Program Write-Up: John Guss and the Bennett Place Historical Site

The last time we heard from John Guss was when he addressed the Club at the re-dedication of the Rotary Bandstand at Bennett Placeduring President Sam Miglarese’s term two years ago. Sam, who is now on the board of Bennett Place introduced John, a man trained in marketing but very interested in history and who built something of a career in films based on his interest in the Civil War as a reenactor.

Even though Mr. Guss joked about having to begin to grow a beard for an upcoming portrayal of William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union General who wreaked havoc throughout the south during the war, this presentation had a more somber tone than the celebration two years ago.

Bennett Place is one of three state historical sites inDurhamand is important because it was the site of the largest surrender of the war. The others are the Stagville Plantation and the Duke Homestead. Mr. Guss related that besides preparing to play Sherman, he was also preparing for a meeting the following day to discuss the fate of the three sites under the pressure of the State’s ongoing budget crisis. One of the cuts under discussion is to place the management of the sites under one manager and letting two go…at no additional salary, of course.

During the question and answer session that actually dominated the presentation it came out that the state’s governance of these sites specifically forbids them charging admission. The laudable intent was to make sure that the sites were accessible to rich and poor alike and didn’t live or die based on their ability to generate revenue. The irony here is that this restriction may actually doom the sites themselves to mediocrity or a total disappearance. Mr. Guss also noted that cutbacks in school programs in public schools had severely limited visits by school children.

Mr. Guss brought with him a display of books and posters anticipating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.  I have to admit discussion of the Civil War makes me feel old. Unlike Bill Whichard, there were no Civil War generals in my family. In fact, the story is that my great grandfather was tried as a Union deserter because of a little misunderstanding about how his name was spelled. Some dyslexic clerk wrote Senner on his discharge papers instead of the correct Zenner.

However, I was born and raised inRichmond, the capitol of the Confederacy and my high school years were during the run-up to the Civil War Centennial, a big deal there fifty years ago. The high school I attended and where I later taught  was directly behind the Civil War Museum and right across the street from the United Daughters of the Confederacy retirement home.  In earlier years my brother and I assumed identities as the Rebel and the Yankee (my brother was born in Albany NY) in our regular war games.

Even 100 years after the war it was still romanticized and thoughts about the evils of slavery and the idea of racial justice were not topics often brought up. Public schools were still segregated and blacks still moved to the back of the bus. Nobody mentioned that over 3 million people had been enslaved at the time of the war and over 670,000 perished fighting it in a country with a population less than a 10th of what it is now. In that context Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage became one of the most disturbing things I ever read.

50 years later maybe things have improved a little but some notions die hard. The fact that Virginia’s governor, Bob McDonnell could proclaim April Confederate History Month two years ago with no mention of slavery illustrates that romantic notions of the war still linger in some places. His excuse was that this was part of a tourism campaign.

Promoting Bennett Place and our other historic sites aggressively as tourist sites may be their salvation. However, I hope that we don’t just turn them into theme parks and forget the terrible significance that war held for our country and that we still have a ways to go.

Speak Your Mind