“McConnell touts the collection as being the ultimate tool to help interpret the Hunley…”
Read the article in the Charleston City Paper.
Is the state’s purchase of a Confederate maritime collection an old boy bailout?
COVER STORY BY BILL DAVIS
Is this really the year the state should be spending a half-million dollars on the option to later purchase a Confederate maritime historical collection?
Did public dollars bailout a private organization that had bought a collection it couldn’t afford?
Valuable and needed public programs have been trimmed back or cut altogether as the state struggles under the lash of massive budget shortages — roughly half a billion dollars.
In the Lowcountry, Charleston Marine Institute, a program that turned an impressive number of kids away from a life in crime, was lost when the state decided not to renew its contract with the nonprofit that ran it. The cost: $522,000.
In Charleston, Palmetto Pathways, a nonprofit that acted as a bridge among psychotic citizens, their medicine, and their families, closed down after a 25 percent reduction in funding.
DMV offices across the region and state are going to be shut down. State employees are losing their jobs, and so on, and so on.
The story of any governmental budgeting process has always been one of stealing from Peter to pay Paul, where cuts can look like choosing one program over another and legislators have to balance spending between a variety of projects without the benefit of Solomon’s wisdom.
In the face of all that and more, state Sen. Glen McConnell — Confederate flag compromiser, H.L Hunley champion, and owner of a Confederate memorabilia mall store — teamed with Statehouse colleague John Drummond (D-Greenwood) to wrangle $500,000 from the state’s $5.6 billion to purchase an option to acquire the Southern Maritime Collection from the S.C. Historical Society. The total price tag will be $3.5 million, with the remaining balance to be raised through bonds.
McConnell touts the collection as being the ultimate tool to help interpret the Hunley, a submarine, mind you, that sank each of the three times it sailed, killed all but one man of its three crews, and sunk only one Union vessel, was never fully commissioned into the South’s navy, and arguably did little to change the course of the Civil War from its three trips to the bottom of area waters.
Did the state capitol succumb to “Confederacy Fever” and hand the Historical Society a bailout on a collection it couldn’t afford when state-funded museums are getting short-changed?
did it move expeditiously to ensure that a rare historical resource wouldn’t
be cast to the winds of public auctions?
Dr. Charles V. Peery put together the 10,000-item collection over a period of about 30 years.
A local physician, Peery first began collecting Confederate naval artifacts as a child growing up in Kinston, N.C.
One day following Hurricane Hazel, his father took a 13-year-old Peery and two of his young friends to the Neuse River near his hometown. In the water was the C.S. Neuse, a Confederate ironclad that had been scuttled in the river.
Thanks to Hazel, more of the ship was available for inspection, as the hurricane had stripped away much of the sandbar that had collected around the vessel. He and his friends ended up recovering 14 explosive shells from inside the ironclad.
Roughly 14 years later, Peery took a trip to the Virgin Islands where he learned to scuba dive while staying in St. Thomas. Back in the states, he dove on a Confederate ship that had been used as a blockade runner through the North’s economic quarantine of Southern ports.
A hook the size of an anchor had been set in his jaw.
It wasn’t long before Peery, then a student at Duke Medical School, embarked on the second of his dual careers with the purchase of two books. He wanted to put together a manuscript library capable of answering any question he could come up with on his dives.
Nearly 30 years later, Peery, going through federal bankruptcy proceedings and under threat of losing his home at 13 Church St., sold his collection to the South Carolina Historical Society for $2.5 million.
The collection outstripped expectations, as it now contained 10,000 artifacts ranging from swords, ship models, flags, to one-of-a-kind manuscripts, books, maps, charts, and engravings.
But the purchase of the collection in 1997 was a contentious one for the Society’s Board of Managers, especially for some Society members since Peery had been a board member in the past.
Facing financial problems, Peery called C. Patton Hash, an employee of the Society in charge of special events at the time. Peery needed help inventorying his collection. Hash helped compile two inventories, the first was a short list that was presented to a local museum for sale. It was turned down.
The second was a grander inventory that Hash put together in order to present to the Society.
After the Society purchased the collection, Hash wrote more than glowingly about the collection in its magazine, comparing it to the “mines of Ophir, King Solomon’s mines.”
While some decry that purchase a bail-out, it should be pointed out that as a private nonprofit, the Society can do anything it likes with its funds.
A Room with a Purview
Former Society member Randy Sparks wrote a blistering letter to one of the Society’s magazines, Carologue, in the summer of 1998 heavily criticizing the purchase.
