John Tures: Are monuments really about history and heritage?

Since the fight over the Robert E. Lee Monument in Charlottesville, Va., we’ve heard a lot about memorials to the Confederacy and how it’s really about history, and heritage. But is that really the case? A lonely park dedicated to a huge win by the Confederacy can be quite revealing.

 

“Zach’s studying the Civil War this year,” my wife told me as we headed back to Georgia from Daytona Beach, Florida. “Maybe you could take him to the site for the Battle of Olustee.”

I’ve heard about the Battle of Olustee, Florida’s first state historic site, ever since I met my wife in college. A native of Jacksonville, Fla., she had told me about going to the site during a dramatic reenactment when she was a schoolgirl, when she heard about my passion for history. Hundreds representing soldiers would battle each other, just to show the kids what it was like. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to show my son a little history.

Do I care about history? Even though I am a political science professor, I’ve taught special courses on the War of 1812 and the Civil War, taking students to historical sites and reenactments. Heck, we named our son Zachary Taylor Tures, and he along with his sister and cousins gets a heavy dose of history books and visits to key sites.

So we drove to the battle site, only a few minutes off the heavily traveled Interstate 10, on a Saturday around 12:30 p.m. Not far from a prison, the site was empty of people. You could see a monument or two, and a pair of flags, just about the only marker that told you we were standing on the biggest Civil War battle in the state of Florida. There was just a small trailer.

It was unlocked. We stepped inside. There was a TV monitor, inviting us to push play. A VCR tape told a brief tale of the battle. Silence followed. We saw a clear box, one with a mannequin wearing a Union uniform, and another sporting a Confederate union. There was a map or two, an artifact or two, and that was it. The whole place was eerily quiet. No volunteers or visitors were there, except us. It’s hard to tell your son that history really matters, when no one seems to pay attention.

Encroachment by private development has decimated the smaller parks, and even shrunk some of the bigger ones. Andersonville and Franklin have expanded, but others where I take my students and family, like Pickett’s Mill and Ft. Blakeley have staff that are battling to keep history alive there. Some of it is about land, but some of it comes from states unwilling to spend the money on Visitor Guides. There is little interest from folks to volunteer to help explain, well, the history of it all, and why it matters.

Supporters of the monuments are fighting hard to keep them in places where major battles weren’t fought, like Charlottesville. The sites themselves, where history was actually made, are dying battlefields, empty of visitors and volunteers. If the goal is heritage, and not intimidation of minorities or politics, there needs to be a change in determining what is really sacred, and whether monuments belong in real “hallowed ground.”

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John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. jtures@lagrange.edu.

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