Wednesday, November 1, 2006

It promised such intrigue: shots fired (illegally, no less), no doubt between historic figures, passions inflamed, possibly a wound, a death … But like so many bits of highway history in a speed-obsessed society, this sign on Virginia Route 120 southbound, at the Military Road ramp onto Old Glebe Road, has become one more passed-up opportunity to learn.

Too bad, because in spite of Americans’ tendency to zip by them, historical road markers are making a comeback, thanks in part to new state programs that have reinvigorated an old genre.

New, more detailed, markers are filled with tales of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and the organizations behind them want to ensure that their groups get recognized for their contributions to our collective history.

“We want to tell more of the story,” says Scott Arnold, author of “A Guidebook to Virginia’s Historical Markers: Third Edition,” to be released by the University of Virginia Press early next year.

As manager of the historical highway marker program at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources from 1999 to 2005, Mr. Arnold saw the replacement of 400 old signs with new ones that “tell more of the story” — among them the “illegal duel” marker on Route 120 — and the installation of more than 900 additional markers.

A similar move can be seen in Maryland, where the Maryland Historical Trust has administered the state highway marker program since 1988.

According to the Trust’s Nancy Kurtz, Maryland has about 800 state markers; 32 of them have been placed since the program was reactivated in 2001 with a new emphasis on statewide significance rather than simply local history — and several of them have been rewritten for accuracy and to replace outmoded language.

Meanwhile, towns, counties and other localities have been placing their own markers, celebrating events and individuals of both local and national significance.

The juicy details

That doesn’t mean we can dismiss historic duels, even if illegal. Try again:

Secretary of State Henry Clay challenged U.S. Senator John Randolph of Roanoke. Clay called Randolph out to defend his honor after Randolph insulted him in a speech on the Senate floor….

And again, whoosh! This tale of the famous — and in retrospect, almost farcical — confrontation on April 8, 1826, at Pimmit Run, a half mile north of where this marker stands on a busy ramp, may never find an audience.

That’s in spite of the story’s juicy background details, many of which had to be edited for brevity from even the new, more detailed marker installed in 2000: The brilliant but eccentric Randolph’s attack on Clay, Kentucky’s Great Compromiser, as a “blackleg” or swindler engaged in a “corrupt bargain” with John Quincy Adams that brought Adams the presidency; Clay’s rash challenge to a man known as a marksman almost certain to shoot him dead; Randolph’s insistence on fighting in the only state worthy of his blood; missed shots and a deliberate misfiring, all of it ending in a gentlemanly handshake.

Gandalf’s “Lord of the Rings” set-to with the Balrog it’s not, but it and others like it are windows into what made us what we are.

So pull off to the side of the road when you can do so safely. Read these bits of history. You’ll propel yourself and your family into another time and place.

Just the facts?

“Marker programs are now much better managed, more accurate, and more accurately placed,” says Susan Soderberg, a public historian for Montgomery County and author of “A Guide to Civil War Sites in Maryland, Blue and Gray in a Border State.”

“There’s a process to be followed now to getting markers placed,” says Ms. Soderberg, who passes her own marker texts through two or three other historians to ensure accuracy.

Such concern for the facts wasn’t always the rule. Putting up signs around historical sites and past events on America’s roads began in earnest in the late 1920s, when tooling around in the new Model-T became a national pastime.

If a state could claim that a revered national figure like, say, George Washington, had slept there — or at least admired a tree in a particular town or village — well, that might likely draw the tourists in.

Even interest groups and private organizations would put up their own markers.

That, says sociologist James Loewen, author of “Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong,” has resulted in some very iffy history.

“Sometimes, I think it would be best if all markers had two sides,” he says. “That way you could get the labor and management view, or the enslaved and slaveholder view of the situation.”

Iffy history

Omissions abound on markers and monuments, Mr. Loewen says, with discrepancies found in every state.

Among the “iffy” is the marker for innkeeper James W. Jackson on the corner of the old Holiday Inn building on King Street in Old Town Alexandria, the first city to fall to Federal troops in the Civil War.

The marker, placed by the Sons and Daughters of Confederate Soldiers, celebrates the Alexandrian as the “first martyr to the cause of Southern independence.”

Jackson gunned down the 24-year-old U.S. Col. Elmer Ellsworth in May 1861 after Ellsworth had hauled down a Confederate flag from Jackson’s hotel, the Marshall House. One of Ellsworth’s men then killed Jackson.

Mr. Loewen contends that Ellsworth was probably trying to save the hotel from being destroyed for flying a hostile flag in the face of the invading Federals.

“Ellsworth went to take down that flag in part so U.S. troops wouldn’t burn down Jackson’s hotel,” says Mr. Loewen. “He was just coming down the stairs when Jackson shot him dead. Is it a capital offense to take down a flag?”

Jackson’s name is also inscribed on the 1889 Confederate Memorial on Washington Street, although it was clearly added later.

Points of view

Today, markers exist in a kind of pluralistic stew, with those put up by different entities — the state, the county, a private organization or heritage group — often vying for pride of place at the same historic site and often telling different sides of the story.

The mix is readily apparent at the Monocacy Battlefield outside Frederick, Md., where the United Daughters of the Confederacy Monument, erected in 1914, refers to a “Great Confederate Victory.”

The Maryland Civil War Marker, erected by the Maryland Civil War Centennial Commission in 1965 — because, Ms. Soderberg says, it “wanted to correct what the Daughters had said” — calls the July 1864 engagement “The Battle That Saved Washington.”

