Category Archives: Southern History

What is Arlington House?

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.

Two Steps Forward and One Step Back

The Charleston Museum is set to unveil a new exhibit that extends their permanent exhibit beyond 1865 with “A Storm Beyond Control: Freed Slaves and Political Mobilization in Reconstruction South Carolina.”  That’s right, up till now, for one reason or another, the museum ended its history of the state with the end of the Civil War.  That means that the history of African Americans in South Carolina only encompassed the institution of slavery.

That powerful narrative went largely unchallenged here until the late 20th century, but since then the racial and cultural myths at its core have aged poorly, causing decades of controversy and indigestion for numerous local institutions. Which raises the question: Did From Slaves to Sharecroppers represent another evolutionary step away from the aristocratic party line?  Museum Assistant Director Carl Borick doesn’t think so, contending the organization made a break from the past when it updated its mission in the 1980s.  “Since 1983, we’ve been pretty up-front about our history,” Borick says. “The museum has been very open to admitting the good and the bad. Slavery was what it was. We show that in our permanent exhibit.”

But good history also teaches us a healthy respect for irony, and no matter the efforts of its current employees, memory at the Charleston Museum remains highly selective. Glorious victory at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in 1776 gets a special display case. Humiliating defeat on the peninsula in 1780 — the largest surrender of patriot troops in the Revolutionary War — essentially goes unmentioned. Captured German and Japanese weapons from World War II? They’re on display. But the Charleston Hospital Strike of 1969? Nada.

Well, better late than never.  Meanwhile, just north of Charleston in Berkeley County, the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans [General Ellison Capers Camp 1212] is asking the local school board to close in honor of Confederate Memorial Day on May 10.  Although the holiday falls on a Sunday the SCV is encouraging the schools to close on Monday.  And what does this particular chapter hope the kids should do on this day off from school?  Any suggestions on how to honor their Confederate heritage, including the African American students in the district?  They don’t say.  In fact, you will not find anything educational on their website, which is the case for just about every SCV website that I’ve come across.  Check out the video in the link if it is still functional.  The head of this particular chapter is a real whoot.

Abe and Me

08I‘ve never quite understood the vehement anger expressed by some for Abraham Lincoln. Yes, I get the libertarian concern that Lincoln’s policies reflect a fundamental shift in the size and scope of the federal government. Funny that they rarely express the same concern for Jefferson Davis who went just as far in suspending civil liberties as well as increasing the size of the federal government in Richmond. More prevalent, however is the view that has been shaped by generations of white Southerners who see Lincoln as the man who unleashed the likes of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan on an innocent southern populace that only wanted to be left alone to govern themselves and preserve their “way of life.” The agendas of both constituencies – one economic and the other emotional/scar-ridden – end up with an interpretation of Lincoln that resonates very little with me as a historian and as a citizen.

One of the first books I read when I first discovered the Civil War back in the mid-1990s was David Donald’s Lincoln. Lincoln had never appeared on my radar screen before, but he has occupied a central place in my reading on the war and nineteenth-century America ever since. I’ve devoured well over 100 books on Lincoln and even with everything I’ve read I can still read more. No other historical figure comes close to challenging my appetite for Lincoln studies. There were a number of things that stood out in those first few books that caught my attention. I was fascinated with his early life, his apparent ambition and concern for his own future, which revealed itself early on, and most importantly, his struggle with depression. At the time I was struggling with it myself along with a lack of direction in my life. I don’t remember learning anything about Lincoln’s personal life in high school, but this aspect of his personal profile struck a chord with me and perhaps even provided me with a little strength. In short, I felt I had a connection with the man.

That said, my interest in Lincoln has never come close to hero worship. The realm of history has never provided me with a forum for developing those kinds of connections. [The only person in my life who deserves that kind of respect and admiration is my own father.] Rather, I’ve embraced the study of history as an intellectual exercise, one that involves bringing to bear my limited analytical abilities and love for a good story. I am not trying to protect or defend a preferred interpretation of any one aspect of the past nor do I see it as a stage where good battles evil. Those who do “take sides” inevitably simplify and cherry pick their narrative to suit their own personal agenda. There is very little that I believe about the Civil War compared to when I first started reading about it fifteen years ago. I hope that fifteen years from now my understanding of Lincoln and the Civil War have progressed to a similar point. There is nothing sacred in my understanding of the past; it’s all open to reinterpretation and it is something that I actively pursue.

That being said, it would be dishonest to suggest that my view of Lincoln is entirely objective – whatever that might mean. In the end, I approve of the outcome of the war, including Lincoln’s decision as commander-in-chief to begin the process of emancipation, which eventually led to the end of slavery. That said, I am under no illusions regarding Lincoln’s racial outlook, though I am struck by the difficulty of so many in distinguishing between his moral view and the specific policies he supported as president during a civil war.

