Quick thoughts on the Removal of Stonewall Jackson on Monument Ave.

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Down goes Jackson, down goes Jackson!

So, when I “wore a younger man’s clothes” I was a grad student in Richmond working on a degree and as a seasonal and part-time ranger for the Richmond National Battlefield Park. For some extra money, I took a job one day-per-week giving bus tours to tourists, visiting the major sites and battlefields around Richmond. Monument Avenue was of course the centerpiece of the tour, so I have visited and given interpretation of the monuments there many, many times.

I watched online today as the process of taking down the statues began. Honestly, even though we’ve known this was coming, I am feeling kind of stunned. Too stunned to have anything profound or interesting to say about it.

Today’s target was Stonewall Jackson. I’m guessing the others will soon follow. Where they are going is unclear for now, except that they will be stored somewhere until all the legal and financial matters connected with their removal can be worked out.

I’ve been on record in the past as favoring the contextualization of these and other rebel monuments, but as I indicated in a recent post, I think that ship has sailed. I now believe these things have got to continuing coming down from their places of honor. And I have enjoyed watching it happen.

Still, I think they should not be destroyed or hidden away forever. I’d love to see them eventually re-emerge at historic sites or places where they can be brought down off their pedestals (literally and figuratively) and interpreted.

I doubt it’ll ever happen, but I think there would be real value in interpreting these statues, from the cultural forces of the Lost Cause movement that erected them, to the cultural forces of the Black Lives Matter movement that got them dismantled. That’s a darn good and important story to tell.

In my mind’s eye, I see the Lee statue (not on a pedestal) out on the Malvern Hill battlefield, (site of where his characteristically aggressive battlefield tactics led to the slaughter of thousands of Confederate soldiers in a doomed assault). J.E.B Stuart and Jefferson Davis would fit nicely near their graves in Hollywood cemetery. I see Stonewall, at his death site, which is preserved and interpreted by the National Park Service, or perhaps behind his home in Lexington, Virginia.

Perhaps one day.

But for now, I’m going to be stuck with the image of a large crowd that watched and cheered, and endured a steady rainstorm as Stonewall was lifted off his pedestal. It was definitely surreal that the rain began almost at the moment when Jackson was lifted, and it thundered as he was brought down to applause.

Once he was down, most of the crowd headed home to get dry. But there was a young rain soaked black woman berating folks for leaving before Jackson was hauled away. A local news crew caught her on camera as she shouted, “They said we couldn’t accomplish anything with these protests. Well, just look!  And I’m staying out here until this is finished, because my ancestors were out here picking cotton, even in the rain. They didn’t have the option to go up to the big house to get dry!”

Wow.

And suddenly I am reminded, that in all those bus tours I gave on Monument Avenue, I never once had a black passenger.

#BLM

I Taught a Class on Lincoln, Here’s What He Taught Me

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For years, University of Alabama Associate Professor Lawrence F. Kohl (author of the brilliant and historiographically important The Politics of Individualism)  taught a popular class on the life of Abraham Lincoln as an intense, three week, upper level undergrad course every May. When he retired, one of his former students, Rachel K. Deale, took it over for one summer before becoming an Assistant Professor at Barton College. When she left, I was determined to keep the unique class going.

Turns out it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my 20+ years of college teaching. It rejuvenated me.

I’ve always loved my job and wake up every morning excited to get to do it (yes, I know I’m lucky). But this course was special. Like Dr. Deale, I chose to teach it as a full monthScreen Shot 2019-07-17 at 3.09.24 PM.png course in June, meeting for one hour and 45 minutes every day of the week. That made for a busy month, but an extremely fun one hanging out with Abe and the students (mostly history majors).

The prep work for any course you’ve not taught before can be intense, but especially when it meets every day of the week. I wrote lectures and built image-heavy Powerpoints the night before delivering them, all while keeping up with the reading schedule assigned to my students and quizzing them on it.

I’m confident I taught the students many things about our 16th president and his era that they didn’t know and that will stay with them. Sticking mostly to Kohl’s tried-and-true course outline helped me craft lectures that I feel worked well and kept students engaged in classroom discussions, shedding light on Antebellum and Civil War America, as well as the ways Lincoln’s life prepared him for the role of our leader during America’s most divisive time.

I did alter and add to Kohl’s basic structure, including the role that public history sites, monuments, and movies have played in shaping how Americans have remembered and mythologized Lincoln. We also read about and discussed the differing ways Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon and his White House secretaries (Nicolay and Hay) shaped the memory and historiography of Lincoln.

We also had “Lincoln in the News” assignments (a variation on an assignment I have in my survey courses), requiring students to find and analyze current news stories demonstrating how Abe’s legacy and myth are often used by modern politicians and pundits for both liberal and conservative agendas. We considered how and why the Lincoln myth causes politicians of all stripes to tie their ideologies to his. This allowed for a bit of memory history, but also a discussion of the dangers of “cherry picking” primary source evidence by both historians and others looking for a usable past.  (Ironically, Lincoln himself did this when tying his views against the expansion of slavery to the views of the Founders).

In short, although using a narrative approach to the course (each day I essentially told stories about his life), my students and I accomplished more than just learning basic facts about Lincoln. Besides history, we dealt with public history, memory, historiography, and how historians use and misuse primary sources —all within a narrative framework.  Abe himself would have appreciated the use of personal stories as a means of painlessly pulling my audience into considering more complex themes and concepts.

Thus one of the things the class taught me was the usefulness of a biography course. The students stayed engaged as we followed his narrative. Tracing the personal developments in his life, I asked students to consider how those things shaped his career, political beliefs, and perceptions of the events of his time. JKNCVgY.jpg

We all love the juicy and personal details of famous lives, but perhaps this is even more true for a generation that’s grown up watching reality TV. It seems my students’ fascination with Lincoln’s personal life helped keep them engaged as we drifted into those discussions of memory, public history, and historiography, and as they read and analyzed his own writings.

Of course these are the same reasons that biographical books are so effective as a lens for examining a particular historical era, but my experience teaching the Lincoln course convinces me that history departments should consider offering an array of biography courses. It might just be one way we can start attracting more students to upper level history classes, and thus to win back the number of  history majors the field has lost lately.

