburg, Va., who drive a '66 Thunderbird with boyish élan along winding Dinwiddie County roads, past farmers on tractors who waved at him as he passed. Its "Tin Can Soldiers" license plate referred to his World War II service on fast carriers in the South Pacific.

His father, Lucas Meredith Sr., was born in 1842, while his father was born around 1800. Lucas Meredith marched in the 3rd Virginia Infantry Regiment, Company C, and he fought with that unit in almost every major engagement with the Army of Northern Virginia. Meredith Jr. was told that his father carried the company flag up Cemetery Ridge during Pickett's assault on Gettysburg's third day. He was captured two years later, at the Battle of Five Forks, April 1, 1865, which was bungled in part because Pickett was away at a shad bake. Meredith's timing was good; the war had only a few days remaining. The soldier missed Appomattox, but was paroled and sent home.

He resumed farming, outlived two wives by whom he fathered nine children. Meredith's second wife, Fannie, was Lucas Jr.'s mother. He was her third and last child. His father at the time was 81 years old.

"We have a generation gap in my family," Meredith told me, with a big laugh.

Meredith Sr. attended many veteran's conventions. He returned to Gettysburg, perhaps to see the thing that did not kill him, and marvel. A picture of him was hung in the Gettysburg visitor's center. On Sunday afternoons, he'd take a jaunt down to Five Forks to visit friends and he'd never tire of regaling anybody who'd listen about his wartime adventures.

Lucas Jr. never thought much of being an actual son of an real Confederate veteran, or, how when you shook his hand, you held almost the entire history of the United States, and how his late lineage collapsed long generations into his palm. About 15 years earlier, they began making a fuss over him at conventions.

He took me along the swerving Dinwiddie County roads to see the remnants of the ragged old home place -- his father had owned slaves, which was unusual among Confederate subalterns, who were often dirt poor. We passed by old tumbling barns and lush fields and rolled bays of hale and craggy boulders reminiscent of the ones that appear in Civil War images, with the sharpshooter dead in a crevice.

We came to Rocky Run Church, which his father helped found. The old soldier rests there between the women who bore his children. The son told me, "I don't have strong feelings that come people have about the war. But I do have a tremendous amount of pride about what my father did and what he went through."


The President's Grandson

Then there's John Tyler's grandson.

John Tyler was President of the United States during 1841-1845, one of Virginia's seven sons who attained that position. You may also read and see more about him here.

He got there by a unexpected turn of events and for that reason was referred to by his foes as "His Accidency." Tyler was vice-president of another Virginia aristocrat, William Henry Harrison, who during his 1840 inaugural gave a two-hour speech while standing without cover in a steady rain. Two months later he died--the first President in U.S. history to decease while in office--making Tyler his successor.

The University of Virginia Miller Center history encapsulates his serio-comic presidency:

"Tyler firmly asserted that the Constitution gave him full and unqualified powers of office and had himself sworn in immediately as President, setting a critical precedent for an orderly transfer of power following a President's death. Fearing that he would alienate Harrison's supporters, Tyler decided to keep the dead President's entire cabinet even though several members were openly hostile to Tyler and resented his assumption of the office. After Tyler vetoed a bill to resurrect the Bank of the United States, his entire cabinet resigned in protest, with the exception of Secretary of State Webster, then in the midst of sensitive negotiations with Great Britain. During his second year in office, the Whigs, led by Henry Clay, expelled him from the party and tried to have him impeached. The Whigs had to settle for one of their committees passing a resolution of censure against the President.

In a bid for reelection, Tyler worked to annex Texas, against the wishes of abolitionists who feared that it would become another slave state. Tyler's Democratic rival, James Polk, blunted the issue by also endorsing Texas statehood. Tyler pushed ahead though, introducing Texas annexation to Congress as a joint resolution requiring only a majority vote of each chamber of Congress, thereby dodging the two-thirds majority required to ratify a treaty. This approach succeeded in achieving Texas's incorporation into the Union."

Tyler, in much straitened financial circumstances and an unapologetic but apparently fair owner of 70 slaves, returned to his family plantation with his second wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler. Gardiner was a New Yorker, and 23 years old when in 1844 she married President Tyler, 30 years her senior. He renamed the plantation "Sherwood Forest" to demonstrate how he'd become an outlaw to the Whig Party.

His family grew and he fathered his last of 15 children at 70.

Tyler became a leading Southern sectionalist and chaired the February 1861 Virginia Peace Convention that tried to forestall war, though when Lincoln called for volunteers from Virginia, Tyler became a secessionist. He was elected to serve in the Confederate Congreess. But, while at the Ballard Hotel in January 1862, he died, denounced by the North as a traitor.

Pearl, his last surviving child, died on June 30, 1947.

His grandson, Harrison Tyler, still resides with his family at Sherwood Forest, and, I've heard, plays a mean game of tennis.


It Wasn't Even Yesterday

There are numerous stories like this; and consider how all those Confederate veterans, still living and marching down Monument Avenue in the 1930s, those men and their views influenced their children and grandchildren. The Confederate widows lived even longer. Indeed, you could only start calling Richmond a post-Civil War town until after 1970, about the time of public school integration.

I remember learning more about my home city while traveling in Scotland and speaking with college professors, shop clerks and young people. There was at all levels a resentment of what the British conducted against the Scots 200 years ago and the Battle of Culloden didn't seem all that long ago. The more educated types had a cultivated, rueful regard for this kind of nostalgia, but in the working class and the youth--even biker gangs covering themselves in Gaelic regalia and tattoos--there was a pride found in that past that sounded quite familiar.

Yes, the American Civil War occurred long ago in terms of life, but in the view of memory and psychology, it wasn't even yesterday. Living through it into a shared future --there is the challenge--and how to interpret the past with responsible respect.

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