In his speech yesterday in the Lee Chapel at Washington & Lee University, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas noted that Abraham Lincoln is his favorite president. Do you think he realized how inappropriate that comment was as he stood just a few feet from the final resting place of Robert E. Lee?
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.
One of my readers came across this little item in the Mount Vernon gift shop. He thought it would make for a wonderful Hanukkah present for me and I couldn’t agree more. It’s never too early to think about showing your appreciation for your favorite Civil War blogger. At first I was confused as to why Mount Vernon would offer for sale a Lee bobblehead. Well, maybe not too confused. So, what’s the connection? According to the description on the bobblehead box:
Robert Edward Lee, a West Point graduate, was the first to graduate with no demerits during his four years at the Academy. After his graduation he married Mary Custis, the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis. As a General of the Confederate Army his achievements won him a high place amongst the great generals of history. Even after his surrender to General Grant, he was an example of how southern gentlemen should behave by taking action to rebuild the south and urging on his own people to accept the new conditions of the nation. This boxed Robert E. Lee Bobblehead is made of resin and is approximately 7.6” tall.
That’s not very helpful since the supposed connection between Washington and Lee is thought to have been much more substantial. I thought it might be an opportune moment to recycle an old post on just this question. The following was posted last May as I was finishing up Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (Viking 2007). This book is a must read.
One of the early chapters in Pryor’s book deals with the supposed influence of Washington’s memory on Lee’s life. Most of us take it for granted that Lee idolized the first president and even some historians have assumed a “mystical bond between the two men.” Pryor argues that most of these stories surfaced following the Civil War as part of a broader push on the part of white Southerners to justify secession and connect the Confederate experience to the “untarnished greatness” of Washington. Of course there is a great deal of history to work with in forging this connection given Lee’s marriage and his early years which were spent in large part at Arlington and in the shadow of Washington’s memory. Pryor does not ignore any of this evidence, in fact she agrees that the memory of Washington did play a role in shaping Lee’s career and personal behavior.
Readers will appreciate Pryor’s attention to detail, especially in her grasp of the relevant secondary sources. She does not attempt to build a strawman argument here, but cites directly those historians who have pushed this connection to the extreme. The best place to start is with D.S. Freeman’s excellent biography of Lee:
His ideals had their embodiment, for unconsciously he was a hero-worshipper. He viewed his father not as “Light-Horse Harry” was in the tragic years of his speculation, but as he might have been if the promise of his Revolutionary record had been fulfilled. Above his father and every other man he had always placed Washington. The Father of his Country was no mere historical figure to him, great but impersonal and indistinct. Through Lee’s long years of association with Mr. Custis, who knew Washington better than did any man alive in 1850, Washington was as real to him as if the majestic Virginian had stepped down nightly from the canvas at Arlington and had talked reminiscently with the family about the birth of an earlier revolution. Daily, for almost thirty years, whenever Lee had been at home, his environment had been a constant suggestion of the same ideal. He had come to view duty as Washington did, to act as he thought Washington would, and even, perhaps, to emulate the grave, self-contained courtesy of the great American rebel. The modesty of his nature doubtless kept Lee now from drawing the very obvious analogy between his situation and that of Washington in 1775, but the influence and the ideal were deep in his soul. He would not have shaped such a question, even in his own mind, but those who knew him as the inheritor of the Mount Vernon tradition must have asked if he was destined to be the Washington of the South’s war for independence. [Interestingly Freeman does not cite any sources for this claim.]
More recently, Pryor references Richard McClaslin’s book-length study, Lee in the Shadow of Washington. Most of the following commentary can be found in Pryor’s endnotes. McClaslin’s evidence includes letters from Lee’s father on paternal guidance, but they do not mention Washington and there is no evidence that Lee ever read them. In addition, McClaslin cites Henry Lee’s memoirs, but again there is no evidence that he actually read it until after the Civil War or if he did that it had any influence. (fn60, p. 497) Additional footnotes further challenge claims made by McClaslin in reference to the Mexican War and Lee’s decision to continue to improve Arlington for the purposes of displaying Washington relics. In the case of the latter, Lee did indeed add a parlor room in 1855, but the room was filled with Lee family portraits and other items.
