When a Monument Gets Its History Wrong

Lee on the road to Antietam

The U.S. House of Representatives voted yesterday to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from Antietam National Battlefield (see here for details). The statue, erected in 2003 on private property along Route 34 heading into Sharpsburg, was later acquired by the National Park Service when the park acquired the land the statue stood on. The statue has been controversial for years, and while the NPS has made an excellent effort at interpreting it, the fact that it stands in a spot Lee never visited makes the statue a challenge to interpret—and an obvious target.

(As an aside: the House measure, approved on a voice vote, where the names and numbers of the vote aren’t actually recorded, will go to the Senate for consideration. The session is already over-crammed with pressing business, so the lame-duck Senate is not likely to take up the measure. If it did, and the Senate passed the measure, it would then have to go to the desk of a lame-duck president for signature­—all of which is unlikely. But this post isn’t really about all that….)

The ongoing controversies that surround all Confederate monuments these days cloud another fundamental question specific to the Lee statue: what do you do about a monument that’s factually wrong?

As it happened, I pondered this same question this week when I visited the site of the upper pontoon crossing in Fredericksburg.

The Upper Pontoon Crossing at Fredericksburg, where the UDC monument hunkers under boxwood trees

On December 11, 1862—158 years ago today—the Army of the Potomac bridged the river under fire and fought their way into the city, establishing a presence in Fredericksburg and setting the stage for a major battle on December 13. A boulder with a handsome bas relief plaque commemorates the crossing of the 7th Michigan as part of the initial Federal force. Nearby, a squat granite marker placed by the United Daughter of the Confederacy also commemorates the event.

But the U.D.C. monument gets the story wrong.

Erected on December 18, 1917, the monument tells a simple tale:

DEC. 12-13, 1862.

Except the Federals crossed the river on December 11, finishing their bridges midafternoon under the protective cover of infantry that had crossed the river in boats and forced its way into the city. Once engineers finished the bridges, more infantry crossed, securing the Federal position.

Much of the Federal army did stay on the east side of the river overnight, but by 8 a.m. on December 12, army commander Ambrose Burnside started the rest of his men across. The crossing took five hours (squandering valuable time).

So, technically, Federals did cross on pontoon bridges on December 12 in the location marked by the monument. And there was certainly back and forth across the river on December 13, although the Federal army was mostly engaged in battle that day. On December 14, there would have been more back and forth, and overnight on December 14-15, the army crossed back to the relative safety of the east bank.

Surely the monument isn’t trying commemorate all the pontoon bridge traffic, so what story is it trying to tell? If it’s just talking about pontoon usage in general, why doesn’t it say December 11-15? If it’s talking about the initial crossing, why doesn’t it say December 11-12?

The monument reflects a second error, too, referring to only a single “pontoon bridge.” While Federals built only a single 420-foot pontoon bridge at the middle crossing, they built two bridges at the upper crossing. At the lower crossing, they eventually built three.

One of the main arguments in favor of keeping up monuments of all sorts, especially on a battlefield, is their usefulness as interpretive tools. But how useful is a monument if it’s wrong?

And when I say “wrong,” I’m not talking about a difference of interpretive opinion here, I’m talking flat-out wrong. “2 + 2 = 5” kind of wrong.

At Antietam, for instance, people with differing opinions can debate in good faith whether or not it was a good idea for Lee to make a stand with his back to the Potomac. Lee’s location on the battlefield, on the other hand, isn’t something that’s really up for debate. A monument west of town on Route 24, the road to Shepherdstown, marks the location of Lee’s headquarters. Except as he rode by, Lee was never at the spot where his statue places him. (And, further clouding the story, Lee wasn’t on horseback as the statue depicts; broken wrists necessitated a ride in a wagon, adding another factual inaccuracy.)

However, Lee’s statue stands where it does because a private citizen who admired Lee erected the statue on his own property. The Park Service inherited the statue when it acquired the land.

Should the park have relocated the statue to a more factually accurate location? Was such a location even available? Where does the money for that kind of project come from, especially when parks already struggle with overtaxed resources and underfunded budgets?