If you’re a professor or teacher, I encourage you to think about historical figures you’d love to teach a course on and then do it! I believe students might more eagerly sign up for a course on Joan of Arc than they would the 100 Years War, or one on Ronald Reagan more readily than a class on Post-WWII America. How about Elizabeth I instead of Tudor England? Frederick Douglass instead of Antebellum Slavery?

But Lincoln showed me much more than just the advantages of teaching history through biography.

When planning, I intended to focus on Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery. For this reason I chose Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery as my main text.51CRIqJBIcL.jpg On our first day I made clear that students should pay attention to Lincoln’s evolution in regards to slavery and race. By the end of the course, however, following this theme brought me to a realization I had not anticipated.

As we know, judged by the standards of our time Lincoln was racist. But historians often stress that from the perspective of his time he held fairly progressive ideas about African Americans and slavery, and those sentiments evolved over the course of his life, especially during the war. A man once holding views about racial inferiority that were fairly consistent with that of other whites of his time eventually became the first president to openly call for suffrage rights for at least some categories of African Americans (and it cost him his life) and perhaps would have eventually pushed for more than just that.

As Frederick Douglass pointed out in his speech at the dedication of the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument, Lincoln’s evolution was slow in the eyes of abolitionists and radical Republicans, but perhaps it was exactly the pace needed so that public opinion would grow to support emancipation and the 13th amendment. The war’s contingencies, and Lincoln’s responses to them, set and controlled that pace.

Using Foner and selected writings and speeches by Lincoln, I guided students thru Lincoln’s change and pace, showing how and why they happened. When discussing “cherry picking,” we noted how easily it is for people today with varying agendas to find Lincoln’s own words at different times in his life that they can use to “prove” differing points. 37f.png_large.png

Of course this is true with other historical figures, because people’s thoughts and opinions often change over time. That’s the nature of maturing and viewing the world through a larger lens of knowledge and experiences. This is just one reason that context is so important when using primary sources.

The first Lincoln writing we read was his 1832 announcement that he was running for state office. In it, Abe clearly delineates his Whig party political sentiments, but concludes by promising that if he were to one day “discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to renounce them.”

A statement of open-mindedness like that is laudatory, and while over Lincoln’s life he clung to most of his core principles, he certainly proved willing to change his mind and evolve, not just in regards to his ideas about slavery and race, but also military strategy. I told my students I feel this was Lincoln’s true greatness; in an age when political partisanship ripped our nation apart, his willingness to change his views based on events, contingencies, and experiences is what saved the Union.

And yet, what struck me by the end of the course was that we often don’t allow our politicians to grow and evolve like that. How frequently do we criticize them for holding a position or beliefs years ago that seem at odds with their current ones or that are now contemptible? In an attempt at a “gotcha” moment, we criticize them for hypocrisy, or allege they only changed their mind out of political expediency. (Lincoln himself faced such criticisms).

Sadly, it seems to me, this plays at least some role in the partisanship preventing the compromise between parties that democracy requires. Why would a politician be swayed by debate or new realities if changing their mind or compromising their positions leads to ridicule and charges of hypocrisy by pundits and political rivals?

As a result, they don’t change their minds or obfuscate in an attempt to hide it when they do. They refuse to admit when they were wrong or refuse to compromise, and we get gridlock. Wouldn’t it be wiser to support politicians willing to renounce their opinions if they discover them to be erroneous, or allow them to evolve with the changing times? If we praise them for doing so, wouldn’t it actually encourage more open mindedness?

Yet in our current political environment it seems we only want politicians that unwaveringly stand firm to convictions, or that come out of the womb with fully formed values and beliefs that match with our current values and standards. Emancipation.jpg

Imagine if Lincoln had never changed his mind about slavery and race. He would have never used emancipation and black troops as a means of winning the war and would have continued to promote the colonization of African Americans outside the country. Had he not shifted on these positions, debatably he would have lost the war. Certainly he would have never promoted any form of black citizenship and would have been happy to see slavery die out over the course of a century or longer.

Thus had he been uncompromising and ideologically consistent to the last, I wonder how we would remember Abraham Lincoln today. He certainly would not be the “Great Emancipator,” and likely would have overseen the destruction of the Union rather than been its savior.

On the last part of our final exam I had students write a “self-reflective” essay in which they considered whether there was anything in Lincoln’s life they found “usable” in their own. The result was interesting, as students remarked on things as varied as Lincoln’s rags-to-riches background, his grief and depression, his leadership qualities, and the value of using simple and relatable language when addressing complex ideas and concepts. Happily, none agreed with labeling Lincoln the “Great Emancipator,” but most clearly demonstrated they understood the essential and crucial role he played in the complicated process and pace of emancipation.

And thus I consider the class to have been a great success, and I hope I’ll I continue to be able to teach it.  I learned some valuable things right along with my students, growing and improving as an educator and in my open-mindedness.

Thanks for the lesson, Mr. President.

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Visiting Richmond’s New American Civil War Museum

 

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Brand new American Civil War Museum, right next door to the National Park Service’s Richmond Battlefield Park Visitor’s Center (building on the left), at Richmond’s historic Tredegar Ironworks.

Back in May, I got to visit the new American Civil War Museum at the Tredegar Iron works. Like many of you, ever since it was announced the Museum of the Confederacy was joining forces and bringing their collection to the project, I’ve eagerly awaited the grand opening. So much so that I got there as soon as my teaching schedule allowed, which thankfully was only two weeks after they first opened the doors.

But really, I’ve been waiting even longer than that.  Fresh out of college I moved to Richmond in 1993 to get a masters degree at VCU and explore all of Virginia’s historic treasures. While the Commonwealth itself did not disappoint (and still doesn’t), I admit Richmond was a let down.

Monument Avenue’s Lost Cause statuary was impressive, of course, as was the White House and Museum of the Confederacy, and Hollywood Cemetery. But beyond that, the pickings were slim for a Civil War buff expecting a lot more, and wanting something that wasn’t steeped in the Lost Cause.

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The Lee Statue on the famous (now infamous?) Monument Avenue.

Even the Richmond National Battlefield Park was a disappointment, with its very outdated exhibits at the site of Chimborazo Hospital (and a film focused on the plight of a middle class white Richmond family during the war), and only small bits of preserved battlefield lands scattered around the eastern suburbs with minimal interpretation—-and that interpretation mainly focused on the Confederate perspective.

