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Saturday, August 13, 2011

We Have Enough Monuments

Why is it, do you suppose, that Governor Bob McDonnell is pushing the federal government to take control of Fortress Monroe, at "Old Point Comfort" in Hampton, when he could - since the state of Virginia is to soon take ownership of the property - simply make it a state park?

Because he wants the best of both worlds?

That's my take after reading this:
Obama considers his first national monument
By Darren Samuelsohn, Poltico

President Barack Obama is giving serious consideration to creating his first national monument next month at a historic 19th-century Army fort on Virginia's coast.

"It has very high potential," National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said Friday, regarding the possibility of Fort Monroe getting the designation under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, the state's bipartisan congressional delegation and local officials are pushing hard for Obama to use his executive authority on the site, which is steeped in Civil War and African-American history.

Jarvis said Fort Monroe — set to be decommissioned and handed over from the Army to Virginia authorities in mid-September — is the only site up for such a listing now.

Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb are also pushing a bill to create a national park.

For McDonnell and Obama, the national monument would mark one of the few occasions when the two political rivals find common ground. [link]
Leaving aside for a moment the specious argument that Fort Monroe was somehow important in the evolution of the nation from slavery to freedom, one needs to ask: Why doesn't McDonnell just make it a state park if he's so keen on it being memorialized for all time?

My answer?  He doesn't want to have to be stuck with the enormous costs of repair, upgrade, and maintenance - into perpetuity - of the thing.  This is his way of developing the site as a wonderful tourist attraction and yet not have to pay for the development.  And Obama, being Obama, can surely be counted on to ante up the necessary cash (that he ran out of long ago).

To McDonnell the best of all worlds.

Here's my problem with this. Actually, make that problems. Yes, Ft. Monroe is important in American history. But so are thousands of other sites right here in Virginia alone. Should the federal government take control of every one of them?

More importantly, what's so special about Fort Monroe?

From the same article, you get a flavor of the strategy to be employed by the politicians hellbent on spending our money on that pile of bricks:
"There are few more significant sites in terms of African-American history anywhere in the country, and using the Antiquities Act to preserve this special place makes sense after the Army hands over the site next month,” Warner said in a statement.

Built between 1819 and 1834, Fort Monroe was one of the few Union military installations in the South never occupied by Confederate forces during the Civil War.

Gen. Benjamin Butler made the "Contraband Decision" there in 1861 that kept slaves from being forced to return after they crossed Union lines. Thousands of slaves came to the site, which became known as “Freedom’s Fortress.”

Also in 1619, the first Africans to arrive on what was then British-occupied land came ashore at the site.
That last point deserves an historical marker. Not an annual budget. (After all, there was no Fort Monroe sitting there when the first Africans arrived.) That's an overreach by a country mile. Get the idea that these guys are desperate to make their point?

And, truth be known, and contrary to what these politicians would have you believe, the fort is not that important to Civil War history. The fact that "Fort Monroe was one of the few Union military installations in the South never occupied by Confederate forces during the Civil War" should tell you something. This installation was located in Virginia but the South made no attempt to seize it? Why is that?

Because Robert E. Lee at al. had no use for it. It, like all the other forts that were built in centuries past, proved to be really nice in concept but sorry in application. See the story about Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip for an idea as to how the fort system never achieved its desired purpose.  (That includes the exalted Fort Sumter, by the way.)

As for that "Gen. Benjamin Butler made the 'Contraband Decision' there in 1861 that kept slaves from being forced to return after they crossed Union lines," big whoop.  Put up a second historical marker.  But keep the cost below 500 bucks.

And, finally, to the most powerful argument Warner, Webb, and Obama could make - that slaves once flocked to Ft. Monroe on their way north to freedom.  That's not exactly true either.  Fort Monroe wasn't a way station for the "underground railroad."  Ever. Some of those thousands of slaves who passed through the fort did indeed go north.  But most didn't.  Most simply migrated there to avoid capture by their then-masters.  And to obtain food and shelter while war raged.  When hostilities ended, and after their emancipation, they simply walked out, to find their future.

Is Fort Monroe important to American history?  Does the role it played in the history of slavery make it unique?  Yes to both questions.  Does it rise to the level of making it another national park in an already enormous, cumbersome, and extremely expensive national park system?

I don't think so.

But if McDonnell wants it to be restored to its original state (at a cost of millions), let him do it.  And let him answer to the taxpayers of Virginia for having done it.

Leave the federal government and its scarce dollars out of it.

- - -

* I can imagine McDonnell sitting at a table with his cabinet members when the subject of Fort Monroe first came up.  "So what are we going to do with this thing?" he asked.  

"Hey, let's get Mikey Obama to foot the bill for it," someone suggested.  

Another: "And Warner and Webb know no fiscal boundaries.  Let's get them to push this agenda."  

"And we can use the negro ploy!  Weren't there some slaves going in and out of there way back when?"

Another: "I know!  We can sell the bricks as commemorative historical artifacts and make the state a lot of money! Fifty bucks a pop!"

"Better yet, we could sell them as boat anchors!"

"Uh, say what?"

Now we're getting closer to a workable plan.