Does the statue have the same sort of historical integrity as part of the park’s “cultural landscape” that it might have had veterans erected it? Does the timing of the statue’s dedication make a difference in its historical value as an artifact?

And then we start getting into the questions of meaning and memory and interpretation. Those are separate questions from the issue of historical accuracy, although they can be related once we start asking what those facts mean. So, there again, making sure information is factually accurate becomes all the more vital because it serves as the  foundation for all the discussion that comes after.

We’re living through a time where misinformation has become a serious concern for the health of our democracy, so we can see for ourselves how high the stakes can become. When it comes to a small granite marker beneath some boxwoods along a riverbank, the stakes don’t seem so high.

But let’s add to that a marker the UDC erected elsewhere in Fredericksburg, in a brick wall of the Presbyterian church facing Princess Anne Street:

Gen. Stonewall Jackson,
by Gen. Lee’s request, on
this corner planned the
battle of Fredericksburg
Nov. 27, 1862.     U.D.C.

Regardless of how much I admire Stonewall Jackson, this marker, dedicated in 1924, is 100% wrong. On Nov. 27, 1862, Jackson was still on his way to Fredericksburg from the Valley, encamped somewhere between Gordonsville and Orange. That night, word reached him of the birth of his daughter, so battle planning was probably the absolute last thing on his mind. (More on that here.)

Coupled with the monument for the pontoon crossing, we can now see “creep” in the story, where one inaccuracy combined with another begins to cloud what happened. Where the U.D.C. got its information for either marker, I don’t know, but they obviously didn’t check their sourcing with much rigor because the objective facts of the battle were well documented.

Lest you think I’m picking on the Confederates, let me offer a quick Union example. Most visitors to Gettysburg are familiar with the compelling monument of the 72nd Pennsylvania that stands, clubbed rifle raised, amidst the crucible of fighting near the “High Water Mark” of July 3. In actuality, the 72nd initially refused to advance into the fray, so when they wanted to erect their monument after the war, the Gettysburg Battlefield Monument Commission placed it 70 yards to the rear. In retaliation, veterans of the unit bought a tiny plot of land just outside the then-boundary of the park and erected their monument in spite, and when later offered the chance to move it into the park, they refused. The location of their monument tells an inaccurate story, one reinforced by the dramatic statue that crowns the piece. (I could do a whole series of posts about the battles over monument placements!)

How many of us have groused that “people don’t know history these days?” When they do have the chance to learn it, don’t we want it to be correct? Shouldn’t accuracy matter?

These are honest questions that the current climate over Confederate monuments completely overshadows. The removal of the Stonewall Jackson statue from the head of the parade ground at VMI earlier this week only injects fresh emotion into the discussion, making any such discussion all the more difficult.

I worry about the bad precedent of removing a monument from a battlefield for any reason. Once that door opens, the flood begins, nuanced discussions be damned. On the flip side, though, a factually inaccurate monument undercuts one of the main arguments for their usefulness.

So what do we do?

In Fredericksburg, at least, Mother Nature seems to have had a partial say in the matter. When the marker at the upper pontoon crossing was installed, an identical marker was installed at the middle pontoon crossing at the city docks. By March 1923, that marker was already uprooted. According for former NPS historian Don Pfanz: 

The only information found regarding  the disappearance of the latter stone is a single line scribbled in the minutes of a local U.D.C. meeting held on March 27, 1923, which read: “Historian reported ‘Pontoon bridge marker,’ rolling down the hill.” Nothing more was written of the matter, suggesting that the Middle Pontoon Marker suffered a watery fate.[i]

Unless the waters of Antietam Creek rise substantially, we’re apt to not have such a convenient solution.

[i] Donald C. Pfanz, History Through Eyes of Stone: A Survey of Civil War Monuments Near Fredericksburg, Virginia (NPS, 2006), 22.

64 Responses to When a Monument Gets Its History Wrong

  1. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. If it hurts feelings, that’s another matter. Objects that are factually correct but uncomfortable don’t deserve a broom. I really enjoyed Sarah’s discussion about the Jackson statue at VMI, and the backstory of the sculptor. Requires a degree of mature reflection missing from most of the self righteous poseurs.

