Arlington National Cemetery

Reading this week:

  • Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason K. Stearns

I am at least a week late in posting this and several weeks late in writing it, but during October my super amazing girlfriend and I, along with another friend of ours, visited Arlington National Cemetery. I think of Arlington Cemetery as an old haunt of mine because my grandpa is buried there along with an uncle and aunt of mine. On top of that, I went sailing with Ted Kennedy one time, and since he is buried there too I have plenty of reasons to visit.

For those not in the know, Arlington Cemetery is located on the site of Robert E. Lee’s estate. It’s more accurately the estate of his wife, Mary Anna Custis Lee, but it became a cemetery when Union Soldiers buried their war dead in her garden as a sort of revenge against Confederate General Lee. The house was built by Mary’s father, George Washington Parke Custis, and I gotta say that man certainly understood the importance of location, location, location. The picture above of course doesn’t do it justice, but his front porch is almost certainly the absolute best place to look over Washington, DC, in its grandeur and depravity.

In all my visits to the cemetery, this was the first time that I actually toured the house. It’s fine. I mean it’s a very nice house, but it isn’t my first plantation house. We somehow wound up between guides, but from what I overheard from the group ahead of us the tour guides were very good at centering the story of enslaved persons in the house and highlighting their identity and personhood. I also hadn’t realized before that next door, but down a little path and through a garden, is a whole (but very tiny) museum on Robert E. Lee.

The point of this blog post is my huge disappointment with how they presented Robert E. Lee at Arlington National Cemetery. They swung for nuance but whiffed by trying to teach the controversy. I have some sympathy here, because it is hard to have a museum about a guy and not try to make him sound okay. But they can and should do better.

The central moral dilemma in the story of Robert E. Lee is his decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army to go fight for the south. He had to decide, and the museum details this at length, whether to remain loyal to his country or to his state. This was undeniably a real moral dilemma for our man Lee, as evidenced by his letters on it. Since this museum is in the context of Arlington Cemetery, they highlight the personal cost of the decision, which was that (among other things) his family would have to abandon the estate as the Union could obviously not leave it in Confederate hands. Nevertheless, he decided his loyalty to the state of Virginia was more important than his loyalty to the United States.

As I tried to lay out in my post on Mt. Vernon, it is important to understand the decisions people made in the context that they made them. For this reason it is necessary to highlight that during this time period, loyalty to one’s state had much more salience than it does today. Hence, the difficulty of Lee’s decision. This is the story the museum tells and the story people who want to use Lee’s legacy for their own benefit want you to know. But as we know today, and as was in fact clear to the men of Lee’s time, the choice to remain loyal to Virginia or to remain loyal to the United States were not moral equivalents.

Lee’s decision to betray his country and join the Confederacy was a choice to lead men into battle and to their deaths, and risk his own life, in order to uphold the institution of slavery. The Confederacy tried to will into being by use of force a country founded on the principle that people are not created equal, that it is the natural order of things that certain people can be bought and sold because the color of their skin means they have no value as people. The moral decision that Lee made was not whether to remain loyal to his state or to his country, and by presenting it that way the museum makes it seem plausible instead of obscene. The moral decision that Robert E. Lee made, after much thought and consideration, was that some people had no inherent right to life or freedom. By presenting it any other way, the museum does at least some work in continuing to deny the personhood of Black people.

That is the central wrong the museum does, but there are other offenses. As we should all be aware by this point, there has been more than a century of work to repair Lee’s reputation. The museum makes hay of Lee’s apparent efforts towards reconciliation. Should Lee get credit for trying to bring the country together when it was his purported military prowess that did the most to tear it apart? Should you trust a glowing quote about Lee from 1925, during the tail end of the (first) height of the Lost Cause narrative? [1] Inside the house, they have a sign detailing that President Ford pardoned Lee in 1975. Without commentary, they quote President Ford as saying “General Lee’s character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride.”

What are we taking pride in here? The character of a man who thought there were principles more important than the concept that every person is created equal and has the right to life and liberty? Fuck right off.

[1] Actually, from what I can tell Louis Cramton was a pretty great guy. However, the context of that quote is that they were trying to fend off a museum that more fully glorified both Lee and the Confederacy, and the compromise they made was to only glorify Lee a little. Tell you what guys, this is how they always get you: they get you to admit someone had some nice moments, and use that to gloss over the fact he fought to maintain the right to enslave other human beings.