Tag Archives: Robert E. Lee

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

So It Was a Holy Cause After All

Pope Benedict and the Confederate FlagUpdate: I don’t mind having to admit a mistake every once in a while, but this time I really dropped the ball.  I thought I had confirmed this story with a sufficient number of SCV websites, but Karen Cox tells me that the entire story is apocryphal.  Ruth Ann Coski, who used to work at the Museum of the Confederacy, carried out the necessary research and discovered that the crown was made by Varina Davis.  It looks like the Myth of the Lost Cause is indeed just a myth, but I would still like to know why Pope Benedict is standing in front of a Confederate flag.

I had no idea that Pope Pius IX sent Jefferson Davis a hand-written note along with a crown of thorns during his brief imprisonment following the war.  The note included the following: “Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” and supposedly the crown was handwoven by the thorn. Robert E. Lee, pointing to his own portrait of Pius IX, is supposed to have told a visitor that he was “the only sovereign…in Europe who recognized our poor Confederacy.” The crown is located in a museum in New Orleans.  Apparently, Pope Benedict is continuing the Catholic Church’s tradition of sanctifying the Confederate cause.  So, it looks like the Myth of the Lost Cause wasn’t a myth after all.  I had no idea.

How Well Do You Know Robert E. Lee?

As part of a search for information on Robert E. Lee and Arlington House I came across teaching materials that I assume are to be used for home schooling purposes.  It includes a multiple choice test.  Let’s see how well you do and remember that some of the questions have more than one answer.  Good luck. Here is the link, which includes a “history” as well as the test.

1. _____ In Lee’s January 22, 1861 letter to his cousin, Martha Custis Williams, whom does he state can save us; and from what? (Circle one)
a. The Federal Government
b. The media; bad publicity
c. The Union; anarchy
d. God alone; folly, selfishness, short-sightedness and sin

2. _____ In his General Order; whom does Lee state is our only refuge and strength? (Circle one)
a. The Confederate Army
b. The cavalry
c. Stonewall Jackson
d. Almighty God

3. _____ According to Chaplain Jones of the Confederate Army, the result of this Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer was a work of grace among the troops, which widened and deepened, causing at least: (Consult your text and fill in the blanks)
a. 500 professions of faith in Christ as a personal Saviour
b. l,000 professions of faith in Christ as a personal Saviour
c. 5,000 professions of faith in Christ as a personal Saviour
d. 15,000 professions of faith in Christ as a personal Saviour

4. _____ What results does Chaplain Jones state “eternity alone shall reveal” in terms of Robert E. Lee’s actions during this Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer? (Circle one)
a. Lack of interest and participation
b. Absence
c. Quiet influence and fervent prayer
d. Resignation and “moment of silence”

5. _____ Colonel Johnston was an intimate friend of Lee, and a distinguished faculty member of his college. In his eyewitness account of the General’s dying moments reflect Lee’s true character traits in action. They are: (Circle all correct answers)
a. Impatience
b. Anger
c. Reticence
d. Hatred
e. Self-contained composure
f. Obedience to proper authority
g. Boastfulness
h. Magnanimity
i. Bitterness
j) Christian meekness