More importantly, however, my outlook on Lincoln and the war stems from my pride as a citizen of this country. The union that Lincoln helped preserve is the nation that I live in and call home. I must assume that this is what undergirds most people’s understanding of Lincoln at some level. With this in mind, it seems strange to ask why Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee’s recent bicentennial failed to attract the same level of enthusiasm around the country. Even in the South you will find plenty of programs to honor the memory of Lincoln throughout the remainder of this year. If we accept the assumption that the South is one of the more patriotic regions of this country than it should come as no surprise that Lincoln’s life and legacy would be honored this year. The bicentennial celebrations of Lincoln seem fitting as a celebration of the history of this great nation, even if I tend to look on more as an observer rather than as a participant when it comes to its more emotional and hagiographic moments.

For me, Abraham Lincoln will always be a subject open to further study and contemplation as well as the president who helped bring an end to slavery and worked to secure the future of this nation – warts and all. And yes, I find myself falling deeply in love with the man.

CFP: Historical Tourism in the American South

n36619244_35369672_232My friend and fellow historian, Karen Cox, has issued a call for papers for a proposed collection of essays on tourism in the American South.  Karen already has a number of historians involved in this project, including yours truly.  I am going to contribute an essay on Arlington House and the evolution of the NPS’s discussion of slavery on the grounds.  Over the past few years I’ve collected some information on this subject so it will be nice to be able to finally do something with it.  Karen is already in contact with a publisher and has been given an advanced contract so it is likely that the collection will see the light of day.  What follows is the CFP as well as Karen’s contact info. if you are interested.  [oh...and I stole the image from K's Facebook page.]

This is an invitation to submit proposals for essays to join others in a book (now under advance contract) that explores historical tourism in the American South.  Historic sites, for the purposes of this volume, are those places that have been restored and/or adapted for the purpose of preserving some aspect of southern history and interpreting that history to the public. This volume will be divided into four sections each exploring a different aspect of tourism to sites of southern history and memory and proposals should fit into one of the following categories:

People and Places:  will examine individual southerners and the historic sites preserved to tell their story.

War and Remembrance: will examine Revolutionary, Civil War, Spanish-American sites in the region.

Race and Slavery: will examine historic sites that interpret slavery or civil rights.

Landscape and Memory:  will examine tourist sites that are concerned with the physical environment.  Suggestions include cemeteries, Rock City, the Virginia’s Natural Bridge or the Florida Everglades.

Final essays will be 20-25 pages in length and will be accompanied by illustrations.

For consideration, please send a brief CV and a 1-page abstract by April 1, 2009 describing your topic to: Karen L. Cox, Editor, Department of History, UNC Charlotte, kcox@uncc.edu

A Moment of Insight or Confusion?

1877_6thregimentI’ve always struggled to understand what I’ve assumed to be a radical transformation that took place within the Republican Party between Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.  As the story goes various pressures within the Republican Party caused them to abandon their Reconstruction agenda along with black civil rights, which allowed white “Redeemers” to reestablish white supremacy.  The emphasis on abandonment implies fundamental change with a moral twist; it doesn’t help that much of what I know about the Gilded Age and industrial revolution comes from the textbooks that I use in my AP classes. Most textbooks divide chapters between Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, which works to reinforce a sharp distinction between the Republican Party of Reconstruction and beyond.

I had one of those rare insights last week when it finally dawned on me that it is my preoccupation and interest in race and emancipation that has clouded my ability to more fully understand the history of the Republican Party beginning in 1855 and through the rest of the nineteenth century.  We tend to forget that the Republican Party was organized primarily around an economic agenda following the demise of the Whig Party and in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  The Party initially took shape around the Great Lakes, which pushed hard for internal improvements and a federal government that would encourage and protect the development of industry.   Most Republicans had little interest in racial issues and insisted on preventing slavery from moving into the western territories so as to encourage white Americans to settle and free labor to thrive.  I recently finished reading Marc Egnal’s fine study of the economic origins of the Civil War.  He spends a great deal of time on the formation and evolution of the Republican Party’s platform through the war and into the early 1880s.  The book has helped me to place the focus back on the core pieces of the Party’s economic philosophy and the way in which their position on slavery reinforced it.

My aha moment occured when I realized that in the same year that federal troops were ordered back to their barracks in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana as part of the Compromise of 1877, they were ordered by Repubican President Rutherford B. Hayes into the North.  This was in response to what one politican called “the overwhelming labor question” which could be seen in the country’s first national walkout–the Great Railroad Strike.  In the aftermath of 1877, the federal government constructed armories in major cities to ensure that troops would be on hand in the event of further labor difficulties.  In 1892 the governor of Idaho declared martial law and sent militia units and federal troops into the mining region of Coeur d’Alene to break a strike, and in 1894 federal troops were sent to Chicago to help suppress the Pullman Strike led by the American Railway Union, whose 150,000 members included both skilled and unskilled railroad laborers.    Rather than see the abandonment of the South as a betrayal of Republican values it now seems more accurate to suggest that their movement of federal troops north reflected a continued commitment to the protection of the new engines of economic expansion: Carnegie Steel, Standard Oil, and the railroads.  By 1880 foreign workers and unions constituted more of a threat to the future of capitalism than unreconstructed white Southerners.  In short, the Republican Party was carrying out the policies that had defined it from the beginning.