It was not the Richmond of which I’d daydreamed.

Fortunately, that began to change just as I arrived. I volunteered and then got a summer seasonal job with the park service, and over the next 8 years got to witness exciting and near constant changes at the park, as a really great staff of historians got more funding, installed more interpretive signs and trails in the park, acquired more land (they now have dang near all of Malvern Hill and Glendale, and an ever increasing amount of Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor), restored historic landscapes, and created a beautiful, cutting-edge visitor’s center in one of the remaining buildings of the historic Tredegar Ironworks.

Just as I left the city to return to Alabama to work on a PhD with Dr. George Rable, Richmond itself got in the updating game, cleaning up and restoring the historic canal walk on the river, repurposing crumbling old warehouses into modern apartments, and cleaning up the surrounding areas around the James River. Then the American Civil War Center opened up next door to the NPS visitor’s center at Tredegar.

The city had become much more of what I envisioned before going there, including now even a monument commemorating Lincoln’s triumphant visit to the city with his son just as the Capital of the Confederacy fell to Union forces.

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Tad & his dad in Richmond

Monument Avenue still lingers, but more inclusive stories are being told, with less Lost Cause distortions. There’s even interpretation of Richmond’s slave pens and markets.

And yet, something has still seemed missing. While the NPS center at Tredegar is great, it appropriately focuses on Richmond and the battlefields, and while their neighbor, the American Civil War Center, was telling a comprehensive story of the war in general, it was heavy on interpretation and light on relics.

Thus when it was announced that the museum was spending around 25 million to build a new, high tech, 28,500 square facility (much of it underground) in and around the Tredegar site, and that they would be incorporating relics from the Museum of the Confederacy, excitement was high that Richmond would now become THE premiere place for Civil War public history interpretation (as it should be).

So, does the museum live up to the high expectations and hype?

Well, yes, and no. Let’s just say this, it has enormous potential.

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Just inside the front doors.

First off, after walking through its beautiful entrance and lobby that encloses Tredegar ruins that were long exposed to the elements, and then past visually stunning enlargements of colorized war-time photographs (featuring a diverse cast of wartime faces), I was ready for an amazing visit.

Because of poor signage, however, it was difficult to figure out which door to walk into for the main exhibit gallery. I started to go in the “out” door, as did many others that I observed. That should be an easy fix though.

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Gallery entrance.

Once inside, I was surprised by how small the permanent exhibit space actually is. Having recently visited the two new Revolutionary War museums in Philadelphia and in Yorktown, I was perhaps expecting too much, as those facilities are huge and nicely spread out. This one takes you from 1861-1865 at comparatively warp speed.

Further, there was curiously little interpretation of the causes of the war, which was contrary to everything I expected considering all the hype about taking the war away from Lost Cause interpretation.

But here is the main problem: the museum is making great effort to tell a more inclusive and diverse narrative of the war, and the written interpretation does so. But the artifacts they have now are just not yet helping them tell that story.

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Solid interpretation. But unfortunately, few of the relics help tell this story

Yes, you won’t find many Civil War museums with an audio and visual presentation telling the story of an enslaved girl that was brutally whipped for allegedly poisoning her owner, or that displays slave shackles, or that interprets the post-war years by featuring a Reconstruction era KKK hood and garment.

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Not exactly a common site in a Civil war museum, though it should be.

The African American story, as well as the Union story, are both featured throughout the exhibits. There is also homefront and gendered history, but with few exceptions (like the ones just mentioned) the artifacts packed behind the glass cases are overwhelmingly the treasures from the old Museum of the Confederacy.

But Oh! What a collection it is! I won’t spoil it for you by naming too much, but you’ll be stunned at the personal wartime possessions on display that were owned by the pantheon of Confederate luminaries, from Jefferson Davis, to Lee, to Stonewall, to Jeb Stuart. (You know, all those dudes out there on Monument Avenue.)

Of course all this was on display at the old Museum of the Confederacy, but it makes it no less amazing to see them again, especially in this more inclusive context and in the new digs.  You’ll find yourself staring in awe at such things, seemingly tucked away in the corners.

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This display, for example, is a Stonewall Jackson fan’s dream come true.

Here’s a big tip: DO NOT rush through this museum. Read EVERY description of EVERY relic. What they have will blow your mind. Just one small example: the sword Lewis Armistead used to urge rebel soldiers forward into Union lines just as he was mortally wounded during “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg. But you’ll miss it and other jaw-dropping possessions if you aren’t paying attention.

And yet, as amazing as these things are, they are just not helping the museum to tell the story it strives to tell.

The battles themselves get shunted away to high tech electronic video boards that visitors can interact with, which is fine, I’d rather see visitors get out to the battlefields themselves if that is what they are looking for. But theoretically that means the museum should be focused on social and cultural history, and most of the interpretation is, but yet the most attention-grabbing relics are largely battle-related accouterment from southern soldiers and officers.

My guess is that the museum’s folks are aware of this problem, and that the acquisition of other relics must become their number one goal now that the space has been constructed and the doors open. (I hope they are aware of this auction, for example).  Having such stunning possessions from Lee, Jackson, and et. al, makes it all the more glaring that there is essentially nothing from Grant, Sherman, and Lincoln or etc. on display. What few Union relics are on display are related to POWs that were penned in Richmond’s warehouse prisons.

How nice would it be, for instance, to juxtapose the relics of Robert E. Lee, with those of Union General George Henry Thomas, contrasting the two Virginians and drawing attention to a southern white man that unlike Lee, refused to break his vow to the U.S. military to fight the constitution’s enemies, “both foreign and domestic.”

And there are precious fewer artifacts telling the African American perspective on the war. Don’t expect to see many rifles or other possessions carried by the USCTs that were among the city’s first liberators, for example. If you saw Harriet Tubman’s shawl at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, or Nat Turner’s bible there, you won’t find similar items here, despite the fact that the museum’s objectives and narrative would make those types of relics a perfect fit.

I really don’t want this to sound like a negative review, however. There is so much room for growth in this facility. Over time, I have no doubt that future acquisitions and perhaps loaned items will help the American Civil War Museum tell the story it is telling.

And I especially do not want to discourage anyone from visiting the museum in its current incarnation. On the contrary, go now and ASAP. I promise you will be awed by the facility’s location, design, and the amazing relics on display. And you’ll be impressed by its interpretation.

