Monday, August 20, 2012

Day 12: Appomattox Court House and the Museum of the Confederacy

We had quite a long drive from the Smokies up through Tennessee, then diagonally across the state of Virginia to get to Appomattox Court House. We had originally hoped to visit Monticello as well, but given the length of the drive and the timing we opted to spend more quality time at Appomattox and not go an hour and a half out of our way to Monticello.

I did not realize that there was quite so much to Appomattox Court House National Historic Park. The small crossroads village had been turned into a sort of open air museum, with houses that replicated the scene (more or less) as it had been when Lee surrendered to Grant at the McLean farmhouse. It was nice, and a bit odd after all our time in remote areas to see a town. In all, it was done to much better effect than Harpers Ferry, which had felt frantic and jumbled and a bit commercial.

The Meeks store, foreground, with the McLean farmhouse back and to the left.
There were a few living history programs going on that day, and one of the volunteers spent quite a while orienting a group of visitors who were headed over to a program. She wanted to make very, very sure that the visitors knew that the living history reenactor wouldn't know that it's 2012, that they shouldn't ask questions about the Superbowl or modern things, that they should understand that he was stuck in 1865. It was a bit overdone; I have mixed feelings about total-immersion living history to begin with, and this reaffirmed many of them. As a theatrical performance it can provide a wonderful window into the past (ie one person shows of famous figures) but as an interactive program it can often frustrate and/or goad visitors.

The McLean farmhouse itself, though not much remains of its original structure, was definitely worth seeing. After seeing Matthews Hill at Manassas, where the war began, what seemed like weeks ago, we were now seeing the room in which it ended.
The McLean farmhouse.

Interior of the parlor. Lee sat at the marble-topped table to the left, Grant at the smaller table to the right.
Since we had no particular interest in seeing a reconstructed town and/or living history programs (living so close, as we do, to one of the best living history museums in the world, Old Sturbridge Village) we finished fairly quickly and headed over to the Museum of the Confederacy, which we'd noticed had just opened a new building right down the street from the park in April 2012.

I have to say, I have never felt outright uncomfortable in a museum before because of its point of view. Perhaps I've been naive until this moment, but I felt that the museum portrayed the Civil War from a bias that was so far from my own beliefs about the conflict that it was nearly hostile.
Entering the exhibit halls, starting with the reasons for war (emphasis on states' rights) and the excitement of going off to war.

It had wonderful collections, and some really engaging exhibits, but the story was decidedly Lost Cause, rather than Preserve the Union. There seemed little attempt to present both sides. Rather, words like "honor" and "romance" were used non-ironically to describe the actions of generals. I have been trying to remember if I noticed any mention at all of slavery. I don't think I did. There may  have been one or two side mentions, but nothing substantive.


In case you can't read it, here is the description of Appomattox and the Confederate decision to surrender:

How To Surrender?
At Appomattox, General Lee ran out of options.

The ranks of his proud army had thinned. The Federal army controlled the Southside Railroad at Appomattox Station, Lee's lifeline to supplies and successful retreat to North Carolina.

The question shifted from how to keep fighting to how to surrender.

Lee's foe offered an honorable answer.
 The exhibits continued on to describe Grant's offering of parole at Appomattox. I'm not sure Grant's decision had much to do with honor, more with practicality. Nothing in this label is wrong. In fact, I think it's a pretty good example of label writing: succinct, descriptive, informative. I just find it a bit uncomfortable to use words like "proud" and "honorable" in this context. Is it just because my point of view is being challenged? Is there actually a troubling characterization here? I've thought about this for some time, and I'm still not sure.

9 comments:

  1. " I just find it a bit uncomfortable to use words like "proud" and "honorable" in this context. Is it just because my point of view is being challenged? Is there actually a troubling characterization here? I've thought about this for some time, and I'm still not sure."

    Yeah, it probably is the point of view thing. I had similar problems with the absolutely one-sided presentation of John Brown (axe murderer and wannabe violent revolutionary, deservedly hanged, portrayed as visionary hero worshiped by the intellectual lights of Concord) and some of their safe-from-the-sidelines rah-rahing. Yankee museums are just as slanted, though in fairness Concord devotes a panel to the Loyalists in the Revolutionary gallery, though they still downplay how badly outnumbered the British Regulars were. (One of my fellow underpaid overworked teachers and I had the "Lecture We'll Give the Day We Don't Care If They Fire Us", and suffice to say it would have slanted rather differently...sadly I never had the chance to do it before I left and he's still there.)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've been thinking about this still. I think the problem is not necessarily a point of view one. For me, it's about telling the whole story. Characterizing John Brown solely as a violent revolutionary without talking about his legitimately inspiring rhetoric and his role as the figurehead and stand-in for Northerners who didn't have the gumption or ability to get to Kansas themselves is misleading. Telling the story of the cotton trade without mentioning both slavery and Northern mill owners is misleading. Telling the story of the Confederacy without saying that, by the way, it was armed rebellion fought in favor of keeping other human beings enslaved - it's a selective telling that isn't true.

    You could also argue however that all history is subjective, and this is just a bit more subjective than most, so there's not as much conflict there as I'm feeling. I'm still torn.

    ReplyDelete
  3. It had wonderful collections, and some really engaging exhibits, but the story was decidedly Lost Cause, rather than Preserve the Union. There seemed little attempt to present both sides. Rather, words like "honor" and "romance" were used non-ironically to describe the actions of generals. I have been trying to remember if I noticed any mention at all of slavery. I don't think I did. There may have been one or two side mentions, but nothing substantive.
    hampton bay

    ReplyDelete
  4. Bonjour nous sommes une entreprise de serrurerie sur paris,
    si vous avez un problème de serrure,
    un remplacement de cylindre ou tout simplement pour une ouverture de porte blindée sur paris. Nous avons des tarifs en serrurerie très attractifs et compétitifs.
    Le serrurier paris qui se déplacera pour vous dépanner est un artisan professionnel et qualifié il sera votre écoute.

    ReplyDelete