I took some time today to reread some material related to my small project on the challenges of interpreting slavery at Arlington House. Most of my time was spent with a 2004 report that was done by Kevin Strait as part of a cooperative project between the NPS and the Center for the Study of Public Culture and Public History at George Washington University. [You can read the report online: (www.cr.nps.gov/crdi/Arlington_House_Survey.pdf)]
Strait and a small team conducted a series of interviews with NPS staff at Arlington as well as a small survey of visitors on their impressions of how effectively slavery is interpreted at the site. The findings suggest that there is much that can be improved at the site. This alone situates Arlington within a broader narrative of the past thirty years that finds museums and historic sites working – and sometimes struggling – to find ways to improve their interpretations of slave life and the complexity of race relations. As of 2004 tours were self-guided with interpreters situated at key points throughout the house. The house tour, according to one staff member concentrates almost exclusively to “tell the story of Robert E. Lee.” Unless the question/issue is raised by a visitor almost nothing is mentioned by the interpreters during the house tour. A survey of 60 visitors revealed the following:
Question #3: When touring the house did you learn anything about slavery? [Yes: 10] and [No: 50]
Question #4: Did you gain any insight on the relationships between slaves and masters? Between slaves and slaves? [Yes: 10] and [No: 50]
Question #8: Did you learn anything new about race or slavery during your visit? [Yes: 0] and [No: 60]
The survey can be found on p. 14 of the report. The slave cabins are accessible along with a few interpretive markers, but there are no regular interpreters on hand to answer questions and tours of slave life are reserved for Black History Month and other special occasions. This glaring lack of attention to slave life leaves the visitor with a disconnect between the relationship between the slave cabins and Arlington House itself. I will come back to this later. Most interesting in this survey are the written responses. One in particular suggested that Arlington “is sacred ground. It is a netural place, no race, color, religion should be mentioned here.” When I first read this report and this comment in particular I wrote it off as just another example of our inability and unwillingness to acknowledge slavery as integral to understanding both Robert E. Lee and the Civil War in general. No doubt, this is part of the story, but it may have as much to do with the bigger challenge of properly interpreting life at Arlington within the broader environment of a national cemetery.
By 1900 the grounds of Arlington had come to be defined not simply as the former home of Lee, but as sacred space devoted to the nation’s fallen soldiers. In the twentieth century this identification would only become more deeply embedded in the nation’s collective consciousness and, as a result, relegate Arlington House and its history to a footnote. Consider the following from the 1892 publication of Historic Arlington by K. Decker and Angus McSween:
Here every year come thousands to pay their quota of the nation’s debt to the dead Men women and children in an endless procession pass through the portals of the national cemetery and stealing from the bustling world in which they move spend moments of silent reverence among the dead No one enters who does not realize more fully than before the heroism of those whose monuments they view and few there are whose patriotic impulses are not quickened and their sentiments ennobled by a contemplation of the scene presented.
The long rows of white headstones and the imposing shafts of marble and granite that stretch away in picturesque order on every hand bring recollections of a scene far different and before the mind passes in review memories of battles fought where glorious deeds but led to death where for the cause they loved these men gave up their lives And as these recollections of the past transform the sleeping dead once more into the living heroes the marble slabs and the inscriptions that they bear change also and from the sterile name and date that mark each stone appears the record of the soldier’s glory. [pp. 8-9]
Decker and McSween sketch this scene as an introduction to the broader history of the home and surrounding landscape, but it seems to me that the vast majority of visitors today enter these sacred grounds to pay their respects to the fallen and to see the “Eternal Flame” at the Kennedy grave site and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. If I am right than most visitors who happen to stop for a tour at Arlington House may know that it is the home of Lee, but because of the surrounding landscape have no context for understanding it as a former plantation site. In short, most visitors walk the grounds of a cemetery rather than a cemetery that was once a large plantation that served as a Freedmen’s Village as well as a cemetery for fallen Union soldiers.
At the same time we do need to acknowledge the wide gulf in our historical understanding between both G.W.P. Custis and R.E. Lee and their relationship with the institution of slavery – a subject that has been severely distorted for much of the twentieth century. In Decker and McSween we can see the form it would take through much of the following century. In reference to the former:
Mr. Custis at this time conducted his estates on a system that was almost like the governing of a small principality. The Arlington estate was his home and upon it he did very little farming for profit. His income he derived from what he called his farms in Westmoreland county. The Arlington estate was simply his private grounds and its cultivation at all was for the purpose of providing for the numerous slaves that he kept about him. In his treatment of his negroes Mr. Custis was as considerate as he was regarding any other class of human beings and the glaring evils of slavery were never apparent upon his property. Each slave had a house apportioned him and a bit of ground the produce of which he owned as securely as if his title to the land he occupied was duly recorded in the records of the county courts.
The slaves were of course compelled to give a good portion of their time to the master’s service but their work was not hard and they were liberally provided for in decrepit old age as well as in sturdy youth. Mr. Custis also respected the domestic relations of the negroes and the separation of mothers from their children and of wives from their husbands was a practice in which he never indulged himself and which he abhorred in others. As a result his slaves were devoted to him. He was not only a kind master but was their friend and delighted as much in joking with them and in making harmless fun of them as he did in the conversations of his neighbors. Active both in mental and physical exercise Mr. Custis’s out door life at Arlington was at once to him a source of pleasurable recreation and of physical health and vigor.
Whatever the truth is about Custis’s treatment of his slaves, the paternalism that was already so predominant in antebellum pro-slavery tracts is clearly discernible. More importantly, it tells us very little about the men, women, and children who were owned by Custis. Lee’s own attitudes towards the slaves he would eventually inherit from Custis bear the same markings:
Though opposed to the institution of slavery which he regarded as a moral and political evil he was of the unalterable opinion that the matter was one that under the Constitution the States had the right to regulate for themselves and he denied absolutely the right of the non holding slave States to interfere. He believed the emancipation of the negroes would sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery controversy. He was too much of a patriot to believe that the country could possibly be disrupted over the question but he saw with feelings of the gravest apprehension that it was as he expressed it rushing rapidly towards the verge of anarchy or civil war.
Again, whatever the truth of these claims happens to be, the narrative fails to help us in any way to better understand the lives of the slaves who made Arlington their home. On the other hand, the excerpts from Decker and McSween’s Historic Arlington may help us to better understand our visitor who would have park officials say nothing about slavery at Arlington on what he describes as “sacred ground.” The comment may, in the end, suggest a unique challenge for NPS interpreters at Arlington. First, they must bring their interpretation more in line with recent scholarship on slavery, the Civil War, and Lee specifically. We cannot fully understand the home or Lee without a fuller understanding of slave life and the same holds true for understanding slave life at Arlington. And they must do this in an environment where visitors may not be prepared to consider such controversial topics such as slavery and race after walking through such a solemn space that speaks to what binds us as Americans rather than with what once divided and continues to prove difficult to grapple with as Americans. This means that NPS officials must work extra hard to bring visitors out of one world and into another if they hope to impress upon them the importance of the home and its complete history.
Fortunately, the history of slave life can easily be integrated into the surrounding grounds given its history as a Freedmen’s Village. Few people who visit know that an entire section of the cemetery is devoted to former slaves who lived on the grounds well after the war ended. In that same section are rows of United States Colored Troops, which opens up numerous possibilities to link the history of slave life with the broader history of service and sacrifice, which is so rooted in the surrounding landscape.
I’ve only just begun to think about the various interpretive threads that need to be explored in this essay so your comments are most welcome.