Sparks, a former College of Charleston history professor who is now an associate professor of history at Tulane University, wrote that he was “shocked and dismayed” that the Society had jeopardized its hard-won financial health with the purchase.
“When I first read the announcement, I was stunned; one, by the price, and two, by the nature of the collection itself — it just didn’t fit with our mission,” Sparks said from his New Orleans home last week.
“I was concerned that we were buying memorabilia, at best. The Historical Society is not a museum — how was it going to display the items?”
Invited to a committee meeting not long after his letter was published, Sparks shared more of his concerns with some of the members of the Society’s board.
“I asked about how the appraisal of the collection was done. I pressed them on the appraisals” of the collections. He claims that at the time he didn’t get a straightforward answer.
It bothers him that Hash, who introduced the collection to the Society and who had done the inventory of the collection, didn’t have a college degree.
While sure that Hash’s knowledge of the Civil War is impressive, Sparks, who holds a doctoral degree in history, says it’s an “arcane knowledge” versus a knowledge of the larger picture.
Sparks worries that the Society may have been influenced by information he described as “trivia” better suited to a “Civil War gameshow.”
While he does not dispute the actual value of the collection, Sparks sees sinking that kind of money into it as problematic for the Society.
“South Carolina history is most impressive during the colonial era. Now it seems that many at the Society want to turn away from that and focus solely on the Civil War.”
On the topic of South Carolina history, not all of the collection is directly related to the state. Born of Peery’s obsession with all things related to blockade running, the collection covers events that happened in other states and with the Union navy.
Peery defends the collection’s breadth and expanse, saying, “If you want to understand the Union’s blockade, you have to understand the South’s blockade running; and if you want to understand blockade running, you have to understand the blockade; if you want to understand the Union navy, you have to understand the Confederate navy, and conversely, if you want to understand the Confederate navy, you have to understand the Union navy.”
This is, of course, coming from a man with more than an encyclopedic knowledge of blockade running in the Civil War who amassed more than 10,000 items related to it.
All Things South Carolinian
David Percy, the current executive director, says that the purchase of the collection was a major turning point for the S.C. Historical Society, which was going through an identity crisis.
Some in the community didn’t even know it existed; others couldn’t differentiate it among the Historic Preservation Society and other local organizations. One of its members acknowledges it had become known around town as the “Hysterical Society.”
“The purchase was a wake-up call — the Society needed to assume the role of a historical society for the entire state. Up to that point, it had really always operated as the ‘Charleston’ Historical Society.”
It was founded in 1855 by James L. Pettigru and others “in order to collect, preserve, and publicize everything that has to do with the history of South Carolina.” A pretty broad mission statement to be sure.
For its first 120 years, the Society moved around a bunch before alighting in its present home in the Fireproof Building at 100 Meeting St. in the ’40s.
In 1970, the Society took over the entire space from the county, with which it had been sharing the building. It was at this time that the Society became less of a “club” and more of a professional organization as it hired a professional staff.
The Society is mainly a manuscript museum with over 40,000 photographic images and 30,000 individual publications on top of its million manuscripts. The largest historical society in the state with 4,000 members, it serves those needing source materials for novels, books, research, histories, and genealogies.
Probably the seventh-oldest historical Society in the nation at almost 150 years old, it publishes the oldest continuous history magazine in the nation, The South Carolina Historical Magazine, which is 101 years old.
The Blue and the Gray ... and the Green
For all its history, the Society was short on cash. When it eventually agreed to purchase the $2.5 million collection, it only had an endowment of $1.2 million.
In order to acquire the collection and make sure it didn’t fly north (and other points on the compass), the Society would have to look outside its own bank accounts.
The only way the Society could beat the bankruptcy court to the collection was to acquire it. It first approached Ted Turner, the Atlanta-based media king who keeps a place in Colleton County and whose company was filming a movie on the Hunley.
Turner’s people declined to pick up the tab. So, faced with the probability of the collection being scattered in a diaspora of public auctions, the Society decided to buy it outright.
Since it didn’t have the money on hand, it turned to banks for a loan. Eventually, it landed two non-collateral, interest-only loans to cover the $2.5 million price tag.
Anyone who’s ever gotten a loan knows that $2.5 million collateral- and principal-free loans don’t grow on trees. But when Mack Whittle is a member of the Society, those loans became easier to harvest; Whittle is also the president of the holding company which owns the Bank of South Carolina.