Let’s please give the American Civil War Museum all the support, encouragement, and positive “word-of-mouth” we can, as they are trying to tell important stories that will move Richmond, and us, even more away from the Lost Cause.

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Yes, that’s a rebel flag, but it is one that Tad Lincoln took home with him as a trophy after he and his father visited Richmond. How cool is that? Now THAT is the perfect context for displaying that thing.

 

Public History, the NPS, and the Shutdown

During the partial government shutdown I wrote a little piece for the Daily Beast about the impact Trump’s war for his wall was having on the public historians that work for the National Park Service. Based on interviews I did via email with several rangers, their frustrated voices came through loud and clear.

In many ways, however, I consider the piece a small love letter to the work they do at the sites of our nation’s most important historic events. When I was first started falling in love with history and visiting those sites, the rangers and their tours were a great inspiration to me. I eventually become a seasonal park ranger at the Richmond National Battlefield Park back in the 90s, and still cherish those years of working with such great historians to bring the importance of the sites and the Civil War to the public. There are many days in which I wish I was still doing it.

Anyway, during the shutdown, my thoughts were mostly with them because I knew not only about their financial sacrifices, but how much it was hurting them to not be able to do a job they dearly love. I am happy they are back on the job (for now), and let’s hope the government will no longer hold federal employees and their important jobs as hostages during a political fight.

 

The rebel monument debate comes to my hometown (and another dear to my heart).

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City workers covering up a Confederate memorial in Birmingham

UPDATE on 1/15/2019: my prediction below that Birmingham would win the court fight turned out accurate, although I am pleasantly surprised that it didn’t require a higher court than the Jefferson County Circuit Court to strike down the stupid state law.

We all know the debate over Confederate monuments has gone white-hot, especially after the events in Charlottesville.

I have weighed in on this debate several times in the last year (and have no stomach for the argument that removal is “erasing history,” as I argued here) and I am firmly on record as favoring contextualization rather than removal, either by placing them in a museum (as the University of Texas did), or leaving them where they are and putting up new signs that explain the reasons the monuments were put up in the first place (like the University of Mississippi did). I also favor counter-monuments that help diversify the history we choose to remember and memorialize.

But above all, I favor letting local communities decide for themselves what they choose or don’t choose to memorialize.

However the events of the last couple of days, and Trump’s stunning reaction to them, started pushing me closer to supporting full removal.

Last night, I emotionally felt pretty much exactly as did CNN’s Van Jones:

But because I have been asked,  I want to weigh-in again on this issue by focusing on part of what Trump said, and specifically on two cities that are very close to my heart: Richmond, Virginia, (where I got my masters degree, worked at its National Battlefield Park, and lived for eight years) and Birmingham, Alabama (my hometown).

Richmond of course, is famous for its beautiful Monument Avenue, featuring enormous and imposing statues of rebel leaders such as Jefferson Davis, JEB Stuart, and Stonewall Jackson.  This summer, city leaders formed a commission to discuss how to best contextualize, but not to remove, the statues.  They held a public hearing to discuss options, and what followed was predictable mass chaos.  The audience seemed to disregard the fact that removal was not on the table, as it turned into a fight over whether to remove the statues or not. Not surprisingly, it quickly turned into a fight over what caused the South to secede. It got ugly. 

I was not there, but I have a friend and fellow historian that was, and based on his emotional and mostly sensible Facebook posting that night, it was an unmitigated disaster that probably only hardened people’s hearts and opinions, frustrating everyone.

After the stunning events of the last few days, Richmond’s mayor has decided that removal IS now on the table, and has instructed the commission to add that option to its deliberations. He made it clear he personally now favors removal. Even more powerful, two great, great grandsons of Stonewall Jackson have called for removal in a powerful plea. 

I can’t say I blame any of them, as my emotional reaction to Charlottesville, as I said above, was also to take all these rebel monuments down.

Yet stepping back from those emotions causes me to feel that of all southern cities, Richmond is probably the one in which it is most important that they stay up.

As the Capital of the Confederacy, (sitting within easy driving distance of some of the war’s most important and preserved battlefields), the city is perhaps the only one that people actually travel to just to see the monuments. (No one is going to New Orleans, or Baltimore, or Nashville, JUST to see rebel memorials).

And from an educational and public history perspective that is a GOOD THING. The city has done an exceptional job over the last decade to create institutions, memorials, and other public education endeavors, telling the WHOLE and diverse story of the Civil War and the Confederacy, and the connection of both to the institution of slavery.

The monuments not only draw people to these educational opportunities, but they themselves are important educational tools for demonstrating how previous generations chose to interpret the Civil War in an effort to promote the “Lost Cause.”

Most rebel monuments were originally placed as means of denying that the South had seceded in order to preserve slavery.  Their purpose was to glorify and distort the causes of the Confederacy’s attempt to break from the United States, painting it as an effort to defend “States Rights.” (Just how successful that effort was has been made all the more clear lately—-that Richmond public hearing, for example).

At the same time, they are monuments to white supremacy and resistance to efforts at racial justice. This chart detailing when most of these monumnts and memorials went up, demonstrates this very effectively. Thus, the erection of the monuments has a history and purpose all their own.

If you want the perfect classroom for exploring the Lost Cause, its meanings, and its successes, there is no better one than standing at the base of the Lee monument, or especially the one of Jefferson Davis. Contextualization in those spots could be a powerful way to educate the public about the white supremacist movements that for so long successfully distorted America’s understanding of the Civil War for their own political agenda. (And which has once again reared its ugly and violent head).

So I favor contextualization in Richmond, and the addition of more monuments that tell a more inclusive story (how about one to the African American troops that played a large role in reclaiming the city for the United States, for example?). Of course the problem is that most people view the monuments as they ride quickly by in cars or tourist buses, and thus I’m not sure how much contextualization signs would be visible and/or effective. This is definitely a problem.

Still, I think this is the right solution for Richmond, and they, above probably all other cities, have the ability to set the model for how these rebel monuments can be used to educate the public about how and why so many people are misinformed about the causes of the Civil War, and how those efforts were tied to resistance to black progress and racial justice.

I hope they get it right.

