The following is an abstract for an essay that I am contributing to an edited collection on tourism in the American South, which is being edited by Karen Cox. Your feedback and questions are strongly encouraged.
In recent years Civil War landscapes (especially battlefields) have come under increasing pressure from various interest groups to broaden their site interpretations beyond a traditional narrative of national reconciliation and the heroism of the Civil War soldier. The evolution of Civil War historiography over the past few decades as well as the changing racial and gender profile of public and private institutions has led to calls for increased attention, among other things, to slavery and race along with the roles that women and civilians played in the war. As the custodian of some of the most prominent and sacred Civil War sites, the National Park Service has been on the front lines in working to manage the tension between and within groups who continue to struggle for control over this nation’s collective memory. Overlooking Washington, D.C., Arlington National Cemetery, surrounding the Robert E. Lee Memorial, which is also known as Arlington House, serves as a repository for the U.S. military dead while the home functions as a shrine to the life and legacy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Like other Civil War sites, the problem of how to meaningfully interpret slave life has proven to be the most vexing for National Park Service staff in recent years. Specifically, a 2004 report on the subject highlighted just how little information is being shared with the general public as well as a certain amount of resistance from visitors who question whether slave life is even relevant to understanding Robert E. Lee, Arlington House, and the surrounding grounds.
The challenge for the NPS in bringing their interpretation of Lee’s home more in line with recent scholarship and in integrating competing narratives long ignored has much in common with other related landscapes. When in 1925 the NPS took over Arlington House, it concentrated on Lee himself by restoring the home to the period just before the Civil War, thus providing the proper context in which to emphasize his decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army and eventually align himself with the Confederacy. In doing so, the NPS presented the general public with a heroic story of Lee that highlighted his ascendancy to the pantheon of American heroes. As late as 1962, the NPS maintained Arlington House as a “national monument to one of America’s greatest men.” Absent, however, was the presence of a large slave population that worked the grounds as well as a Freedmen’s Village at the end of the war. The challenge of presenting slavery at Arlington House within this “Lost Cause” paradigm is, of course, not unique to this particular site.
What makes the ongoing debate about how to interpret the history of Arlington House worth examining, however, is its location within the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery. Specifically, the use of the grounds as a final resting place for fallen U.S. soldiers adds another layer of meaning to the landscape and one that the NPS has struggled to effectively integrate. It is here at Arlington House that visitors arrive after having walked by the “Eternal Flame”, the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”, and row upon row of marble headstones – all of which are symbols of national pride and sacrifice. Such a situation presents NPS interpreters with a set of unique challenges. First, the NPS must bring their site interpretation more in line with recent scholarship on slavery, the Civil War, and Lee specifically because we cannot fully understand the home or Lee without a fuller understanding of slave life at Arlington. Secondly, they must do this in an environment where visitors may not be prepared to contemplate these controversial topics: slavery and race versus the solemn landscape of fallen heroes. One speaks to what binds us together as Americans while the other reminds us of what once divided us and continues to prove difficult to understand.