Whittle, speaking from his Greenville office, bemoans the loss of so much of the state’s cultural treasures. He hates that local museums have had to look “north” to bring back some old Charleston items and artifacts for an exhibition here.
He also insists that the loan wasn’t a hard sale around his office, considering the collection had been valued as high as $6.5 million and that august members of the Society had also signed the loan.
But the Society knew it would never be able to pay down the principal, so it began casting about for another buyer. A buyer that would keep the collection together and keep it in-state.
How much is that cannonball in the window?
When someone goes to buy a house, they hire their own appraiser to remove any conflict of interest about the value of the home.
So why did the Society rely on appraisals done by men hired by the seller, Dr. Charles V. Peery?
“The Society was confident in the job done by the appraisers because, and this was before I got here, it was done for bankruptcy court,” says executive director David Percy. “So they knew that their work would have to stand up in court. And the Society got a signed appraisal from each of the men.”
Those appraisals puts the value of the collection in the $6.5 million range. The Society is in the process of having another appraisal done presently.
It should be noted that in his original inventorying of the Peery collection, Hash wrote that it contained 15,000 items. The collection the state is buying for $3.5 million, $500,000 more than what the Society paid for it, lists only 10,000 items.
So where did the other 5,000 items go?
Last year, in a written appeal to its members, Society president Jack W. Burnett wrote that at the end of the cataloging process, “those items that do not fit within our mission will be offered for sale.”
Percy says that some items from the collection have been sold, mostly poorer copies and editions of materials and duplicative items.
But does that mean the state is paying an extra half-million for a stripped down collection?
Percy says no, that the 5,000 item swing is largely a result in difference in counting procedures. “When you get a box filled with bound newspaper volumes, do you count each of the issues singularly or as a whole?”
Regardless, state Sen. Glenn McConnell plans to have yet another inventory and round of appraisals “to make sure what is on the bill of sale is what we get.”
If you want to change history, become a historian The Society had yet another problem when it came to the collection: it had no place to put it.
A longtime member, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect his access to the various collections, complained bitterly of what he called the “unprofessional archival standards in place” at 100 Meeting St.
Walk around inside the building and it’s easy to see what the member means. Peery’s collection is stored partially in the hallways of the Fireproof Building, stacked in boxes on the ground, leaning up against the wall.
This is how a jewel second only to the Hunley should be handled? Peery gives an audible snuff when asked about the storage of his life’s work.
(It’s also not the only collection that hasn’t been cataloged.)
The Society always knew it would have to find a permanent home for the collection. The idea of an addition being tacked on to the back of the Fireproof Building would not be realistic. Across the street, an addition to an historic county courthouse was torn down and the building overhauled recently.
Not all of the collection is packed away; on the wall of Percy’s office is a French map detailing the attack on Sullivan’s Island, June 29, 1776. It’s pretty neat.
First Things First
But before the Society had to struggle with funding, cataloging, storing, displaying, culling, or selling the collection, it had to get its hands on it in the first place.
In a series of suits and counter suits, Dr. Peery and the Society went after each other in court.
The Society alleged that Peery had withheld three of the 10,000 items on the bill of sale. He alleged right back that he had done no such thing and countersued.
One of the three items, the painting “The Wando,” now hangs over a mantel at Peery’s Church Street home
With the lawsuits settled out of court, the Society’s Percy now says that none of the three items were on the bill of sale. According to the executive director, Society staff had seen the items with the rest of the collection and incorrectly assumed that they were part of it.
That “Wando” painting — alternately known as “Let’er Rip, Boys” — was a special problem for the Society’s fund-raising staff, as it had been used in promotional brochures soliciting donations.
Like the state, even donors want to make sure they’re getting what they’re paying for. Even if they’re just paying to protect it.
Known by the Friends You Keep
Even though interest in Confederate and Civil War history continues to increase at an incredible level, it’s like any other field of history or academic study in the sense that the number of people at the top of the field number less than 100.
So it’s not hard for someone like Peery, who once traveled to England to track down a full ship’s model, to have known practically anyone in the field.
Practically anyone includes Robert “Skeet” Willingham.
According to a story that appeared in the Athens Banner Herald-Daily News, “On July 25, 1986, librarians in the [University of Georgia’s] main library’s Felix Hargrett Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection told police that they couldn’t find a rare 1882 map of South Carolina.”
More and more items turned up missing, including an atlas that once belonged to George Washington and a million-dollar collection of illustrations by French painter Redoute. Suspicion ran to Willingham.
