UPDATE: Following this Daily Beast report on whether the president should continue a Confederate Memorial Day wreath tradition, Obama started a new one this morning, honoring African-American soldiers.
Even Memorial Day offers a minefield for Barack Obama: The White House sends wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery every year, but more than 60 academics, including the celebrated Civil War historian James McPherson, urged the nation’s first black president to leave out one particular monument this time: the Confederate Memorial.
“I don’t think it appropriate for a president to send a wreath honoring a group that tried to break up the United States.”
McPherson, a professor at Princeton University, is the author of the classic Civil War history Battle Cry of Freedom. He told me in an email this week that he signed the petition, sent to the White House last week, because “I don’t think it appropriate for a president to send a wreath honoring a group that tried to break up the United States—especially a president who sees himself in many ways as an heir to Abraham Lincoln.”
But for a president who also casts himself as a conciliator, the issue could be more complicated.
Arlington is better known for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—where presidents lay a wreath before a battery of television cameras on Memorial Day—and for the eternal flame marking John F. Kennedy’s grave. A handful of more obscure homages to veterans scatter the hallowed square mile where more than 300,000 troops who served their country are buried. One sculpture honors those who died in the Spanish-American War. Another honors nurses.
The cemetery’s history, though, is most intimately linked to the bloody conflict that ripped the country apart over slavery and secession. Arlington was carved in 1864 from the confiscated estate of the Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee, while the war was still raging and the Union’s injured and dead were streaming into the capital city of Washington. According to military historian Rick Atkinson, the burial ground was placed there, on the banks of the Potomac just south of the city, to prevent Lee’s family from ever occupying the stately home there again, and to punish the general for his treason in leading rebels against the United States. The Union had a more practical reason, too: There was really nowhere else to put the bodies. Hospitals and graveyards had simply run out of room.
Bitter feelings ran high for decades afterward. It wasn’t until 1900 that Congress allowed the remains of Confederate veterans to receive the honor of burial at Arlington, and even then—here’s an irony—they were segregated in their own section of the property. The United Daughters of the Confederacy raised the money for a monument for the Confederate section, and in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson dedicated the memorial by sculptor Moses Ezekiel on the 106th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis—who was, of course, the president of the Confederacy.
From then on, the White House marked Davis’ birthday with a wreath for the memorial each year. During the administration of President George H.W. Bush, the date was changed to Memorial Day.
James Loewen, a sociologist at the University of Vermont who is spending the year at Catholic University of America, and Edward Sebesta, an engineer who has spent years writing about modern-day white supremacy and “neo-Confederate” politics, decided that Obama might be the one to end the practice.
They drafted a letter, which reads in part: “It isn’t just a remembrance of the dead. The speeches at its ground-breaking and dedication defended and held up as glorious the Confederacy and the ideas behind it and stated that the monument was to these ideals as well as the dead. It was also intended as a symbol of white nationalism, portrayed in opposition to the multiracial democracy of Reconstruction, and a celebration of the re-establishment of white supremacy in the former slave states by former Confederate soldiers.”
They had collected 49 signatures, including those of McPherson, William Lee Miller of the University of Virginia, and Roger G. Kennedy, director emeritus of the National Museum of American History, by the time they mailed it to the White House last Saturday. More than 60 have now signed, said Loewen.
Calls to the White House and to the president general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy were not returned.
The petition has caused a stir in historians’ circles. One Virginia high-school history teacher, Kevin Levin, wrote in his Civil War history blog: “While I am sympathetic with their view of this matter, I think it would be a bad idea for Obama to end this practice. While I do not agree with all of Obama’s policies, the one thing that I have come to appreciate is his willingness to engage constructively with those he disagrees. The president’s visit to Notre Dame this weekend is a case in point and reflects his enthusiasm for taking on extremely complex and emotionally charged issues in a mature and honest manner…This man cares what others believe.”
Ending the practice, Levin wrote, would exacerbate racial tensions rather than calm them.
There is room for interpretation on the monument itself. A poem on the north side appears to call for a hero’s status and understanding for the vanquished:
Not lured by ambition / Or goaded by necessity / But in simple / Obedience to duty / As they understood it / These men suffered all / Sacrificed all / Dared all—and died.
A Latin motto is also inscribed on the sculpture: Victrix causa diis placuit, sed victa Catoni.” The translation: “The victorius cause was pleasing to the Gods, but the lost cause to Cato.” Sebesta says the implication is that Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant and the Union unjust, while Cato, who loved freedom, would have chosen the side of the South.
Certainly the commander in chief of the United Confederate Veterans, who spoke at the memorial’s dedication, hewed to that point of view. According to the historians’ letter, he declared: “The sword said the South was wrong, but the sword is not necessarily guided by conscience or reason. The power of numbers and the longest guns cannot destroy principle nor obliterate truth.”
Judy Pasternak is a Washington-based journalist. She is writing a book, Yellow Dirt: The Betrayal of the Navajos , which recently won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award. It will be published by Free Press.