They’re both right: Union Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace’s 5,800 men were overwhelmed by Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s force of 15,000 as the Southerners advanced on Washington — but Wallace’s stand slowed the Confederate advance by one day, enough time for reinforcements to arrive in the capital.

Perspective is all, it seems. To make matters just a bit more confusing at the site, a Maryland state historic marker commemorates the 1862 Antietam campaign that went through the area.

Fleshing out the story

Not all marker discrepancies result from an attempt to manipulate history. Some simply reflect assumptions made on available, but incomplete, findings.

For years, the marker placed by Montgomery County in front of Oakley Cabin in Brookeville, for example, dated the structure to the 1840s. But a recent archaeological excavation at the site has uncovered new evidence, including bottles and other materials, that has led historians to a more accurate date, some 20 years earlier.

New inside the cabin is an exhibit that showcases some of the finds, including the hexagonal blue beads that are a hallmark of African and black American culture.

To err on the side of prudence, the new marker makes no mention of a specific construction date.

Sometimes, information on an existing marker is fleshed out on an additional one.

That’s the case in Derwood, where a Montgomery County marker about the origins of the Agricultural History Farm Park, a onetime tobacco and wheat farm, has a companion marker a few yards away. The newer marker gives still more information about the late-19th-century village of black Americans called Newtown.

The whoosh factor

The historical markers at the Agricultural History Farm Park are ideal for those who aren’t afraid to get out of their cars and walk a bit.

“One of the things that I’m trying to do here is take advantage of accidental learning,” Ms. Soderberg says. “You can read a marker if you are out walking the dog or waiting at a bus stop.”

That eliminates the “whoosh” factor, but far too many of today’s markers can be dangerous to read.

At Seneca Bridge, a now busy suburban route along what was once the Baltimore Road, a marker commemorates the Civil War encampment of 5,000 Union troops who sought to keep the bridge out of the hands of advancing Confederates.

The marker has been placed far past the bridge for safety’s sake, so in order to get a real sense of the lay of the land during the Civil War, motorists may be tempted to stop the car and walk back toward the bridge. On this heavily trafficked road with narrow shoulders, that’s not a good idea.

The same holds true for the Clay-Randolph duel marker: To read it closely, a driver must park in a nearby neighborhood and brave the traffic on several roads.

… Randolph confided to Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri that he had no intention of hurting Clay, who was married and had a child ….

Whoosh. Marking the District

On their way across the Potomac to the dueling ground, Clay and Randolph may have passed one of what are perhaps the original roadside markers, the District’s boundary stones. These 40 stones were placed by Andrew Ellicott and his surveying team in 1791 and 1792.

The first stone, at Jones Point in Alexandria at the southernmost tip of the original District diamond, was reportedly set by Benjamin Banneker, who lay on his back and plotted the course of six stars in order to arrive at the correct location.

Since then, a few of the stones — now considered federal monuments — have been moved or gone missing. But 38 remain, including some with inscriptions intact enough to read.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service has marked the sites of some of the forts and installations that ringed the city during the Civil War. The NPS marker at Fort Reno, in Northwest, even contains photographs of what the area looked like at the time — though it doesn’t mention the once thriving, predominantly black, community that grew up and around the fort during and after the Civil War.

Filling in the gaps

One goal of the push to “tell more of the story” is to fill in such blanks — those left by prejudice, perhaps, or simple carelessness. Here Virginia is among the leaders.

At the old Duke Street office of slave traders Isaac Franklin and John Armfield in Alexandria, for instance, a 2005 state marker provides important context for what was once one of the largest slave-trading ventures on the East Coast.

At Tinner’s Hill, in Fall’s Church, a 2006 state marker joins two placed by the private organizations across the street. Together, they detail the efforts of a group of black citizens to resist attempts by Falls Church to segregate whites and blacks in 1915.

“This is great,” says Mr. Loewen, who is working on a new book titled “Surprises on the Landscape: Unexpected Places That Get History Right.” “This is really moving forward.”

So the next time you come across one of those metal markers, slow down and read — if you can.

… Both first shots missed their intended targets. Clay’s second shot also missed, and Randolph raised his pistol and fired in the air. The duel then ended, and the unhurt adversaries met each other halfway and shook hands.

And that’s the truth.

Historical resources

Ready for your own marker quest? Sources abound. Try these:


• The Complete Guide to Delaware Historical Markers by Joe Swisher and Roger Miller (Image Publishing, 2002). At or at

• A Guide to Civil War Sites in Maryland: Blue and Gray in a Border State by Susan Soderberg (White Mane Publishing Company, 1998). At local bookstores and at

• A Guidebook to Virginia’s Historical Markers: Third Edition by Scott Arnold. To be released by the University of Virginia Press in early 2007. See

• Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong by James Loewen (Touchstone Books, 2000). At local bookstores and at

State organizations

• Maryland Historical Trust: 100 Community Place, Crownsville. 410/514-7600 or

• Virginia Department of Historic Resources: 5357 Main St., Stephens City. 540/868-7030 or

Online resources

• Markers by state: Find digital views of 16 states’ markers at

• Maryland markers: Stephen Blackpool (a pen name) has photographed every Maryland state marker and has organized them by county. See his collection at

• Washington’s Civil War defenses: See

• The District’s boundary stones: See

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