Friday, May 18, 2012

That's Real Stuff!

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

In May 1912, the Confederate Memorial Association began construction of the Confederate Memorial Institute, what would soon be know as the "Battle Abbey." In the cornerstone, members of the association placed a copper box - sealed with lead solder and containing a number of Confederate artifacts and papers relating to the association. There it sat until Virginia Historical Society's vice president Nelson Lankford went looking for it. The Abbey had since become a part of the much bigger VHS facility. The box and its contents - penetralia if you like - had been more or less forgotten until Lankford discovered a list of items supposedly preserved in the old Abbey's cornerstone.

It did not take long for architects to figure out the location of the old cornerstone, now in a corner of the "The Story of Virginia" exhibit. VHS president and CEO Paul Levengood got to extract the box from the hole in the wall himself. Apparently, the VHS staff was all giddy with excitement.

Here is what the Confederate Memorial Association thought future historians would find useful: newspapers, photographs, postcards, architectural drawings, construction contracts, Civil War signatures and records, a 5-by-5-inch Confederate battle flag, a delegate's pin for the 1912 United Confederate Veterans reunion and even papers pertaining to a lawsuit over fundraising. Upon examination, senior archivist Lee Shepard noted, "That's real stuff from the real time period."

Never has a more astute comment resounded from the hallowed halls of the former Confederate shrine. It was indeed "real stuff," and something that might be of use to historians concerned with Civil War memory. What CMA officials chose to place in their sealed box tells us a great deal about what they wanted future observers to think about their failed bid for independence. It is just as telling to note what they did not place in the box. As far as I can tell, documents relating to any potentially troubling issues, for example, are not to be found. Perhaps, given the time frame and historical context of the battles then waging to determine the terms national reconciliation, CMA leadership though it best to distance their cause from certain contentions of the 1860s - or maybe those things just slipped their minds for a few minutes in all the corner-stone laying excitement.

At any rate, the "real stuff" is now part of the vast VHS archive...they even left the hole in the wall - at least for now. I am certain visitors will want to know more about it. I certainly would.  I am also glad that Lankford saw the search and uncover project to its conclusion. Any chance to understand what former Confederates were thinking is one worth taking.



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