Willingham, the acting director of the rare books room at the time of the discoveries, was eventually convicted of 13 of 14 counts of theft and sentenced to prison. He was released in 1993.
University officials documented as much as $1 million in materials missing from the room. Because of an insurance snafu, the university was only able to recover $65,000 in compensation for the lost items.
Peery admits that he and Willingham were friends. This friendship has cast doubt as to the “provenance” of his collection. In short, there is grumbling that some of the items in the collection might be stolen. Peery denies any part of the collection was stolen.
(Willingham has since gone straight and is now the historian for a rural Georgia county.)
Peery had been seen in town shopping with Willingham at private rare book libraries. The two men were close enough for Peery to have spent a night at Willingham’s house in the past.
When asked if there was any way to make sure that every item in the collection hadn’t been stolen, Society executive director Percy says, “No.”
Does that mean that the state is buying a stolen, or partially stolen collection, on top of its other criticisms?
Before an item is “accessioned,” or properly cataloged by a dealer or a collector or an institution, its provenance is tricky to establish. But once properly accessioned, it is far easier to trace an item.
Percy says he has personally handled much of the collection, and that he saw no other collection marks or library marks on any of the items. Also, none of the 10,000 items has turned up on the FBI’s missing lists, he says.
Mike Parrish says he also saw no such markings or signs of theft when he was appraising part of the collection. Parrish is an archivist at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library at the University of Texas and compiled the book Confederate Imprints, considered one of the best bibliographies of texts published during the Confederacy.
Pork v. Vision
“You know why there has been such intense scrutiny of this collection?” asks state Sen. Glenn McConnell. “Because it’s a Confederate collection.”
The chair of the Hunley Commission and Civil War reenactor says not one peep would have been made about it, especially all the criticisms coming from Columbia, had it not been a Confederate one.
In a story that appeared last month in The State newspaper, a curator at the State Museum in Columbia accused McConnell of conjuring the half-million dollars to buy the option on the collection “out of thin air.”
“When we (the General Assembly) spend money in Columbia, we’re seen as being ‘visionary,’ but when we spend it on the coast, it’s ‘pork,’” responds McConnell.
The senator sees the $500,000 outlay as economic development money, though that’s not where it came from in the state’s $5.6 billion budget. And he defends it as such.
“I’ll stand by it until someone proves to me that it’s not a good business deal for this area,” adding that the State Museum has received $29.5 million from the state over the last five years.
McConnell sees the collection, which he calls “breathtaking,” as an integral part of a future Hunley museum, drawing even more vital tourist dollars.
He complains that it’s been difficult to lure any major industrial development south of Ridgeville other than the occasional chemical plant.
S.C. Historical Society executive director David Percy is correct when he opines that a society is more than just “bricks and mortar.” Building a balanced society takes more than just roads and buildings.
Public funding has had some enormous successes in this country, regardless what some “fiscally conservative” politicians might claim.
This collection will probably suffer the same fate every large capital outlay project with ties to public monies in the Lowcountry — be it the S.C. Aquarium, the new Cooper River Bridge, Charleston Place, or whatever — it will start out as a hotly debated line item before fading into a welcome addition to our cultural fabric.
The Hunley museum, wherever it may finally land, will probably be a huge success in the same way the aquarium has been, too, as it crushed visitor expectations. (Not bad for the “finest aquarium in the country” outside of Monterey, Chicago, Chattanooga ...)
Like the Confederate flag, the collection and the money spent on it to help interpret the Hunley will probably always draw the ire of some in the state. And with good reason: any museum acts to celebrate not just exhibit its wares, and that should never sit well with a slave state.
Without “Confederacy Fever” gripping South Carolina and beyond, this collection would surely have never been purchased by the state. But, as Percy points out, “historical societies thrive during ‘manias,’ “just like this one did in 1776 during the bicentennial.”
So, in the end, the Lowcountry will doubtless have a popular Hunley museum, people will come from all over the world to visit it (but we all know what states they will mostly come from), and it will add to the local economy.
But it won’t be a completely rosy picture.
In the beginning of this article, it was stated that governmental budgeting processes have always been about stealing from Peter to pay Paul. Well, “Paul” may be a chronically ill schizophrenic who got sicker because the state cut the program that helped him stay connected with his family and on his medication.
He may not be as excited as a gray-flanneled, Civil War reenacting “Paul” who cries every time he hears Dixie played.