Tag Archives: Arlington House

Black Confederates Didn’t Exist in 1914

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”!

If it is a black Confederate soldier it would be news to Moses Ezekiel as well as the folks who gathered to dedicate the monument in 1914.  Consider the original, published history of the monument by Hilary A. Herbert:

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. Continue reading

Arlington House, Public History, and Tourism

258001 robert_lee_memorialI 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.

Continue reading

Talking Abolitionism at Arlington House

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.

Whose Arlington House?

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.

Arlington House Postcard

Remembering Arlington House

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.

Postcard of Arlington House