    1. Hard questions ! But if leadership by historians is not taken soon, those without interest or knowledge of history will demand action historians may not like, the elimination of history ! !

      1. There are many historians I do not want to ever be lead by. Not all historians are of sound mind or character. Be careful about what you wish for. Many historians openly support the removal of all kinds of monuments. Who are people getting these ideas from, if not from historians?

  2. “Once that door opens, the flood begins, nuanced discussions be damned.”

    Chris M, I hate to say it, but that door is wide open, and the flood is already well underway! Remember that just a few short months ago, the House voted to remove ALL Confederate markers from battlefields. And that AFTER they had been insisting that such markers be ONLY displayed on such battlefields and/or in museums. Those museums will be next, especially if any receive Federal funding. We also see the Founding Fathers under full assault by the American left. It is the proverbial “Give them an inch and they will try to take a mile.”

  3. Question: Does the House legislation explain why they want Lee’s statue removed? Why would the House only want this one particular statue removed and not others? It is hard to believe that members of the House of Representatives have dug into the details about the placement of the statue and about Lee’s whereabouts during the battle. I fear this is only the beginning of an attempt to remove all Confederate statues and memorials in all the national battlefield parks.

  4. Distract and Divide is an age-old strategy in the art of war. This is what the House vote is trying to do. How can you tell? Look at the timing, that’s how you know it’s a distraction with the goal of dividing. I am focusing on the deep corruption on both sides of the aisle being revealed. I am also watching the incredible work the U.S. Marshalls are doing, and the current military exercises going on (there facebook pages are quite informative).

    Lastly, combat is chaos. None of the monuments are historically correct in that respect. Leave the
    Monument(s) alone, save the money, and put it into Constitutional Republic education.

    De Oppresso Liber

  5. The Antietam monument only exists because a private citizen decided to insert his flawed knowledge and excess money into things. IMO, it deserves no special consideration and should be done away with yesterday.

  6. If a monument is factually inaccurate, there are grounds for modifying it.

    But that’s not the same thing as moving the Stonewall Jackson monument COMPLETELY off the VMI campus, because…well, we don’t really know why, do we?

    We don’t know why the statue of a former VMI instructor, who led the VMI cadets into state service at the beginning of the Civil War, and then became one of the most accomplished battlefield generals in American history (cough cough Valley Campaign 1862 and Chancellorsville 1863), HAD to be removed COMPLETLY from the VMI grounds.

    Are we scared to ask the VMI leadership why, because we might trigger them? To paraphrase Marc Antony’s funeral oration of Julius Caesar, I thought the VMI faculty was made of sterner stuff!

    If the VMI leadership doesn’t want us to press them on this point, because it might make them feel “unsafe”—well, VMI isn’t a liberal arts college, is it? It’s supposed to build leaders, not snowflakes.

    VMI can CLAIM that its choice to remove Jackson’s statue from the VMI grounds is not an insult—but no rational adult will believe that. Does VMI expect us to accept an irrational explanation for its actions? If they do, then they owe us an explanation why. (Do they think we’re stupid?)

    1. Just an FYI: VMI IS a liberal arts college. One of the top public liberal arts colleges in the nation.

      1. Nice attempt at presenting NO examples or letters from the commandant of the Virginia Military Institute, ‘endorsing’ this World re-known academic institution as a ‘Liberal Arts college’, @Simon Mawson. I suppose you picked through the institutes brochures/web-site and discovered, ( with ‘glee’ I’m sure, doesn’t take much to create euphoria for a slavering, psuedo-historian ‘woke’ leftist), that Psychological operations, maintenance of civil authority, sociology, …etcetera..ARE part of the curriculum?!? Well, glory be! It just has to be a Liberal Arts college then!! Answer?…no, it is not another Marxist sludge-pit like N.York U. ,U.C.L.A. Michigan S., Olympia College, Pitt, Ohio S., Berkeley, and the other 34, ‘project Brainwash’ camps that ‘steal’ Federal money yearly. But don’t fret @ Simon Mawson, China is doing something about this too. Maybe a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Chairman Mao Zedong, embracing ,(the plot has worked! we are victorious!), is much more suitable to replace ‘Tom fool’ Jackson instead?