And then there is my hometown.  I took a lot of pride when it was announced in January that Birmingham’s Civil Rights district was being turned into a national park. The Confederate memorial near this area creates a strong contrast to the newer (and increasing) memorials and interpretive signage marking the pivotal events that occurred in Birmingham, especially those in 1963 that played a prominent role in pushing President Kennedy into proposing the Civil Rights Act. Make no mistake, the new park is preserving an American battlefield for racial justice:

The events in Charlottesville had me feeling that rebel monuments in Birmingham should come down, as they are an insult and black-eye on this historic district. Yet, a local news story may have pushed me back the other way again.

In the wake of what happened in New Orleans, the state of Alabama passed a ridiculous law making it illegal for local communities to remove rebel monuments. The hypocrisy here is amazing, considering that Republicans stand on the principle of power resting in the hands of localized government (a concept I have been mostly sympathetic to most of my life). Of course this is akin to the hypocrisy of Republicans calling for a small federal government that does not involve itself in our lives, and yet wanting one that legislates morality. If there is one thing the Republican party needs right now, it is consistency of principle.

Anyway, the city of Birmingham’s mayor and city council has decided to figure out some way to challenge this law, maybe by removing the statues and fighting it in the courts (I think they would win in the higher courts), or just paying the fine. In the meantime, they have opted for covering up the monuments, first with a tarp, and now with some plywood.

As a result, the state’s attorney general is suing Birmingham for violating “the spirit” of the law. So the battle has been joined. 

UPDATE on 1/15/2019: my prediction that Birmingham would win the court fight turned out accurate, although I am pleasantly surprised that it didn’t require a higher court than the Jefferson County Circuit Court to strike down the stupid state law.

What struck me in a local news story, however, was a reporter mentioning that the monument is in the shadow of the places dear to the Civil Rights movement. For instance, the A.G. Gaston motel where Martin Luther King stayed during “Project C” is within a rock’s throw of the rebel monument. Here he and other heroes coordinated their assault on Birmingham’s white supremacist laws and racial injustices, right near a monument to the very forces they sought to destroy. And it was here that dynamite was thrown into the building in an effort to kill these Civil Rights leaders.

Does not the presence of this Lost Cause monument make what King and the hundreds of Civil Rights footsoldiers did in Birmingham even more profound?  Would we not lose part of the story if we move the Confederate monument? Is it not a perfect symbol of everything that the Civil Rights movement fought against and brought to its knees in Birmingham?

Properly interpret that monument, in the context of its purposes and also within the Civil Rights movement, and you’ve got a powerful public education tool. Removal takes that away.

So I stand for leaving it up.

ON THE OTHER HAND, you should read this op-ed by Mississippi State University Professor Anne E. Marshall, who argues that she once stood for contextualization, but has changed her mind after seeing its failure in Louisville, Ky. I can’t say she doesn’t make a lot of sense. Yet I still  think Richmond, as well as Birmingham, are different cases than Louisville—Which only reinforces my conviction that this is best left to case-by-case decisions from within the effected communities.

And then there’s Trump. I am not going to comment on how sad I was to hear our president say that there were good people in a crowd organized by white nationalists. Honestly, I can’t add anything to the outrage that has already been expressed.

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Yet I have been asked by past and present students, as well as friends, about my thoughts on one aspect of what he said. So I’ll comment briefly on that.

Trump, echoing many others, insisted that if we take down a monument to Lee and Jackson because they were slaveholders, this logically would lead us to take down monuments to other slaveholders, many of which were our founding fathers. Where would it end? There goes the Washington Memorial in DC!

Make no mistake: This is a proverbial red-herring that gets repeated over and over again by those who oppose the removal, or even the contextualization, of these monuments.

So let us be clear, despite Trump’s (and Fox News’) claim, the rationale for taking down the monuments is NOT based on the fact that the Confederate leaders were slaveholders. The logic behind taking them down (or contextualizing them) is that these were people who committed an act of treason against the United States to defend the institution of slavery and white supremacy. (In the case of Lee and Jackson, they broke sacred oaths they took when they joined the US military).

Washington and Jefferson and other founding fathers were certainly flawed men, guilty of America’s original sin of slavery (among other things), but they did not commit acts of treason in the name of white supremacy.

Oh, but they were treasonous, you say, because they rebelled against their government by breaking from the British empire.

I have LONG been sick of this argument. Washington and Jefferson rebelled against a government in which they had no representation, which, you know, was kind of the whole point. Don’t we learn in grade school, “no taxation without representation!?” They believed that taxes could only come from institutions in which they were represented (specifically, their own colonial legislatures).

Robert E Lee, on the other hand,  rebelled against a government in which he had representation.  In fact, because of the 3/5ths clause of  the Constitution, southern white men like him were OVERLY represented in that government, which was pretty much the reason the Republican Party was formed in the first place—to bring down this overly-represented and overly-politically powerful “slave power.”

So there is a big difference between Washington and Lee. HUGE difference.

Please do not listen to Trump or anyone else when they insist that taking down rebel monuments would lead to pulling down all monuments to slaveholders or otherwise morally flawed leaders. It just isn’t so.

This is about the Confederacy and its causes. Insisting otherwise, or that the Civil War was not caused by a defense of slavery and white supremacy,  is FAKE NEWS.

Bottom line: I am still for contextualization in Birmingham and Richmond. But if locals in those places and in other cities decide to take them down, I’ll shed no tears for the Confederacy, (unlike the real ones I shed after our so-called president’s response to Charlottesville).

 

 

Update on Jamestown and the new power lines

Update on the power lines that are soon to mar the Jamestown experience:

Dominion power has gotten final approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, and will soon begin construction. They still have one more small hurdle to jump over, but will probably clear it with ease.

I am glad to see from the map below, however, that you won’t actually be able to see the lines while on James Island at the site of the original fort (or at the nearby recreated fort). Nor will you see it while crossing the river on the ferry. This is a BIG relief.

However, the historic view at Carter’s Grove will be obliterated, and the now scenic drive along the James River to Jamestown will be forever changed.

If you have been to the area, you know that part of the charm of the experience of going to Jamestown is the drive to and from the site along the river. Based on the map below, once the Colonial Parkway meets the river, you’ll likely see the massive power lines (even though they will be nearly 4 miles away). And upon your return from Jamestown back to Williamsburg, it should be in view much longer.

