I am working to finish up an essay on Robert E. Lee’s Arlington House for a collection of essays on Southern Tourism edited by Karen Cox. The tentative title is, “The Robert E. Lee Memorial: A Conflict of Interpretation”. My research on this subject has taken a couple of turns since I agreed to be a contributor to the project. It started out with a focus on slavery, but I am now looking more broadly at how various parties debated over how to interpret the home as part of Arlington National Cemetery. Much of my focus is on the 1920s and 1930s and the long-term consequences of what took place during that time. What follows is a very rough introduction to the essay that hopefully provides a taste of where I am going with this. Comments are welcome, especially those that are critical.
As many of you are now learning John Latschar resigned as superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park. You can read the story here. What follows is my first video blog in which I offer some final thoughts about yesterday’s post. It is meant to clarify some of my remarks, specifically in response to Eric Wittenberg’s initial comment. Things did get a bit heated yesterday and I want to extend an apology to Eric for my choice of words in response to his comment. I hope the video helps to explain the emotion behind my response. Eric and I may not agree on much of anything, but the one thing we do agree on is that, if it comes to it, our Phillies are going to kick the crap out of Brooks Simpson’s Yankees.
Given my current work on public history at Arlington House I thought I might share this upcoming event in connection with the Civil War Sesquicentennial. On October 10 the National Park Service will present a program on John Brown’s Raid that features Fergus Bordewich, author of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, as the guest speaker. It seems fitting to hold an event that highlights Robert E. Lee’s connection with the Brown raid given his role in seizing control of the town and the federal armory and preventing a slave insurrection. All too often we think of Lee’s involvement in this event as extending no further beyond the strict military role he played. Of course, Arlington was a large plantation and while Lee was away much of the time he was responsible for carrying out the terms of George Washington Parke Custis’s will (1857) which included the terms for emancipating his slaves. [I highly recommend Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s treatment of Lee’s views on slavery as well as the controversy surrounding the emancipation of Custis’s slaves.]
I think it interesting to think of the ways in which such an event changes the ways in which the visitor understands the relationship between Lee, Arlington House, and the surrounding landscape. Lee becomes much more than a colonel in the United States Army. We see Lee as a white Southerner who worried about the direct threat against the slaves under his control and the broader social and racial hierarchy that slavery supported. The threat against his property connects directly with the home itself, which is so often depicted as a peaceful place or as the ideal antebellum domestic space. [see here and here] Finally, such an event allows for the visitor to imagine a landscape that was once occupied and worked by slaves who constituted the largest population on the plantation. The Lee’s may never have returned to Arlington after the war, but it is important to keep in mind that many of its occupants did and this we can understand as constituting one of the long-term consequences of John Brown’s raid. The focus on abolitionism at Arlington House also opens up space in which to discuss the establishment of a Freedman’s Village for newly-freed slaves. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is the challenges involved in interpreting Arlington House as a former plantation given the fact that the surrounding landscape has been turned into what many Americans deem to be sacred ground. It seems difficult given that both Lee and Arlington House have been so successfully disconnected from slavery. Events that stress this side of history are important if we hope to have a more complete understanding of the multiple and competing meanings that are inherent in this site.
Here is another postcard of Arlington House, which is dated 1928. Notice the similarities with the last image I posted, especially the children positioned in the center. Postcards are wonderful little cultural artifacts that tell us quite a bit about how a historic site is interpreted/remembered and by whom. The image of the front of the home cut off from the surrounding landscape of Arlington National Cemetery as well as the slave quarters in the rear of the building evokes a peaceful scene that would be easily recognizable to middle class white Americans.
I am just beginning the writing stage of my project on Southern Tourism and Arlington House for a book of essays that is being edited by Karen Cox. The research is fascinating and I am learning quite a bit about the history of how both the home and the surrounding landscape have been interpreted. I am interested specifically in the evolution and challenges associated with interpreting Lee’s decision to resign his commission in the United States Army within a broader “sacred” landscape that is dedicated to remembering those who gave their lives for this country. The essay also touches on the challenges associated with Lee, slavery, and the Lost Cause. Here is an interesting postcard of Arlington House that I came across, which dates to the 1960s.