      2. OK, point taken. But its unique mission and identity is to build leaders, not snowflakes, right? America has plenty of liberal arts colleges. VMI is not just a college where everyone just happens to dress up in uniform. We expect it to be something more. Or, at least we did.

        If VMI has sound, objective reasons for why Jackson’s statue had to leave the VMI grounds completely, then let’s hear them.

  7. What a great take on the monuments, Mr. Mackowski. Lee is in Mclellan’s back yard at Sharpsburg!
    Recently, I was joking, I guess you could say, with a fine historian at a notable Pennsylvania historic site that in the near future, the historical timeline and interpretation of the Civil War as told by scholars and historians, museums, battlefields and schools will begin with Thaddeus Stevens and the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. What I mean is that the story is now in the hands of a new generation. My thoughts here are undeveloped, but I have been feeling this way for a few years now. I am not being critical here, but I think of the former Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, the monuments removal, many historical sites, new books, even the fine introductory talk by the Park Ranger for the Fredericksburg commemoration reflects this evolution. I am not judging, I am just saying, as the saying goes. Stevens was great, but he and Lincoln were standing on a lot of shoulders, including my people. Talk about heavy-lifting!

    Look around your own home library, CW shrine, art work, artifacts, etc. I shudder to think of the names I would be called if a woke-modern history scholar would see my stuff. Like many of you, I have many books, paintings, autographs, prints and artifacts that reflect my interest in the great war and the complex period leading up to it. Clay: out. S.A. Douglas: out. Calhoun and Taney: forget it. Not to mention, Lee, Jackson and all the rest. Heck, even McClellan.

    I am known as a SOB, (son of both), having ancestors on both sides of the Civil War. The letters and historical record of these men is incredible and quite bloody. I suppose, I would have to hide 1/2 of the story for the enlightened house guest, if they were to be in my home.

    You cannot have Yankees-Red Sox, without the Red Sox.

    Thanks to Emerging Civil War for your good work.

    1. Thanks, Skip. I appreciate your kind words and your support of ECW.

      I especially like the Red Sox-Yankees analogy. And I invite people to take that one step further: If Yankees fans and Red Sox fans can get along okay in this world, then fans of the blue and fans of the gray should be able to, too!

  8. I have visited many of the battlefields on both sides of the Mississippi, some of them on multiple occasions. I have had the good fortune to visit Gettysburg 8 times. With another trip planned for my 25th anniversary next year, I told my wife this will probably be the last time I visit with all of the markers and monuments of the Confederacy intact. Thus, it will be my last time to visit, period.

    When monuments are torn down and desecrated like they have been in 2020 and when subtle, largely unnoticed actions like those of the House occur, the stage is set for the gradual (or worse) eradication of all monuments considered offensive, Confederate or otherwise. And all of this will take place without any rational discourse or compromise. Permitting mob rule and the whims of the ignorant to go unchecked is dangerous.

    For the record, my Civil War ancestor did not fight for the South. My maternal, great great grandfather was with the 25th Ohio (a good unit even though it was part of the maligned XI Corps).

  9. “There is no reason why any of our nation’s public spaces should have monuments celebrating those who betrayed their country,”[U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown] said.

    After seeing that from the sponsor of the resolution, I contend that THAT is enough justification to object to the statue’s removal. After reading that, I don’t care if the statue shows Lee with a Mohawk, riding a skateboard.

    Rep. Brown stated goal will logically lead to the removal of all Confederate monuments from NPS land. Any compromise action that leads to the removal of this particular statue of Lee—which, admittedly, is inaccurate—must include a specific rejection of Rep. Brown’s call for removal of Confederate monuments from federal land. Otherwise, it’s not a compromise. Moreover, Rep. Brown and his allies would undoubtedly take any decision approving the removal of this statue, and claim it’s justification for removing all Confederate statues.

    Rep. Brown is not looking to compromise. He’s looking to sanitize history. The Jackson statue on Monument Avenue is one thing—-the Jackson statue on the Manassas battlefield is something else entirely.

    There is room for compromise here—-but, in a compromise, both sides have to be ready to give something.

