I am not a big fan of historical impersonators. More often than not their interpretations reflect a consensus view that simply reinforces deeply held beliefs. The goal seems to be more entertainment than education. Such is the case with Tom Dugan, who pulls off a pretty good Lost Cause-inspired interpretation of Lee. Here is Lee the beleaguered slavemaster who wants nothing more than to see slavery end. Even a cursory perusal of Lee’s letters or the recent biography by Elizabeth Brown Pryor reveals a very different attitude regarding slavery and race. A bit more disturbing is the Lee who never quite gets over the “high watermark of the rebellion” – even before it had become the high watermark. Funny, that I am here reminded of Michael Fellman’s overly-psychological interpretation of Lee. I would love to bring Dugan in to perform for my Civil War Memory class. It would make for a wonderful discussion.
After all, Stonewall Jackson was an active member in Lexington’s Presbyterian Church. He even worked to teach enslaved and free blacks to read the Bible. All of this should appeal to black Americans, who to this day and as a group closely identify with Christianity. Robert E. Lee spent the last few years of his life in Lexington where he served as president of Washington College. During Reconstruction and beyond black Americans identified the crucial role that education would play in their collective success. Taken together both Lee and Jackson have been singled out as embodying Christian virtue and whose lives have been held up as worthy of emulation.
So, should black Americans celebrate Lee-Jackson Day?
A number of readers took issue with last week’s post in which I reduced the celebration of Lee-Jackson Day, here in Virginia, to free parking. I guess I could have provided some thoughtful analysis about the almost complete lack of interest in this particular day as a result of changing demographics as well as other factors.
So, since I didn’t make my own personal view sufficiently clear, let me do so now. The reason I don’t celebrate Lee-Jackson Day is because I don’t celebrate the cause for which Lee and Jackson are remembered. They are remembered for their service in an army that functioned as the military extension of a government that was committed to perpetuating slavery and white supremacy. I find it simply impossible to distinguish between the individuals in question, including their many virtues, and the cause for which they attached themselves to. Because I abhor slavery I am glad that the Confederate government, along with Lee and Jackson, failed and that our national sin of slavery was abolished.
I don’t think I’ve stated anything controversial here. I do hope, however, that it clarifies things.
Tomorrow is Lee-Jackson Day here in Virginia. What that means for Virginians is a day off for many state employees. [I am proud to work at a school where we have Monday off in honor of Martin Luther King.] For the rest of us it should be a day without having to deal with parking meters. Unless, of course, you live in the city of Norfolk. It turns out last year the city continued to issue tickets to meter violators. Luckily a local news channel pointed out the problem to the city, which promised to make the necessary corrections. Let’s just hope that the city doesn’t make the same mistake this year and that all proud Virginians are able to embrace the true meaning of Lee-Jackson Day.
In all seriousness, I’ve never attended a Lee-Jackson Day event. Perhaps it is time to head on over the Blue Ridge Mountains to Lexington for Saturday’s festivities. It looks like the SCV has cooked up a real Lost Cause love fest. Interestingly, a PBS affiliate will be filming a documentary on the history of Lee-Jackson Day. That could be quite interesting.
Check out this interesting article on Lee, Jackson, and King from the Alexandria Times.
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.