Still, I have to say, I am very glad to see this map and wish I had well before now. It definitely mitigates some of the biggest fears I had about the project.

Make no mistake, however, this still stinks, and will be a major blight along the beautiful and historic Colonial Parkway.

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The magic of Colonial Williamsburg, its restructuring, and “accurate-ish” history

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Ah, the proverbial “magic hour” in Colonial Williamsburg

If you have read much of this blog, you know that I am a big fan of Colonial Williamsburg. Like many people, it is a place with which I have a special connection. I’ve visited untold numbers of times over the last 25+ years, building amazing memories with friends and family. (And have had some of my most memorable dates. It’s a town of many romantic charms).

Its historical area is like a playground for those of us that love history.  In original and restored 18th century buildings, you can talk with first-person interpreters portraying colonial Americans of all classes, genders, and races, be on a jury at a witch trial, talk politics with a founding father or mother, catch an 18th century play,  enjoy a night of tavern drinks, songs, and music, or just enjoy watching the sunset on a peaceful evening in a unique environment.

Yes, much of it is cheesy, but if you “suspend your disbelief” and just embrace it,  you can feel yourself being pulled back in time, and can learn a lot. If you can just let yourself go, its nerdy and goofy fun. My friends all recall the time I got so into the moment that I got into a shouting match with Benedict Arnold! After listening to Patrick Henry rail against Britain’s latest injustice, you’ll be inspired by the fife and drum corps to fall into line and march off to defend our God given rights.

I love the place, and in fact it is one of my biggest passions.

That is why I took a special interest in today’s news that the foundation is making some big changes in order to save itself.

It’s a well-known secret that Colonial Williamsburg creates massive debt each year but keeps itself afloat by drawing on an endowment from the Rockefeller Foundation (which has funded the place since its beginning).  Over time, they have gotten directives to figure out how to reduce the debt they create each year, lowering how much they have to draw on the endowment.  Various things have been tried–restructuring, painful budget cuts, shutting down in January & February, changing their interpretive programming, altering ticketing prices and packaging, increasing their marketing campaigns—but none have solved the problem, and the endowment is rapidly depleting.

The current director has been the most aggressive at attacking the problem, but does so in rather controversial ways. There was that incredibly dumb Super Bowl ad that brought a lot of negative attention. They stopped doing interpretive programming at Historic Jamestown. They started doing Halloween programs more fit for commercial haunted houses and amusement parks (featuring a sea witch and pirate zombies, and a storyline that the director described as “accurate-ish”), and hauled in an ahistorical ice-skating rink at Christmastime (which I kind of like, given that it isn’t really in the heart of the colonial area anyway).

Most distressing, they recently restructured in a way that gutted the number of experienced professional historians working on their interpretations and training.  Native American programming is a thing of the past, and their African American programming/historian coordinator was sent packing.

The effect of this has been very noticeable, and it happened rather quickly. In the past, the interpreters in the buildings and in the streets, as well as the “people of the past” (first-person interpreters) were a fine set of well trained guides that knew their stuff. I enjoyed getting into deep conversations with the first-person interpreters to see just how deep their knowledge was, and I was rarely disappointed. I’ve lobbed some tough questions at them over the years, and they usually handled them quite well. Yet, during my last couple of visits after the restructuring, they have not lived up to those standards. It has become obvious that many have a very surface-level knowledge base, at best.

(Not all, however. There are still many old faces around that know their stuff. The gentlemen portraying Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, for just one example, have been around for a long while, and both are simply amazing at what they do.)

Further, the institute cut ties with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, an organization that was publishing and supporting original and important historical research (they still do, just without help from CW). Most recent, former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina was added to the Colonial Williamsburg Board of Trustees, raising eyebrows in many circles.

To me, the best time of day at Colonial Williamsburg is night, when the streets are alive with torchlight and lanterns, and plenty of evening programs. Sadly, the diversity of these programs, their educational value, as well as the acting talent in them, has been reduced noticeably. And I even feel the quality of the food being served in the wonderful colonial taverns has gone down considerably.

And those ticket prices, particularly for a one-day visit, are still WAY too high. How many people show up, see the prices, and decide to just forgo the tickets and the benefits they bring, (such as actually getting to tour the buildings and enjoy the daily programs), to just simply walk the streets? I am guessing it’s a lot.

Please don’t get me wrong. Colonial Williamsburg is still one of my favorite places to be, and there are still some wonderful and highly educational things going on. One of the neat new things they have done lately, for example, involves being active on social media, and posting short, fun, and sometimes live videos.  It’s just that the bar they set in the past is high, and they are not living up to it lately.

The big news today is that they are outsourcing the management of many of their non-interpretive history operations, such as their golf courses, retail stores, and maintenance. It is hoped this means they will be able to focus all energy and the endowment’s financial resources back on their main mission, which is to maintain and interpret the historical area and museums. It is probably a sound decision. (Though I hate to hear that this means the Kimball Theater is closing its doors).

It sounds great that they are going to focus solely once again on their interpretive and educational mission. Yet,  based on the Halloween goofiness, and lack of professional historians experienced as trainers, I am really worried that when this current director starts putting more of his attention on interpretation, it is going to degrade even more rapidly in quality. Will programs become more about the show, than the history?

Will interpretation become “accurate-ish” in the name of providing entertainment?

Along with their press announcement today, Colonial Williamsburg sent out blurbs from local leaders praising the decision. I think they are all probably correct, this was a tough financial call that had to be made to save the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

But I also have to wonder, if the foundation did go under, would the National Park Service step in? I have more faith in their abilities and focus on interpretation than I do a businessman making decisions based mainly on financial concerns. Of course it is not like the National Park Service has unlimited funds, so I am not altogether certain how feasible that is. But let us not kid ourselves into believing that if the foundation fails, Colonial Williamsburg and its amazing interpretive resources would just vanish. Someone would take things over, and that might be for the better. I dunno.

Anyway, all this is just my two cents from someone that loves Colonial Williamsburg, has spent a ton of money there over the last 25 years, and who wants to see its quality return to the high standards it set in its glory days.

Perhaps this decision will do that. Time will tell.

Viva Colonial Williamsburg!

On The Beguiled, Hollywood, and the Lost Cause

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UPDATE: I’ve now seen the film, and have a review here comparing it with the original.

