By Elizabeth McCall, Chairwoman, Alexandria Archaeological Commission (File photo)
To the editor:
The Alexandria Archeological Commission strongly opposes the recent vote by city council to seek authorization from the Virginia General Assembly to move the “Appomattox” statue from its current location at the center of South Washington and Prince streets (“Council approves U.S. Route 1 name change,” September 22).
Both the statue and its placement at the site from which Alexandrians left for war, a context with which it is intertwined as a piece of art, are important elements of Alexandria’s history — and our nation’s. We view moving the statue as destruction of our vanishing local historical fabric, and in effect obscuring important truths about our city and community.
Our common history is not a series of trivial details and stories, but a continuing, dense weave of human tragedies, triumphs and lessons. That history culminates not only in who we are now, but also in our path to the future.
“Appomattox” speaks to the most difficult and painful aspects of our history, and in doing so it does not celebrate them, rather it remembers and acknowledges that experience. As Golda Meir once observed, “One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present.”
By displacing or concealing what happened during the Civil War through altering the fabric left behind, we further skew the memory, lessons and ultimately our understanding of the causes behind what came to pass. All experiences and perspectives on the war are important if we are to understand it and learn from it. History is not only what and how, but why. Materials such as “Appomattox” serve a continuing purpose to explore the why.
The goal of archaeology, and the preservation of physical historical evidence, is that history is not just what is written and rewritten — or argued and reargued — in books and papers. It is also a myriad of surviving sources and materials, objects and locations.
Furthermore, the spirit of such preservation is not to treat what was left behind by previous generations, by accident or design, as a collection of sacred relics. These materials, and sometimes their location as well, are in and of themselves part of how we continually interpret and reinterpret what occurred and what we learn of those important events — and their lasting consequences.
Each generation comes to its own conclusions about those who came before and what they build upon. Our duty is to preserve what little material historic evidence we have as authentically as we can if we are to ensure that a truthful and full account of the past is passed to the future.
Little remains in the city that is directly connected to Alexandria’s specific and unique experience of the Civil War, and of a community and nation torn apart. The city, often led by the AAC, has striven to recover important portions of our past lost to neglect, willful or otherwise, such as the Freedmen’s Cemetery and our work at Fort Ward, not to mention extensive efforts to deepen and broaden our focus on and interpretation of African-American sites across the city.
“Appomattox” should be preserved in the same spirit, and to ensure that we retain our full heritage for future generations, for their own reflection and judgment on the actions and lessons of the past — including our part in that story.
The AAC strongly urges city council not to move forward with its request to move “Appomattox.”