Sunday, July 19, 2020

Do Monuments Teach History?

North Carolina Monument, Gettysburg
   There have been a couple of articles floating about the past couple of weeks about how monuments really don’t teach history to people. If you are looking for an in-depth description of the battle of Gettysburg, with the various movements and turns over four days, the Pennsylvania monument nor the North Carolina monument are going to do it for you. You will need to turn to Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign or the books by Phanz or Wert on each day of the battle to get that painstakingly detailed level of study that can truly help you understand that battle. But on the other hand, I believe these monuments are far more important than any class a teacher or professor can offer. What the monuments can do, better than a detailed study, is capture the imagination of a young person.
   Probably the first historic site I ever visited was the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine. I was probably seven or eight or nine years old. I have no recollection of any of the talks by the park rangers, nor do I remember any display panels that I have might have paused in order to read, but I do remember the place.  I remember crawling on a cannon (probably discouraged then, too), standing on the parapet and straining to look out into the Matanzas River, trying to catch a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. It was the place that captured my attention, and probably helped fuel my passion for Southern history.
Otway Burns Monument, Burnsville
   Fast-forward thirty or so years to Gettysburg, at the North Carolina monument that so magnificently shows the struggle, the anguish on the faces of Tar Heel soldiers as they strive to punch a hole in the Federal lines on Cemetery Ridge. I was once standing, talking to some friends about those memorable minutes on July 3. Up pulls a minivan. Door flies open, and out pours a little fellow, maybe five or six. He was in awe over the size of the monument and had a zillion questions which his parents really could not answer. (I wonder what it was like at the Virginia monument right down the road?) I have seen this scenario repeated time and time again – at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, in the rocket garden at Kennedy Space Center, and at monuments great and small in little towns spread out across the landscape.
   Monuments are great places to begin a conversation. Let’s go visit the statue to Capt. Otway Burns in Burnsville, North Carolina. We can stand at its base and I can tell you about the life of Burns, about how he was a privateer during the War of 1812 (anyone remember that one?), and about the struggle to get new counties formed in the western part of North Carolina. Burns’s vote in the General Assembly to establish this new county cost him the next election but got the town named for him. Or, we can head to the campus of Appalachian State University and sit on a log next to the statue of Daniel Boone. Right over there, across the road from the monument, was the cabin of Benjamin Howard, a cabin that Boone used as he was hunting in the area. You can see the ridge rising above the town, and Boone would have been able to use that ridge as a guide. You follow that ridge (named Rich Mountain) and you can get to the gap that will lead you into Tennessee, and on toward Cumberland Gap, and Kentucky. Boone was a complex man, a frontiersman, a politician, struggling to co-exist with the Natives, and was probably a wee bit crazy.
Daniel Boone Monument, Boone
   We all know that people in the United States don’t visit historic places as they once did. It is too complicated. Too many forms to fill out for a field trip for those in elementary school, and in university classes, those people who made us who we are today, with their complicated lives that don’t seem to mesh with the morals (or lack thereof) of people in the twenty-first century, are not in vogue. Why should we study Gettysburg, or Burns, or Boone?
   As monuments to Founding Fathers and Civil War soldiers are ripped from the ground, we lose the ability to have places to start those discussions. We lose the ability to pique the interest of the young and old alike. Sure, we can bring it up in a classroom. But given the level of historical illiteracy in this country right now, how is that working out?
    You may totally disagree with my assessment. And that’s ok. Please feel free to move right along. But my opinion is based upon my own personnel observations. The thousands of monuments that grace our historical landscape still have a great deal to teach us, and those places can be touchstones that lead to deeper understanding.