We have a new Civil War movie going into wide release on Friday, June 30, and it has generated a ton of buzz after its premiere at Cannes. Director Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 film, The Beguiled (based on a 1966 novel), earned her the Best Director Award at the prestigious film festival, as she becomes only the second woman to win that particular prize. Reviews have also been strong.

If you have seen the original with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page (and FYI: if you haven’t, it is streaming this month on HBO GO), you know that the story is very strange, teetering somewhere between a perverse dark comedy, a character study, and horror. Pervading it all is repressed and unleashed sexuality, which is smolderingly handled even in the 1971 version (and includes some shocking incest). It is no masterpiece, but it’s a pretty good movie that will give you the creeps.

My sense is that this new version simply cranks up the sexuality for 2017 audiences, so I am going into it with some skepticism, as I almost always loathe remakes of good movies. Further, Sofia Coppola’s work tends to be hit-or-miss with me, though I did like her other stab at history, the unconventional Marie Antoinette (2006). That film featured Kirsten Dunst, as does this one, and she and the rest of the remake’s stellar cast (Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, and Elle Fanning) are getting high praise for their performances, particularly Kidman (based on the previews, if nothing else it sounds like the southern accents were done much better than in most movies). So perhaps it will live up to the hype even for a skeptic like me.

Yet one thing is for sure, the Civil War is not really that much of a component of the film other than the fact that it creates the scenario where a Union soldier has been taken in by a women’s seminary behind rebel lines (Mississippi or Louisiana in the original, Virginia in the remake), where men of a certain age are hard to come by.

Thus don’t expect any battle scenes or another assault on the Lost Cause like we have seen so much of lately from Hollywood (12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Lincoln, Free State of Jones, Birth of a Nation, the Roots remake, Underground, Mercy Street. Wow, that is a really impressive lineup in just a few year’s time).  In fact, the most interesting thing about this movie is that it is getting criticism for not including slavery or African Americans in a story set in the South during the Civil War.

The original includes a black female character that helps the wounded Union soldier, but not in a way that accurately reflects the Antebellum and Civil War experiences of enslaved African Americans. Coppola chose to extract the character from her remake (which was a fairly minor role) because “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.”

This is a shame, and disregards the fact that she could have radically improved the character from the original. Even just one well-placed and well-written scene involving an enslaved women helping an injured Union soldier could have included very meaningful and insightful dialogue. (Or perhaps also a scene of open defiance toward her masters in light of the nearby presence of Union troops. “Get it yourself! Them days are over, ladies!”)  The fact that young girls watch her films is all the more reason to have included a bit of education about slavery and the Civil War, and to take a swipe, no matter how small, at the Lost Cause.

Look, not all Civil War movies have to include the African American experience or make a statement about slavery and the Confederacy (though they probably should). But aside from what I think was a poor choice by Coppola, what is really interesting to me about the controversy is that it is even a controversy at all. Would that have been the case even a decade ago? I’m not so sure.

Hollywood films are one of the most important reasons why the Lost Cause took root and became deeply engrained in our nation’s collective memory of the Civil War and its causes. In an age in which Rebel monuments are coming down, have we now reached the point where it is unacceptable for a Hollywood movie set during the Civil War to not confront and highlight the Confederacy’s fight to preserve the right to enslave African Americans?

If so, I consider that big progress.

I’ll be seeing the movie this weekend, so I will have more thoughts later. Stay tuned.

 

 

Visiting Lizzie Borden (and getting creeped out).

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The ominous looking house where the infamous Borden Murders went down

A piece on Smithsonian.com reminds us that today is the anniversary of the acquittal of Lizzie Borden in the case of the murder of her father and stepmother.  The article focuses on how she was largely a pariah in her neighborhood after the trial and for the rest of her life.  It is a good short read, so check it out.

You should also check out this essay from last year on We’re History, discussing the little-known fact that in the years after the murder, Lizzie funded an animal rescue shelter, which still reaps financial benefits from the money she left the organization. (I am convinced that one of the things that set her off is that she had a pigeon roost her father hated, leading him to decapitate the animals. Nice guy. That’s enough to piss off any animal lover).

The case is a good window into Gilded Age America. As Steven Cromack points out, “the prosecutors and defense attorneys, representative of the wealthiest Americans, argued over whether wealthy, good-natured, upstanding people are capable of bad behavior. The poor watched bitterly as a rich woman seemed literally to get away with murder. For the nativist residents of Fall River, Lizzie’s actions were the result of immigration, as well as changing demographics and gender norms: Mr. Borden had bought a home in the wrong section of the rapidly changing town and thus, in Lizzie’s eyes, relinquished the family’s status. Feminists would use the trial as a rallying cry for representative juries.”

I visited the Borden house a few years ago with friends because I had long been fascinated by the case. This is due largely to an HBO show called Whodunit: The Greatest Unsolved Mysteries (anyone else remember it?) way back in 1979.  I was just a kid only starting to get interested in history and the case fascinated me, inspiring a trip to the school library to find more about it. Tracking down info about this infamous true crime event was one of my earliest experiences at doing historical research, and was provoked by an HBO show. Ah, just another example of how pop cultural depictions of history can have an inspiring impact. I have no doubt that many of you have similar stories.

Anyway, while on a trip to New England a few years back, I convinced my friends to drive down from Boston to Fall River, Massachusetts, to check out the site of the murder (it was an easy sell).  Unfortunately, we arrived in the late afternoon just as their last tour of the day was leaving.

I was in the final stages of my book’s publication, and discussing some urgent business with my publisher on the telephone just as we arrived. I was only on the phone for a few minutes in the car, but this prevented us from being able to depart with the tour.  Despite being only a few minutes late, we were told that we could not join in.

I would not let it go at that, passionately explaining how I had always been interested in the case, that this was the only day of our trip we could do the tour, we were up from Alabama and had driven all the way from Boston, and would likely never be back in Fall River ever again. The young woman was rather rude, saying that I “must have a crystal ball” and could read the future since I was so sure I’d never be back (can you believe that?). Finally, someone apparently of higher rank came out and said that of course we could join the tour.