One of Pryor’s guiding interpretive assumptions is that our understanding of Lee’s personal side is based on little documentary evidence. We have yet to collect all of his correspondence and while collections of wartime correspondence are available much of the rest of what we believe about Lee is based on fragmentary evidence – especially his early years. In the case of Washington’s supposed influence on Lee, Pryor concludes with the following:
In ten thousand letter pages Robert Lee mentions Washington fewer than two dozen times. He remarks on the public’s interest in its leader; mentions that he looked over a popular biography was sent to him by a friend; notes that celebration of his birthday. Most of these comments are quite casual. In his most enthusiastic writing on the subject, Lee, like others of his day, points to Washington’s wisdom and integrity, and particularly praises his valedictory address to the American people, which, ironically, cautioned against growing sectionalism. But even in his most fulsome expression, the remarks are general, steeped in the national pride of the day, rather than personal feelings. Never does Lee say he idolizes Washington, or that he hopes to emulate him. The closest Lee came to a conscious association was after the war, when he struggled to come to terms with his decision to join the Confederate cause, and cites Washington’s change from British to American allegiance as an example of an earlier crisis of loyalty. But this was after the fact. During those terrible days of 1861 he used Washington’s name quite differently–as justification for maintaining Union. (p. 52)
I think it is important to remind the reader once again that Pryor is not arguing that memory of Washington did not influence Lee, but that the extent of that influence suggested by historians and other commentators is not borne out in the primary source material that is currently available.
I‘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.
I‘ve got 55 exams to grade as well as end-of-the-trimester comments to write over the next few days. But for now I am enjoying the final projects from my students who spent this past trimester studying Civil War Memory. This was one of the most rewarding experiences for me to date. I had a wonderful group of motivated and curious students who thoroughly embraced the subject and who pushed me every step of the way. For their final projects I gave them a wide range of options, but encouraged them to come up with their own ideas. I wanted them to reflect a bit more on some aspect of the course or contribute in some way to the memory of the war. In the end, their projects covered a broad spectrum. One student analyzed the song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band, while another student did a thorough analysis of the Dixie Outfitters website. Two groups of students made documentaries based on our trip to Richmond while another group did a survey of the school community on issues related to the Civil War and memory. Two students chose to reflect on how their own memory of the war has evolved over the course of the trimester. They were quite moving and attest to the continued influence of the Civil War on even the youngest generation. A couple of students chose to write their own commemorative speeches on some aspect of the war; they were accompanied by slides to give the audience a sense of time and place. The photos below constitute just a small sample of what was done.
One student decided to do a couple of sculptures. The one pictured above is titled, “Confederate Bushwhacker Hides from Pro-Union Jayhawker.” Two students sketched their own idea for a Civil War monument accompanied by an essay which outlines its theme and purpose. The first one is titled, “Battle of the Wilderness, May 5th -7th, 1864.” Here is a brief excerpt from this student’s essay:
The monument itself depicts Grant atop his horse with a soldier to his right and another flanking his left side. The horse is slightly prancing, made nervous by the commotion, fire, and lack of visibility. Grant sits erect, holding his hat behind him to urge his men to keep moving forward. There is a bush both directly in front and behind the monument, again giving the sense that these soldiers were fighting in a thicket and had to maneuver around such obstacles. Their muskets are raised, ready to fire, and their bayonets are in place and ready for the hand-to-hand combat and bloody fighting that they faced. The monument is dedicated to the remembrance of Grant and his army, especially the soldiers that sacrificed themselves to make the necessary push forward against Lee’s army, leading the Union to victory.
The next sketch is titled, “Unification, After the War” and features Lincoln, Lee, and a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts:
In the center, President Abraham Lincoln stands strong and composed. He is dressed in his dignified black suit along with his unmistakably famous top hat. I included Lincoln in my monument because he is the reason why the United States survived and was unified after the Civil War. Before the war, Lincoln stated that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Therefore, he stands in the middle of General Robert E. Lee and a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment to emphasize just how right he was. General is placed to Lincoln’s right on my monument. He was the heart of the Confederate Army and fought bravely for the South. His placement besides Lincoln represents the unification of both sides after the war in 1865. To the left of Lincoln I placed a brave soldier from the 54th Massachusetts commanded by Colonel Robert G. Shaw. This soldier symbolizes the start of change in America after the war. Even though laws were not equal for black Americans after the war, victory for the North was the beginning of the transformation of the United States….This monument symbolizes the rebuilding of the United States of America after the war. Each man represented on this monument had a part in this war; therefore they are equally commemorated on it.
I’ve got some ideas about how I can improve the class if I choose to offer it next year. For one, I would like to make it much more hands on for students and allow them to work on more detailed projects. My guess is that this is the first high school elective ever offered on the Civil War and memory. Now that’s pretty cool.