    1. Could it be that Rep. Brown is taking a page from Donald Trump’s “Art of the Deal?”

      Now, I’ve never read that book, but I’m told that in it, Trump says you start a negotiation by stating your most extreme position. You can then compromise back from that.

      Perhaps that was Rep. Brown is doing here. Perhaps that’s what the House Democrats did a few months ago, when they put a stipulation in an Appropriations bill that all Confederate monuments were to be pulled off federal land within 180 days of the appropriations going into effect. Perhaps that’s what Senator Warren of MA did, when she called for the Confederate monument to be pulled down in Arlington National Cemetery.

      As Chris pointed out, Rep. Brown’s measure to remove this particular statue appears to be going nowhere. I’m confident Rep. Brown knew that.

      If this is his opening offer, OK then. If this—remove all Confederate statues from federal land—is his final position, then that’s not OK.

      1. You’ve never read the book but are espousing something you think is in it ? Brilliant

  10. How do you compromise? As in the Compromise of 1820? Slavery is legal here, but not there? Daniel Webster destroyed his reputation for trying to compromise. He was a pretty good lawyer, too.
    All of this current mess goes much deeper, and way out of the range of compromise.

    The new generation will determine all of this.

    1. I don’t see us going to Civil War over statues on national battlefield parks.

      Here’s a compromise: keep the statues on the national battlefield parks. If someone feels the inscription on a statue is unacceptable (e.g., too “Lost Cause-ish,”), put up a sign nearby that adds context. Or, put a new plaque with “better” wording over the inscription.

      If the anti-statue crowd can’t live with that, then they need to tell us WHY they can’t live with that. What is so bad about a statue, in a remote field or on a remote hill, that it absolutely has to go? Make them come out and say it.

      I suspect that most of them won’t come out and say it—because they know they’ll look silly.

  11. Your comments are valid, Chris. Unfortunately, the leftist woke cult isn’t interested in facts, reasonable discussion or even rational thought. Eradication and suppression of anything and anyone deemed “racist” in their eyes is all they are interested in.

  12. You might find the monument at Five Forks interesting if you have not visited. More than doubles the size of the Union force.

  13. If the Confederate statutes ae removed because they are images of traitors, at least leave the boots as was done with Benedict Arnold at Saratoga.

  14. As for the disposal of monuments , the solution seems pretty simple . Sell to the highest bidder. Publicize the sale and whoever wants it badly enough will buy it.

  15. These discrepancies dont matter. It brings to our attention our history. All these statues are Americans, fighting for what they believed. Know of these people committed atrocities against the human race like Saddam, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and many others.. Leave well enough alone.

  16. All Confederates were traitors or so we are constantly being told. Then tell me why was not a single Confederate tried as a traitor?

    1. Because they were pardoned, upon application, by one of the series of presidential proclamations of amnesty and pardon, issued from the close of the war up to Christmas 1868. Make no mistake–following the rebellion many, many confederate officers and civil officials fully expected to be tried for treason. Their applications are part of Records Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, in the national archives (NARA). They make interesting reading.

  17. If you take Stonewall out of VMI don’t you also have to take away the Cadets from New Market, their statutes, ando a memorial service?

  18. Time to quit trying to change or eliminate history and start and/ or to continue to learn from it. It is also time that we Americans start paying attention to how those in government are trying to lead us instead of represent us, as they are supposed to be doing. However, if we continue to allow them to control us then we become their puppets and only have ourselves to blame. So maybe it is time for us to cut the strings.

  19. “70 yards to the read”? That doesn’t make sense. How about 70 yards to the REAR? I guess we’re all human and make innocent mistakes.?

    1. Thanks for the typo catch. I’ve corrected it.

      And that illustrates one reason why I don’t prescribe nefarious motives to the UDC for the pontoon marker. As you say, innocent mistakes DO happen–even typos!

  20. I feel there are way toooo many past facts being dug up and picked on because of Current problem makers of today! Leave the past in the past and Stop destroying memories and landmarks of OUR ancestors!! If someone has a problem with U.S. History and how, what day, and, what hour/minute something took place…..LEAVE THE U.S……and, maybe join The Armed Forces and Earn your Citizenship…..you know, the one that was Handed to ypu Free and Clear from pther people’s sacrifices!!!???

