It’s a Cemetery, for Crying Out Loud!

Arlington National Cemetery. photo by Rachel Larue.

by Donald Smith

Apparently, it is the will of the United States Congress that, in the interests of sensitivity and inclusiveness, we go into our cemeteries, and then search for and remove items that might offend someone who’s not related by blood or heritage to anyone buried there. The Congressional Naming Commission (CNC) has recommended that the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery be removed, and the Secretary of Defense has concurred. The Congress, at least according to the CNC’s final report — which has mysteriously gone offline  — has given its blessing to the CNC’s recommendations.

The Confederate Memorial, sculpted by Moses Ezekiel, does not sit on the Washington Mall. It’s not on Capitol Hill, in the Rose Garden or Dupont Circle, or leering over Interstate 95. It’s in a cemetery. In order to see it, you have to go to non-public places — the cemetery itself, or a parking lot at Fort Myer, an Army base adjacent to Arlington’s western border.  

If you do go to Arlington to see the memorial … you really have to want to see it.   It’s on the other side of the cemetery from the welcome center and visitor’s parking. The shuttle tour through Arlington does not stop at the Confederate section, Section 16. Two friends have visited the memorial on four separate occasions over the past two years, and the shuttle drivers never mentioned the existence of the Confederate cemetery, much less how to find it. Don’t use the official Arlington Cemetery map as a guide: it doesn’t label the Confederate section. (Much like the Richmond city tourism maps that didn’t label the Lee, Jackson and Stuart statues on Monument Avenue).  

Once you get to the Confederate cemetery, you’ll see the memorial. It stands in the center of more than 400 Confederate graves, radiating out from the memorial in six concentric rings. If you look outside the Confederate section, you’ll notice some differences between the Confederate graves and the others in Arlington. The “regular government headstones” on most Arlington graves have curved tops, but the tops of Confederate gravestones are pointed. Graves in most of Arlington are arrayed in rows, but the Confederates are buried in a circle around the Ezekiel sculpture. This should allay the fears progressives and hypersensitive people might have that visitors might confuse Confederate graves with those of other Arlington dead.

The Confederate Memorial is at the edge of Arlington Cemetery, not its center.  It’s surrounded by, and secluded within, a large multi-layered circle of graves. Does this sound like an item that dominates and contaminates the atmosphere at Arlington? Or does it sound like a piece of art that reflects the culture and worldview of the people who are buried around it? The question answers itself.

Does the Confederate Memorial send messages that modern-day people reject? YES! The “History of the Arlington Confederate Monument,” published by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1914, says explicitly that the monument depicts “a faithful negro body servant following his young master.” Ezekiel and the UDC wanted his sculpture to illustrate, as they saw it, “the kindly relations that existed all over the South between the master and the slave.” If you think that’s hard to fathom, try this: “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. [with this memorial] is to correct history.”

“The past is a foreign country,” said British writer L.P. Hartley. “They do things differently there.” And they think and believe differently there. In the mid-and-late nineteenth century, many white Southerners — believe it or not — saw some benevolence in the institution of slavery, because they felt blacks were incapable of managing their own affairs. Many of their grandparents were Loyalists, and they believed that kings had a divine right to rule and the authors of the Declaration of Independence were crackpots. Many of the Union soldiers who defeated the Confederacy then went West and subjugated Native American tribes who they deemed to be inferior peoples. (William T. Sherman, in his 1885 autobiography, praised the industrious white farmers and ranchers who pushed “useless Indians” off the prairies and made those lands productive farms and ranches.) Men of all races thought of women as second-class citizens well into the twentieth century. And, up until the Gulf War, “marriage” was commonly accepted as the union of one man and one woman. People who held all of those beliefs — beliefs most of us now reject, and in some cases barely comprehend — rest at Arlington.  

Leaving the Confederate Memorial alone does not mean that 21st-century Americans endorse, or even condone, the impressions that Ezekiel and the UDC held, over 100 years ago, about the nature of relations between slaves and white society. It would instead be a way to demonstrate that Americans recognize, as the Arlington website says, that America’s history is “complex.” (It would also show we have a sense of perspective, and we don’t want to be perceived as a society that’s shallow, easily offended and prone to overreact.) Complex subjects are usually complicated, and America’s history is complicated. Removing the Confederate Memorial would indicate that modern-day Americans are having problems dealing with the many complex, complicated social and cultural issues arising from our past. That’s not a good look for a superpower.  

The correct response is to acknowledge the obvious: some of the sentiments embodied in the Confederate Memorial are not only not shared by modern-day Americans, but actively and passionately rejected nowadays. Then … take the high road. Let the Confederate dead lie in peace, in a remote place, buried around a monument designed more than a century ago to honor them and soothe the pain of their families. It would be petty and mean-spirited to do otherwise. And, a great nation and world leader should not do petty and mean-spirited things.

Donald Smith was raised in Richmond. His mother was born in a house not far from VMI, and family members still live there.