“The Robert E. Lee Memorial: A Conflict of Interpretation”

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.

9 comments… add one

  • Brian B. Apr 6, 2009

    Great ideas that unfortunately I don’t think will ever be implemented so long as there are people who view Lee on a pedestal, and those who only see him as the face of the confederacy and in turn, slavery. Historic Arlington represents a chance to address the issues you pointed out above, the paradox of what’s become hallowed ground for America and it’s uglier past as a place where men, women, and children toiled as slaves. It’s also a place where the veil of embellishment surrounding Lee can be pulled back and where we can catch a glimpse of the real man because Lee’s interactions with the slaves of Arlington is relevant to knowing who he really was as well as being a place that meant a lot to the Lee family who were devastated when it was turned into a cemetary thereby rendering it a place they could never return to.

  • John Apr 6, 2009

    Kevin,

    Besides being a lover of history, I am also the son of an English teacher and the grateful recipient of her love of language and its proper use. As you say, this is an abstract; but one particular sentence stuck in my head which caused my grammar antennae to twitch. You wrote, “However, absent 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.” With all due respect, it should have been, “Absent, however, was …” I really should have been a copy editor if such a job still existed.

    Respectfully Submitted etcetera etcetera,
    John

    • Kevin Levin Apr 7, 2009

      Thanks John. This is what happens when you fail to pay attention during grammar lessons.

  • Sara Bearss Apr 9, 2009

    This suggestion may be quite beyond what you can accomplish in a single essay, but have you considered trying to bring into the story the free blacks who lived at Arlington alongside the slaves? The 1850 census records twenty-one free blacks living at Arlington. Some of these are members of the Syphax family (the children of Maria Carter Syphax, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis whom he informally freed and provided for; one served in the postwar Virginia House of Delegates while another was an important figure in the postwar D.C. school system), but others seem to be free or freed people who had elected to remain with enslaved family members. It adds depth and richness to the story, but it may be much more than you want to tackle in an essay-length study.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 9, 2009

      Sara,

      I have actually thought about this aspect of the story. My plan is to reference it, but as you noted, there is the question of where to fit it in a 20-page – manuscript length essay.

  • johnny Sep 22, 2009

    Well lets see Lee freed his slaves which he inherited and Grant kept his until forced to free them under the constitutional amendment. Pot calling the kettle black eh? sorry for the pun.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2009

      Johnny,

      I recommend you read Elizabeth B. Pryor’s recent biography of R.E. Lee for his views on slavery and what happened to the Custis family slaves. For Grant you should read Brooks Simpson’s biography. Most people know that the slaves in question did not belong to him, but to his wife. Please take the time to inform yourself.

  • Bob Pollock Sep 22, 2009

    Kevin,

    Very slight correction here. Julia never owned any slaves. She was “given” slaves as a child by her father. Although she acted as if she owned them and she wrote as if they belonged to her, her father never legally transferred ownership to her. They were legally owned by him. As I’m sure you also know, Grant did own one slave which he freed in March 1859. The manumission paper states that Grant purchased this slave from his father-in-law but since Grant had virtually no money at the time, it seems likely that if Grant actually paid anything at all, it was a nominal sum.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2009

      Bob,

      Thanks for correcting me. Maybe I need to go back and reread Simpson’s biography. Hey Johnny, Bob is the expert on these matters so listen up.

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