The other day Andy Hall challenged the common assumption that the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery contains a black Confederate soldier. I encourage you to read Andy’s thoughtful analysis. You will find images of this monument on countless websites along with colorful interpretations that seem to confirm the existence of these men. While Andy cites the California Division of the SCV’s website, I am going to return to G. Ashleigh Moody’s response over at the Virginia Sesquicentennial’s Facebook Page. Apparently, he wasn’t pleased with my initial post, but this will give me the opportunity to quote him in full. Here is what he has to say about the Confederate monument:
One of the most “telling” monuments to the South and including Black Confederates and other Black Southerners is this 1912 (pre-PC) Confederate Memorial towers 32 and 1/2 feet and is said to be the tallest bronze sculpture at Arlington National Cemetery. On top is a figure of a woman, with olive leaves covering her head, representing the South. She also holds a laurel wreath in her left hand, remembering the Sons of Dixie. On the side of the monument is also a life size depiction of a Black Confederate marching in step with white soldiers, and among other life size depictions, a Black woman receiving a baby as a father going off to war. These are the stories that bring people together, not the Neo-Yankee version of the South that we are having to endure today. We could do with a lot less “presentism”!
But our sculptor, who is writing history in bronze, also pictures the South in another attitude, the South as she was in 1861-1865. For decades she had been contending for her constitutional rights, before popular assemblies, in Congress, and in the courts. Here in the forefront of the memorial she is depicted as a beautiful woman, sinking down almost helpless, still holding her shield with “The Constitution” written upon it, the full-panoplied Minerva, the Goddess of War and of Wisdom, compassionately upholding her. In the rear, and beyond the mountains, the Spirits of Avar are blowing their trumpets, turning them in every direction to call the sons and daughters of the South to the aid of their struggling mother. The Furies of War also appear in the background, one with the terrific hair of a Gordon, another in funereal drapery upholding a cinerary urn.
Then the sons and daughters of the South are seen coming from every direction. The manner in which they crowd enthusiastically upon each other is one of the most impressive features of this colossal work. There they come, representing every branch of the service, and in proper garb; soldiers, sailors, sappers and miners, all typified. On the right is a faithful negro body-servant following his young master, Mr. Thomas Nelson Page’s realistic “Marse Chan” over again.
The artist had grown up, like Page, in that embattled old Virginia where “Marse Chan” was so often enacted.
And there is another story told here, illustrating the kindly relations that existed all over the South between the master and the slave — a story that can not be too often repeated to generations in which “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” survives and is still manufacturing false ideas as to the South and slavery in the “fifties.” The astonishing fidelity of the slaves everywhere during the war to the wives and children of those who were absent in the army was convincing proof of the kindly relations between master and slave in the old South. One leading purpose of the U. D. C. is to correct history. Ezekiel is here writing it for them, in characters that will tell their story to generation after generation. Still to the right of the young soldier and his body-servant is an officer, kissing his child in the arms of an old negro “mammy.” Another child holds on to the skirts of “mammy” and is crying, perhaps without knowing why.
It’s ironic that Mr. Moody accuses others of falling into the trap of presentism. His assertion is a textbook example of just such a move: reading into the past through a lens defined by our own assumptions and values. The problem here is that black Confederates did not exist in 1914. You will not find a reference to black Confederate soldiers in any of the public addresses given at the monument’s commemoration nor will you find them in newspaper coverage of the event. While there may be a few scattered references to black Confederate soldiers at this time, I have yet to come across one. And I suspect that the reason they don’t exist is that white Americans have no use for it.
At the height of Jim Crow the image of the faithful slave works just fine to maintain white supremacy and a collective memory of the Civil War that has pushed aside the theme of emancipation. Actually, it would be surprising to find an emphasis and celebration of armed black Confederate soldiers at a time when African Americans (throughout the United States) were expected to be compliant. There is some evidence for this in Virginia. Up until the early twentieth century Virginia allowed blacks to form their own militia units. I studied these organizations in the Petersburg area during the course of my research on the battle of the Crater and historical memory. These units openly celebrated the end of slavery as well as the participation of black soldiers in the United States army. I found no references to their role as soldiers in the Confederate army. Their influence and level of public activity sharply declined following the collapse of the Readjuster Party in the mid 1880s. The decline and eventual elimination of the black militias corresponded with the erosion of black civil rights that culminated in Virginia’s new state constitution in 1903.
No, black Confederates are a much more recent phenomenon. In fact, as I’ve suggested before, their presence in popular Civil War circles more than likely dates to the late 1980s, following the success of the movie, Glory, and its focus on the sacrifice and struggles of black Union soldiers. I suspect that the movie made some feel defensive about identifying with the Confederacy and, as a result, sought something to balance the moral scales. By demonstrating the existence of black Confederate soldiers it can be shown that emancipation was unimportant to southern blacks and that their identification with the Confederacy negates any claim that the government was pledged to protect slavery and white supremacy.
However, even if I am wrong with this, the Confederate monument at Arlington does not contain a black Confederate soldier.