Check out this exciting opportunity at Ellwood on the Wilderness battlefield by our friends at the Friends of Wilderness Battlefield this weekend.
We’ve had such a good month here at ECW that I hate to end on a sour note. However, I received an alarming note from Rob Orrison this morning about some unfortunate shenanigans in the Wilderness where, it seems, the Texans were again under attack.
Lo and behold, some aspiring Picasso chose to express his righteous indignation in spray paint on the face of the Texas monument.
In case you can’t read that, it says, “Fuck UR Rebel flag.”
The picture, Rob tells me, comes from the Bull Runnings Facebook page; he passed it on to me from there.
Located along Plank Road, the Texas monument marks the location where the Texans arrived on the morning on May 6 at a crucial moment of the battle of the Wilderness. Lee’s Confederate army faced total collapse on the right, but the timely arrival of Longstreet’s First Corps, with the Texas Brigade in the lead, shifted the tide. “Texans always move them,” Lee said as the Lone Star soldier swept forward. He wanted to lead them into battle himself, but as the story famously goes, the soldiers began crying out “Lee to the rear!” Another monument next to the Texas monument commemorates that part of the episode.
The Texas monument, made of pink Texas granite, is one of ten identical memorials the state put up on Civil War battlefields to commemorate the Centennial: Antietam, Bentonville, Chickamauga, Fort Donelson, Gettysburg, Kennesaw Mountain, Mansfield, Pea Ridge, Shiloh, and the Wilderness.
Regardless of where you stand on the topic of Confederate monuments, there are two essential points here. First, vandalism of any sort is bad, and we should certainly hate to see it at a National Park; and second, nowhere in the swirl of controversy over Confederate monuments have I heard anyone credible seriously suggest that such monuments are in any way out of place on national battlefields.
(Of course, I also cringe at the idiotic “UR.” Apparently, “your” was too much to spell. Or else they weren’t sure whether to use “your” or “you’re,” so they just decided to avoid the problem by spelling it as though they were texting.)
It’s impossible to talk rationally to people who think vandalism is an appropriate form of First Amendment expression. In this case, someone decided to be offended by the entire notion of the Confederacy 155 years after the fact, and in their righteous indignation, chose to express their frustration by spray painting their protest over a monument in such a way that, obviously, settles the whole point.
They don’t see their own act as being offensive, nor do they see their offensiveness as being the hypocrisy it is. According to this way of thinking, if you’re offended, it’s not hypocritical to be offensive in return. After all, you’re right, right?
Of course, that sort of escalation has a long-proven track record of not solving anything, ever, but hey, it’s not about solving anything or discussing anything or understanding anything—it’s about shouting your rage and shouting down your opponent. It’s not about justice, it’s about pissing people off because you’re pissed off.
And in this case, I daresay someone is pissed off about something they probably don’t even understand. Confederate heritage and Civil War history in general are subjects that demand nuanced discussion in order to really understand them, not broad brush strokes or can sprays. Confederate heritage is especially touchy, and this kind of asshattery prevents dialogue. Spray painting monuments erases middle ground.
It also paints opponents of Confederate heritage as a bunch of hypocritical, frothing-at-the-mouth libs, which dehumanizes them and undercuts legitimate concerns about Confederate history and race relations. That doesn’t help dialogue, either.
Finally, let’s add one last component to the equation: Law enforcement has to investigate the vandalism. Restoration experts have to clean the monument. Someone’s tax dollars have to pay for all that (and by “someone’s,” I mean yours and mine).
As I’d mentioned, we’ve had a great month here at ECW: the second-best month of readership in our history. The only month to surpass this month was last August, when events in Charlottesville turned into tragedy and catapulted Confederate monuments into the national headlines. As the monument controversy reached a fever pitch, I heard people suggest that some monuments should be taken down not because they were offensive but in order to protect them from being vandalized or damaged. I admit, that perspective surprised me at first, but then didn’t as I thought about it—and now here we have a case in point.
Ironically, spray painting “Fuck UR rebel flag” as a protest against the Confederacy is a uniquely un-American act. Our whole system of government was built around the principle of respecting differences of opinion, enshrined in our two-party system. Furthermore, our whole society depends on the rule of law. A single vandal with a can of spray paint and an ax to grind flaunts both of those things.
This afternoon, I walked out to Widow Tapp field to see the monument for myself. I’m happy to say that it’s been cleaned up since the first photo was taken. My thanks to the Park Service personnel who fixed it up.
There is a meaningful discussion to be had about Confederate heritage. Spray painting obscenities on a Confederate monument is not the way to have it. That’s about as un-American as it gets.
Irises in bloom at Ellwood, on the Wilderness battlefield
May 10, 2018
I thought if I waited until dusk, I might be able to stand at the Brock Road/Plank Road intersection in the Wilderness and have a “moment.” During the day, the intersection almost always has traffic passing through, and in the early evening, it’s crammed with commuters heading home to Fawn Lake or Lake of the Wilderness or any number of other destinations. The Wilderness is none too wild these days.
