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.
The highlight of my trip to Richmond this past weekend was the tour of Virginia’ State Capitol. Although I’ve walked by it many times, for one reason or another I never had the time to actually walk through it. Michaela and I decided to tag along with one of their tour guides. We had a nice elderly woman guide us. I have to admit that I anticipated the standard tour that barely scratches the surface of the place, but I was pleasantly surprised within a few minutes of the tour.
Our guide did an excellent job of interpreting the Jean-Antoine Houdon statue of George Washington which sits at the very center of the Rotunda, but it was her knowledge of Rudulph Evans’s famous Robert E. Lee statue in the Old Hall of the House of Delegates that really impressed me. The statue is located at the spot where Lee accepted command of Virginia forces on April 23, 1861. I inquired into the choice of uniform that Evans utilized. In an attempt to impress our guide I noted that Lee would not have been wearing his Confederate uniform at this time since he was only accepting command of Virginia state forces. First, our guide informed me that the likeness was based on a wartime photograph of Matthew Brady, which makes sense after looking at it, but then she asked if I knew what he was, in fact, wearing on that day. With little delay and an apparent knack for putting my own foot in my mouth I said that he would have been wearing his blue U.S. army uniform. How did I know this? I clearly remember the scene in Ron Maxwell’s Gods and Generals. Lee, played by Robert Duvall, is wearing a uniform. Well, it turns out that Lee wasn’t wearing a uniform at all. He was wearing civilian clothing.
Innocent mistake, no doubt, but it does reflect the influence of popular culture on our understanding of the past. What’s funny is that I’ve criticized this movie over and over and I still went to it as a reliable source on this issue. I should know by now that the only reason to reference it is in the context of Civil War memory/mythology and bad film making. Here is the scene:
[Have you ever wanted to embed a YouTube video at some point in the middle? Click here.]
There is an interesting article in today’s Washington Post on the place of Civil War statues in a changing Virginia political landscape. It’s a fairly balanced look at how these sites are interpreted by different constituencies and it directly addresses the connection between political power and how our public spaces are used to remember the past. John Coski explains that connection in pointing out that, “A monument always testifies to power — to who was in power at the time.” The Civil War statues that dominate Monument Avenue in Richmond and the soldier statues that populate local court houses serve as a reminder of white supremacy and a commitment to imparting to the general public a memory of the war that reinforced its preferred view of the past. Such a view worked to reinforce political dominance through much of the twentieth century. One wonders what the landscape of memory would look like if between 1880 and 1920 black Americans were able to take part in the decisions over who and what to remember. How might Monument Avenue appear today under such changed circumstances?
I welcome the debate about how utilize our finite public space in commemorating and remembering the past; however, I worry about the tone that it has taken and will likely take as we approach the Civil War Sesquicentennial. My biggest concern is the language of “tearing down” Civil War monuments that are deemed to be antiquated or even racist. Consider the recent controversy over a prominent Civil War statue in Raleigh, North Carolina involving a columnist who called for the newly-elected governor to tear it down. [Click here for the original column and here for a follow-up.]
I must remember that I approach these questions from the detached perspective of a historian interested in memory and public history and as a teacher who believes these sites need to be properly interpreted. In other words, I understand that people are passionate about these issue. The problem with the language of removal is that it fails to address some of the underlying issues that drive the discourse. It’s ultimately a veiled attempt at covering up the problem rather than working to better understand it or, more importantly, working toward meaningful reconciliation over what the Civil War was about. In the case of J. Peder Zane, however, it seems to me that all he managed to accomplish was to cause the various parties to dig in their heels even more firmly. It leads to defensiveness and suspicion and renders it that much more difficult to engage in meaningful discourse.
I recently took 30 students to Richmond to explore its Civil War heritage through monuments. This was a fairly diverse group of students who have very different opinions as to what the war was about and how it should be remembered. As we walked around the Lee and Davis monuments in Richmond and walked through Hollywood Cemetery we discussed and analyzed the sites and tried to better understand both the time in which they were constructed and their continued place on the public landscape. Even with a diversity of opinion not one of my students suggested that the solution was to remove them from public viewing; in fact, most of them acknowledged in one way or another that it is important for them to remain where they are.
Public spaces are not static. To understand this point is to acknowledge that they reflect the changing dynamics of the people who must live within their midst and, in many cases, maintain their integrity through tax dollars. If that is the starting point than it is incumbent on the community to discuss in as open and as honest a way how these sites should be maintained. I’ve tended to support at least two approaches in those situations when a monument or other structure no longer reflects the values of a substantial portion of the local population. The most common approach is to add to the landscape as in the case of the Arthur Ashe monument in Richmond, but the approach taken in Louisville, Kentucky is also instructive. In 2002, the University of Louisville announced plans to add civil rights monuments around its Civil War statue as part of a new development to be called “Freedom Park”, which will include structures commemorating the Civil Rights Movement. Another way of bridging the divide between the commemoration of a statue and the present is to place interpretive markers that educate the public about the origins of the structure. These do not have to be overly intrusive and can go far in placing the site in its proper historical context. What I like about this approach is that it does not prevent members of the public from attaching their own preferred interpretation or meaning to the structure. Perhaps the best example of this approach is the placement of an interpretive marker at the Heyward Shepherd Marker at Harpers Ferry, which was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1931. [Click here for an excellent overview of the history of this monument and also see Caroline Janney’s recent essay in Civil War History (June 2006).]
I am not overly confident that rational discourse about how to remember and commemorate the Civil War in public spaces is possible. Our culture is much too comfortable with a language of polarization that includes “Red States v. Blue States”, “Capitalism v. Socialism”, etc. Ultimately, we have to want to talk to one another or perhaps we must first learn how to do so.
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.