- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2001

If it happened in Virginia, theres probably a historical marker nearby noting the fact — everything from where Stonewall Jacksons arm was amputated to the site of the first radio transmission to the birthplace of Secretariat.
The states preoccupation with chronicling events both great and small, with commemorating places renowned and obscure, is obvious on the 2,300 tablets that line its roads and highways.
"I think Virginians historically have been fascinated by their own history," says John S. Salmon, a state historian who has written a book compiling the marker texts through 1994.
But history occasionally needs some minor editing: Virginia is in the midst of replacing about 450 markers, many of them because they contain archaic and offensive terms for the states Indian tribes.
And last week the state agreed to take down a marker near the University of Virginia because the schools rector questioned the accuracy of the text, which claimed the university surrendered to Gen. George Armstrong Custer during the Civil War.
In 1926, long before PBS documentaries renewed the rest of the countrys interest in the Civil War and unleashed a wave of pilgrimages to its battlegrounds, Virginia began its markers program as a build-it-and-they-will-come tourism pitch.
Hoping to cash in, locales fought for any historical connections they could and posted some out-of-place markers, like the one in Fairfax City that touts, "Ten miles west were fought the two battles of Manassas or Bull Run."
Though New Yorks markers program is just as old and Texas has put up slightly more, Virginias program ranks as a consistent and enduring tribute to the minutiae of state history, all 394 years and four days of it since the settlers landed at Jamestown.
Early plaques focused on those who also make the history books — the great men who ordered others into war, those who fought the wars and those who wrote the peace treaties that settled the wars.
More markers have therefore been posted on the Civil War than any other historic event. Lees retreat to Appomattox, for example, can be traced almost day-to-day with markers at every spot he and his troops camped at night.
But the markers also assumed a familiarity on the part of the reader. One plain yet cryptic plaque in Fauquier County titled "Stuart and Gregg" says simply, "Near here the Union cavalry general Gregg attacked Stuart and forced him to retire, June 19, 1863."
Which is fine, Mr. Salmon said, but it assumes the reader knows Stuart is Confederate cavalry Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and Gregg is David McMurtrie Gregg, a frequent thorn in Stuarts side. It also leaves out how the attack came about: Stuart was screening Lees advance up the Shenandoah Valley for the advance that would end at Gettysburg.
The state paid for the markers from 1926 through 1976, but since then the program has depended on others to foot the bill. Anyone who is willing to pay the $1,225 for a marker can submit an idea, which is then considered by the Department of Historic Resources and approved by the Board of Historic Resources.
Markers generally cannot commemorate anyone still alive or any event that happened less than 50 years ago — these are historic markers, after all — but some exceptions have been made.
Christopher Bright, a doctoral candidate in 20th-century American history at George Washington University, said the plaques tell a lot about the folks who erected them and the times they lived in.
Thats why the last 20 years have seen renewed interest in the markers, but the topics have changed to commemorate civil rights milestones like the Moton High School in Farmville, which was part of the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision that integrated schools.
Mr. Bright was instrumental in getting markers erected on the three sites in Fairfax County where there were Nike antiaircraft missiles stationed to protect the capital from an attack. The signs — one in Great Falls, one along the Fairfax County Parkway near Popes Head Road and the other in Lorton — were exceptions to the 50-year rule because their historical significance is already clear, state officials said.
Not surprisingly, the markers have prompted complaints — some from drivers who ran into them; some from those who objected to the wording or took issue with the facts.
A number of the markers about Colonial history called the states Indian tribes "savages" or "infidels." The Department of Historic Resources is moving to correct those, and the Virginia Council on Indians gives the department high marks for its efforts.
Others grumble that the way the program works — organizations that have the money can petition for a marker — means that priorities for building new markers are out of whack.
But Mr. Salmon said theres an upside, too, "that does ensure more of a role for the public in helping identify aspects of state history that are important."
The program is so popular that its spawned spurious markers. There are several companies that make imitation markers and some homeowners, eager to join in, have put up ones touting their own homes histories.


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