Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Confederate Memorial at Arlington

I've seen a lot of Civil War statues and memorials. Some of them (the confederate memorials, usually) are problematic. But I'd never seen anything quite like the Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery.

Headstones of dead confederate soldiers surround the statue. The inscription around the bottom reads like many others on many confederate memorials: an affirmation of the honor of the dead coupled with a vague reference to "duty." None of this is particularly odd. But this is:

The image above shows the south side of the relief encircling the middle section of the monument. Just to the left of center a black man marches off to war in uniform. He does not appear to carry a weapon. To the right of center a black woman holds a white child as its father, a confederate officer, embraces it. A white girl tugs at the slave woman's skirt.

The message is clear: slaves loyally supported the confederacy in war. The black man must be a body servant (you can read a fuller explanation of his function here) following his master to the front. The woman, a "mammy," shows the trust and close relationships masters shared with their slaves. In the image above, slaves are like family. All of this adds up to one of the key tenets of Lost Cause mythology: that slaves were happy, well-treated by their masters, and better off as slaves than free. The "duty" inscribed on the memorial, then, is to preserve a social order in which everyone--not just whites--was better off.

The big question I have about this monument is: why does it still exist?

Monuments reflect the political and social climate of the time they were built. But, unless that historical climate is explained, one might mistake a historical idea for a modern one. The Confederate Memorial at Arlington is presented without context, caveat, or interpretation. It is not presented as a historical artifact. It is presented as a memorial to dead confederates. Why? Even if a National Cemetery is an appropriate place to bury confederate dead*, is it an appropriate place to celebrate the Lost Cause? Is it an appropriate place to promote the UDC's (United Daughters of the Confederacy) views from 1912 on the relationship between master and slave, which has been discredited by historians again and again?

I don't know what the political hurdles to removing a memorial are--I'm sure they're substantial. The easier thing--and, perhaps, the more honest, educational, and better thing--would be to add interpretation to the memorial: place a few signs around the statue describing the UDC's organizational goals, the history of the statue's creation, why the memorial is problematic and what it means today.

*One might argue the opposite for many reasons, but perhaps the most important argument (at least in the case of Arlington) is that virtually no confederate soldiers qualify to be buried there because so few of them served in the U.S. army and were honorably discharged.

1 comment:

  1. There were no slaves in the confederate army, there were plenty of free black people of color who were confederate militia infantry with their own regiments. The union actually scoffed at the idea of using black soldiers until they faced the first Louisiana native guard, made up of about 1200 free people of color. After the fall of New Orleans they were given the lovely options of firing squad or switching sides. If you are going to bitch about history, at least get your facts straight. The confederacy didn't allow slaves to join the army because of prior slave rebellions causing a very understandable fear of arming slaves, even putting them in reasonable proximity to arms.