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.
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 bolder 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:
FEDERALS CROSSED HERE ON
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, that stands amidst the crucible of fighting near the “High Water Mark” of the July 3 fighting. 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 in 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 dramatic 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.