Waiting until dusk would also get me closer to what I think of as “the moment” in the Wilderness: the moment when Ulysses S. Grant changed the very nature of the war by shifting his army southward around Robert E. Lee instead of eastward away from him.
I’ve written before that I think of this as the turning point of the war—none of that Gettysburg nonsense!—because the back and forth was finally over. The Army of the Potomac remained on the inexorable offense from then on out. Lee might have scored tactical victories on the defense, but Grant, not Lee, called the shots.
My teenage son, Jackson, rode along with me into the Wilderness this evening. It was, he said, “an adventure”—a reason for father and son to spend a little time together before winding down the day. A ten-minute ride through the gloaming brought us down Plank Road from the east to the intersection. As we neared, a red-lit communication tower stood over the road like a robotic science-fiction sentinel guarding a fire station on the right side of the road.
We passed through the intersection and turned into the parking lot, pulling into a space in front of a sign that said “No parking from dusk until dawn.” It was still dusk by only the most generous of interpretations, and only then if someone was very high in a tall tree looking at the fading line of light blue on the western horizon toward Culpeper. Fortunately, we weren’t going to walk far or be away from the car long.
Jackson and I walked to a small greenspace near the intersection. Cars from north and east dutifully stopped at their respective stops signs and took turns passing through. Less often, a car would come from the west or the south, but always there was someone passing through. For being 8:45 at night, the intersection was surprisingly busy—as busy as I’d ever seen it, really.
“Did you have your moment yet?” Jackson asked.
“Not yet,” I said.
It was hard to conjure an image of the dust-covered man riding down the road from the north and arriving at the intersection, not to lead his men eastward out of the Wilderness but southward toward Spotsylvania. But as I recounted the moment to Jackson, I began to feel it just a little: the busyness of the intersection, the cheers from the men as they realized there really was no turning back, the cool of the evening after the heat of the day, the fires in the forest, the noise.
My modern perspective, with its benefit of hindsight, also allowed me to feel the weight of the moment. The turn. The shift in momentum. The forward motion. The road to Appomattox.
It all happened for me in just a flash: the moment I’d come here to have. Headlights cutting through the intersection prohibited any real reverie, but I’d found what I’d come for.
One hundred and fifty four years ago, right now, in this spot.
Jackson and I returned to the car and headed out of the Wilderness, passing through the intersection as just one more in a long line of headlights in the dark. We went northward, away from Spotsylvania where the army marched. I’ll visit there tomorrow.
For now, it’s enough to relish the moment.
Ryan Longfellow explores the Wilderness as a turning point of the Civil War in his essay “’Oh, I Am Heartily Tired of Hearing about What Lee Is Going to Do’: Ulysses S. Grant in the Wilderness,” part of Turning Points of the American Civil War, available as part of our “Engaging the Civil War” Series with Southern Illinois University Press. If you haven’t already, order your copy today!
“My God! My God! twenty thousand poor souls sent to their final account in one day,” President Lincoln lamented after the battle of the Wilderness. “I cannot bear it! I cannot bear it!”
Newspaperman John Weiss Forney—who enjoyed special access to Lincoln—recounted Lincoln’s “outburst of uncontrollable emotion” years later in his memoir Anecdotes of Public Men (vol. 2, pp 180-1). Forney said the battle put Lincoln into one of his periods of depression, and it was in that condition that the journalist found the president one evening. “He was ghastly pale, the dark rings were round his caverned eyes, his hair was brushed back from his temples, and he was reading Shakespeare when I came in,” Forney later wrote.
“Let me read you this from ‘Macbeth,’” Lincoln said, adding that the verse came to him “like a consolation”:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The circumstances were eerily similar: both Confederate lieutenant generals had led successful flank attacks through the dark, close woods of the Wilderness when they were accidentally shot by their own men. For both Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet, it seemed as if “the evil genius of the South” hovered “over those desolate woods,” one Confederate staff officer lamented.
How did those woundings impact the Army of Northern Virginia? What were the implications for Robert E. Lee?
Take a look at the newest “War Department” video from the Civil War Trust: “The Woundings of Jackson and Longstreet.”
Doug Ullman and Kris White are joined by ECW’s Chris Mackowski and historian Don Pfanz, author of the ECWS title No Turning Back: A Guide to the 1864 Overland Campaign. White, Mackowski, and Pfanz have been deeply steeped in the stories of Jackson and Longstreet their entire careers and have much insight to offer about these parallel stories.
During the course of the interview, Chris made a comment that he later reflected on in a post, “Jackson’s Wounding: The Best Thing to Happen to Lee at Chancellorsville.”
You can also check out Kris and Chris’s two-part ECW series, “Forgotten Casualty: James Longstreet Wounded in the Wilderness” as well as an excerpt from their book The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson that focuses on Jackson’s wounding.