We were let in a side door, and instead of just discreetly slipping us in, the employee made a point of interrupting the tour, bringing up the alleged crystal ball, (I kid you not) and asking the guide if we could join in. The most frustrating thing of all was discovering the guide only had two people on his tour (there were four of us).  I can tell you from my years as a park ranger, guides are more than happy to have folks added to a tour when there are such few people on it to begin with.  (Oh, those one or two person tours. Yuck). He gladly welcomed us.

(For years I have been itching to publicly criticize this treatment, so thanks for letting me vent. In retrospect, however, perhaps it was appropriate that we were treated rudely by a young woman at the Borden house!)

The good news is that our guide had just entered the room in which Lizzie’s father was murdered and was only just then discussing it.  So we missed nothing but details about the history of the house prior to the murder. The sofa in the room is not the original one on which Mr. Borden was found (but a perfect replica). We were welcome to sit on it, leading one of my friends to playfully recreate the hatchet murder crime scene. A bit macabre for me. I couldn’t even bring myself to have a seat.

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Nope, I’ll stand, thank you.

We were then led upstairs, and I can tell you this was the first moment when the house really started to freak me out. There is a palpable sense of dread and sadness lingering over it and it became oppressive when walking into the bedroom in which Mrs. Borden was found with her face basically pancaked into the floor with an axe.  The guide vividly described the brutal murder while standing in the spot where the body was found. I was taken aback when he told me I was likely standing exactly where the murderer delivered the first of eighteen blows.

Freaky. Get me out of here!

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Here’s where Mrs. Borden was found next to the bed

The rest of the tour included Mr. Borden’s bedroom, where someone had stolen money from him a year before the murder (a crime the old man accused Lizzie of committing). We also saw the maid’s bedroom. She was outside washing windows during the murders, later testifying that she heard Lizzie laughing upstairs at around 10:30 AM on the day of the butcherings (Mrs. Borden was killed at around 9:30 AM, and Mr. Borden at about 11 AM). However, many speculate that the maid was in on it, or at least the cover up. Honestly, her room (which is in the attic) felt almost as creepy as the murder rooms. We wrapped up the tour in the kitchen where Lizzie was seen burning a blue dress days after the murder.

Our guide did a good job of covering the details of the crime and the evidence (or lack of) presented in the trial. It is often argued that Lizzie was acquitted due to the gender and class dynamics of the Gilded Age, but in fairness, the prosecution’s case was built largely on circumstantial evidence.

But come on, she did it.

(If you are really interested, read her inquest testimony: she’s clearly lying her butt off, but the whole thing was deemed inadmissible in the trial).

Sadly, the employees (at least when we were there) are not exactly professional historians, and I got the sense the place is being run by folks focused on capitalizing on tourists who are more interested in the supernatural than in history. A quick view of their website seems to confirm this assessment, which is a shame.

Further, the gift shop peddles such things as Lizzie Borden bobbleheads (complete with a hatchet in her hand), mugs with the crime scene photos on them, and hatchet keychains.

Still, the house is a treasure trove, and as powerful an experience as it is to visit, I have to wonder how much better served it would be with professional historians interpreting events within the context of what they reveal about the Gilded Age and our fascination with violent true crime.

The Borden home is also now a Bed and Breakfast, and I have no doubt people love getting to sleep in the bedroom where Mrs. Borden was found. As for me, I was creeped out just by my 45 minute tour.

But if you are ever near Fall River, Massachusetts, do yourself a favor and travel down to see the place. Just don’t expect high quality historical interpretation, and for goodness sakes, make sure you are on time for the tour (the last one leaves at three!)

If not, you better have a crystal ball proving you will never be back that way again.

 

Is Jamestown about to lose some of its time travel magic?

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****UPDATE as of 7/8/2017: The Army Cops of Engineers has given final approval for the project, but perhaps the impact on the site of the fort might not be as big as I’d feared. Still, the experience of traveling there will definitely be changed. ****

 

As many of you know, there has been a battle going on in Virginia between Dominion Power and a large number of historical preservation groups and public history sites. Today it looks like the forces of preservation are going to lose.

The power company has been wanting to place massive lines and towers across the James River near the site of many historic attractions, most notably Jamestown. They insist that it is necessary to continue to deliver power to the lower Virginia Peninsula, a region that is ripe with extremely important historical sites from Native,  Colonial, Revolutionary, and Civil War America. As far as history is concerned, the whole area of the “historic triangle” (which includes Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Jamestown) is an unparalleled American treasure.

If you have ever visited Jamestown, you know that one of the most magical things about the place is that the view of the river is largely unobstructed by modern clutter. You can stand at the historic site of the first successfully sustained English colony in the “New World,” looking out at the river and pondering what it must have been like to have landed there in 1607 (the fear, the hopes, the curiosity). But it’s not just a lily-white man thing: The first Africans to arrive in the colonies that became the United States arrived here in 1619 as indentured servants. The region was also the domain of the most powerful native confederation of tribes on the eastern seaboard, and you can connect to the perspective of the natives as they saw their beautiful lands invaded by men who only saw it as profit. What must they have thought while looking at those strange ships coming up the river for the first time? If you want a “period rush,” there are few places that can deliver it as well as Jamestown.

When (or if) the lines go up, the view is likely to be changed drastically, spoiling a truly sacred site.

The fight against the lines was placed into the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers, as they had to sign off on the project before it could go forward. Many were hopeful that the corps would squash the whole thing, but when they approved the Dakota Access Pipeline a few months ago despite the Standing Rock protests, things started looking bleak.

(FYI: News today that the Standing Rock fight isn’t over just yet, as the Sioux Tribe won a small legal victory).

Now the Army Corps of Engineers have followed up their dastard decision in Dakota by provisionally approving Dominion’s permit. They still have to jump through a few environmental impact hoops (needing approval from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality).

The good news is that Dominion will be forced to spend a lot of money trying to mitigate the impact on the historic view-shed, and to enhance landscapes and views at many other Virginia Peninsula historic sites. They will also have to donate millions to local native tribes and their efforts at preserving and interpreting sites associated with their land and history.

Such conditions, however, did not satisfy most preservation groups. Sadly, they may have to now start turning their attention to working with Dominion in order to lessen the impact on Jamestown and other James River sites. I’m guessing that is going to be difficult for them to accept.

Shame on the Corps of Engineers, and shame on Dominion Power.

If you have never been to Jamestown, I recommend getting there ASAP. It will always be a very special site, but its current time travel magic may soon be a thing of the past.