    1. Abe Lincoln, Paul Revere, George Washington didn’t ever stay at my house, but, I guess if I want a statue of them in my yard……I will put them up!! I am an American and Proud of our History!!

    2. Memories are not being destroyed. Lies are being destroyed. And no one who was born here needs to leave. We need to face both pleasant and unpleasant realities. That’s how we move on to a better understanding and better day. That’s how we forgive and bridge divides.

  21. It’s about telling the truth. Generation have weaponized inaccuracies to punish those they do not like. The damage has crippled those trying to fight back those lies. If we are to fight supremacist thoughts, we must start telling the truth.

    1. Amen… although I suspect certain powers that be don’t want this and want division so it can be exploited for monetary and political gain. I’m naturally optimistic on the future, but there could be some dark times ahead.

  22. Speaking of getting it wrong “the Gettysburg Battlefield Monument Commission placed in 70 yards to the read.”

    Someone should check your work.

    1. Thanks for the typo catch. I’ve corrected it.

      And that illustrates one reason why I don’t prescribe nefarious motives to the UDC for the pontoon marker. As you say, innocent mistakes DO happen–even typos!

  23. If you don’t like a monument, don’t go to it, don’t read it, keep driving. This is the same BS the few decided for the many, to remove Christmas from the town square. What’s next? Are you going to remove the Vietnam War Memorial because you were to big of a puss to come help us save a free nation from Communist annihilation? How about the holocaust, will you erase that. Lee saved more Americans then any single person in the Civil War. If you knew anything about the military and history, you’d know that. The people that want to do these things don’t care about monuments, they only care about forcing their view of the world on other people with minimum cost to themselves. Less then 1% of our population put it all on the line to protect our constitutional rights; then the self-righteous rush in, having paid nothing of themselves and want to decide things for the rest of us.

    1. You wrote, “Lee saved more Americans then any single person in the Civil War.” Would you mind elaborating on that?

  24. With all the problems we have in this country now the government want to try to remove history in stead of protecting the future a waste of money and time as they seem to forget what they were elected for

  25. So many of the monuments in Dinwiddie County either butcher the facts (by extremely overinflating the size of the Union force at Five Forks), make unfounded claims (that the last Rebel Yell of the war was shouted on March 31 at Dinwiddie Court House), or seek to denigrate Union soldiers (by calling two Pennsylvanians stragglers who had really participated in the charge that broke through the Confederate lines, joined others including multiple corps level staff officers who took the initiative to independently push forward to cut the railroad, and then shot A.P. Hill on their return). I see hardly any interpretive value of having monuments so factually incorrect that present a distorted version of what happened.

  26. We are a constitutional republic not a democracy. Get your facts right first before you point the finger at others.

    1. North Korea and China are also republics. What do you suppose distinguishes our republic from those? We are both a constitutional republic AND a democracy. Few of the people who (uncritically) parrot this meme would tolerate changing the constitutional democratic features of this nation.

    2. That makes us an indirect democracy instead of a direct democracy, but it’s a democracy nonetheless.

    3. Thank you for trying to educate the ignorant about our vanishing constitutional republic I’m afraid you may confuse them as they are just spouting what they are fed on the fake news.

  27. Those who seek to remove such monuments seek to deny Freedom of Speech! Public lands are a forum. And once they are used as a forum they must be protected. Can we remove books from libraries (and then burn them) because people disagree with the contents?

  28. What doesn’t seem to be considered in the monuments discussion are the people that erected the monuments. They are as much a part of history as the men on pedestals. I find it moving and intriguing that an admirer of Lee paid for a monument to be erected on his land, and that story should be told. Who was he? How did he come to sponsor the statue, what was the process, what did he hope to achieve? It is an unusual thing for a person to do. Because I find Mr. ? so interesting, I feel the statue should remain where it is, with an explanation of who really moved where, and, most importantly, who is the man behind the statue? I also think that if the NPS bought the land with the statue, they are honor-bound to keep and protect it.

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