Gettysburg has its “Valley of Death,” Antietam has its “Bloody Lane,” and Perryville has its “Slaughter Pen”—all places where Americans killed one another for four years during the Civil War. Today, we can add to that list, Donald Trump’s “River of Blood.”
The New York Times reports that the outspoken Republican candidate’s golf course on Lowes Island, along the Potomac River in Virginia includes a historical marker that notes the following: “Many great American soldiers, both of the North and South, died at this spot ... The casualties were so great that the water turned red and thus became known as ‘The River of Blood.’” No date is given on the marker as to when this engagement took place. No military units or commanding officers are identified because, according to local historians, there is no evidence that anyone was killed in military combat at this spot during the Civil War.
You can’t travel for long in Virginia without coming across a Civil War battlefield. The state proved to be fertile ground for some of the largest and most costly battles owing to the proximity of both the Confederate capital in Richmond and Washington, D.C. Signs for the battlefields of Cold Harbor, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Manassas dot the major roads between the two cities. To many Americans these hallowed landscapes deserve protection as places of reflection and serve as a reminder of the price paid to preserve this union and abolish slavery. To Donald Trump, it is a history that can be manipulated, even invented whole cloth, as part of a public relations campaign for his Trump National Golf Club.
Fellow Republican candidate Ben Carson’s shaky understanding of American history on display in recent days—from suggesting that Thomas Jefferson was involved in “crafting” the Constitution to claiming that none of the Founding Fathers held elected position before the Revolution—reflects both a shaky grasp of the basic facts and an interest in shaping the narrative to support his own candidacy for public office. Historians may cringe, but Carson sits comfortably in a long line of politicians from both sides of the aisle whose understanding of the past is often driven by a partisan and personal agenda. We accept that in the political world historical interpretation enjoys a certain amount of flexibility.
Trump, on the other hand, is building a record out of fabricating history altogether. He continues to insist that he watched the Muslim community on television celebrating in the streets of Jersey City on 9/11 as the World Trade Center buildings collapsed, even though his claim cannot be corroborated and both Ben Carson and Governor Chris Christie have distanced themselves from Trump’s claims. When notified that historians did not believe that a single Civil War soldier had been killed on the site of his Virginia golf club, Trump responded, “How would they know that? Were they there?” Trump insists that historians were consulted, though he is unable to identify them. It is also unclear why they would be needed, or for that matter relevant at all, considering that no historian alive today was present at the event in question either.
Like everything else in this democracy, we debate its history. But many of these events are not just part of a detached past. Instead they continue to inform and shape the very way we understand the present. Whether it is our distant history, such as the Civil War, or our recent history, such as 9/11, we debate with equal intensity as if the very outcome remained in doubt—only coming together as a nation to remember and commemorate their anniversaries. It is an uneasy tension, but it is made possible by an understanding that history has a civic element and the potential to connect Americans to one another and to those who came before us around a shared historical narrative. Our democracy allows for a wide range of interpretations of the past and this should be embraced and even celebrated, but it cannot tolerate the kinds of lies perpetuated by Trump.
Insisting that men died where they didn’t dishonors the memory of the hundreds of thousands whose sacrifice turned streams red on countless battlefields just a stone’s throw away as well as the families and communities they left behind. Remaining steadfast in the conviction that the Muslim community celebrated on Sept. 11, 2001, when there is no evidence to support it, dishonors the memory of those Muslims—both American and foreign—who perished on that horrible day.
As long as statements such as these are tolerated, history itself is undermined.
Trump could have placed a marker describing the significance of the Potomac River as a crossing site for the two armies or some of the local events of the Civil War that took place within only a few short miles of his golf course, such as the very real battle of Balls Bluff, which was fought on Oct. 21, 1861. In doing so, he could have added a small reminder to a crowded landscape of historical markers across Virginia that asks communities and visitors to slow for a few moments and reflect on larger issues and meanings.
What does Trump’s marker ask visitors to contemplate? You guessed it: “It is my great honor to have preserved this section of the Potomac River!” It deserves a chuckle or sneer, but Trump’s recklessness demonstrates that in his hands history serves nothing more than to advance his own financial and political goals and adds fuel to an already overflowing ego, but it achieves something even more sinister. It shows that his willingness or ability to grasp events as remote as the Civil War or as recent as 9/11 extends only so far as it can be used to manipulate people for his own immediate gain. And thus far he has been able to do so on the campaign trail to “making America great again.”
Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. He is the author of “Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder” (2012) and is at work on “Searching For Black Confederate Soldiers: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth.” You can find him online at Civil War Memory and Twitter @kevinlevin.