Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Return Forrest to Elmwood Cemetery

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on December 21, 2017

This old post from the summer of 2015 seems relevant this morning.

Forrest

Last week Memphis Mayor A. C. Wharton called for the remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest, his wife, and the monument that stands above them, to be returned to the city’s Elmwood  Cemetery. This move is not unexpected, as monument and the park surrounding it — renamed Health Sciences Park in 2013 — have been contentious in the city of Memphis for a long time now.

This call for Forrest’s return to Elmwood comes, of course, in the wake of several states taking action to remove or end official display of Confederate iconography, from flags to specialty license plates to statues. While I think we, as southerners, need to catch our breath and think a little more deliberately when it comes to monuments of long-standing, there is actually a strong and affirmative case — a pro-Forrest case, if you will — when it comes to the site in Memphis. I’ve communicated with several people who have been interested in Forrest for a long time, and know his story well. They point out that he and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, were originally interred at Elmwood, and it was not until the early 20th century, three decades after the general’s death, that their remains were moved to a central park downtown. It’s a case, in many respects, like that of Robert E. Lee at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, where a later generation decided they knew better than the general himself what he wanted.

At Elmwood, he and Mary Ann would lie again among twelve hundred other Confederate soldiers. (Perhaps it’s not mere coincidence that the statue’s bronze gaze has been fixed on Elmwood all these years.) Besides which, a transfer of Forrest’s remains and re-interment a mile away at Elmwood would give the heritage folks the opportunity for a procession and pageantry the likes of which haven’t been seen since the burial of the H. L. Hunley crew at Charleston in 2004. Lord knows, to so many of Forrest’s fans practicing history consists mainly of dressing up and solemnly parading with Confederate flags. It’s a win for all concerned — for the Forrests, who apparently preferred being at Elmwood; for the city of Memphis that, rightly or wrongly, wants to be done with what used to be known as Forrest Park; and for the heritage crowd that, with a little nudging, can undoubtedly be convinced that a move is actually the right and proper thing to do. A recent Tennessee law would seem to prohibit moving Forrest and the monument, but with everyone on board with it, I’m sure enabling legislation in Nashville is a forgone conclusion.

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Confederate graves at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. Forrest should be here, too.

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The specific circumstances of the Forrest case make that call easy; the case for moving, or removing, other Confederate monuments is more difficult, and requires more deliberation. Speaking for myself, I’m ambivalent about it. While I adamantly support the authority of local governments to make these decisions, I’m not sure that a reflexive decision to remove them is always the best way of addressing the problems we all face together. Monuments are not “history,” as some folks seem to believe, but they are are historic artifacts in their own right, and like a regimental flag or a dress or a letter, they can tell us a great deal about the people who created them, and the efforts they went to to craft and tell a particular story. In 2015 it would be hard to find someone who would unequivocally embrace the message of the “faithful slaves” monument in South Carolina, but it can’t be beat as documentation of the way some white South Carolinians saw the conflict thirty years after its end, and wanted others to, as well. (Maybe York County could put a sign next to it with an arrow saying, “no, they really believed this sh1t!”)

I’ve written before about the Dick Dowling monument in Houston (right). It honors Dowling for his command of Confederate artillerymen at the Battle of Sabine Pass in 1863, but from its dedication in 1905, it was a rallying point for Houston’s Irish community, many of whom came after the war. (It was sponsored, in large part, by the Ancient Order of Hibernians.) Certainly today, as I learned firsthand, the emphasis at the annual ceremony there is much more Irish in character than Confederate. It means a great deal to those folks, many of whose Irish ancestors’ arrival in this country postdates the Civil War by decades. They have no personal connection to the war or to the Confederacy, yet the Dowling monument nonetheless serves as a common bond among them irrespective of the uniform worn by the marble figure at the top. It really would be a shame to lose that.

I think we need to be done, done, with governmental sanction of the Confederacy, and particularly public-property displays that look suspiciously like pronouncements of Confederate sovereignty. The time for that ended approximately 150 years ago. But wholesale scrubbing of the landscape doesn’t really help, either, if the goal is to have a more honest discussion about race and the history of this country. I’m all for having that discussion, but experience tells me that it probably won’t happen. It’s much easier to score points by railing against easy and inanimate targets.

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Forrest monument image via PorterBriggs.com. Elmwood Cemetery image via ElmwoodCemetery.org.

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Return Forrest to Elmwood Cemetery

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on July 2, 2015

Forrest Last week Memphis Mayor A. C. Wharton called for the remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest, his wife, and the monument that stands above them, to be returned to the city’s Elmwood  Cemetery. This move is not unexpected, as monument and the park surrounding it — renamed Health Sciences Park in 2013 — have been contentious in the city of Memphis for a long time now.

This call for Forrest’s return to Elmwood comes, of course, in the wake of several states taking action to remove or end official display of Confederate iconography, from flags to specialty license plates to statues. While I think we, as southerners, need to catch our breath and think a little more deliberately when it comes to monuments of long-standing, there is actually a strong and affirmative case — a pro-Forrest case, if you will — when it comes to the site in Memphis. I’ve communicated with several people who have been interested in Forrest for a long time, and know his story well. They point out that he and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, were originally interred at Elmwood, and it was not until the early 20th century, three decades after the general’s death, that their remains were moved to a central park downtown. It’s a case, in many respects, like that of Robert E. Lee at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, where a later generation decided they knew better than the general himself what he wanted.

At Elmwood, he and Mary Ann would lie again among twelve hundred other Confederate soldiers. (Perhaps it’s not mere coincidence that the statue’s bronze gaze has been fixed on Elmwood all these years.) Besides which, a transfer of Forrest’s remains and re-interment a mile away at Elmwood would give the heritage folks the opportunity for a procession and pageantry the likes of which haven’t been seen since the burial of the H. L. Hunley crew at Charleston in 2004. Lord knows, to so many of Forrest’s fans practicing history consists mainly of dressing up and solemnly parading with Confederate flags. It’s a win for all concerned — for the Forrests, who apparently preferred being at Elmwood; for the city of Memphis that, rightly or wrongly, wants to be done with what used to be known as Forrest Park; and for the heritage crowd that, with a little nudging, can undoubtedly be convinced that a move is actually the right and proper thing to do. A recent Tennessee law would seem to prohibit moving Forrest and the monument, but with everyone on board with it, I’m sure enabling legislation in Nashville is a forgone conclusion. Blank Confederate graves at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. Forrest should be here, too. Blank The specific circumstances of the Forrest case make that call easy; the case for moving, or removing, other Confederate monuments is more difficult, and requires more deliberation. Speaking for myself, I’m ambivalent about it. While I adamantly support the authority of local governments to make these decisions, I’m not sure that a reflexive decision to remove them is always the best way of addressing the problems we all face together. Monuments are not “history,” as some folks seem to believe, but they are are historic artifacts in their own right, and like a regimental flag or a dress or a letter, they can tell us a great deal about the people who created them, and the efforts they went to to craft and tell a particular story. In 2015 it would be hard to find someone who would unequivocally embrace the message of the “faithful slaves” monument in South Carolina, but it can’t be beat as documentation of the way some white South Carolinians saw the conflict thirty years after its end, and wanted others to, as well. (Maybe York County could put a sign next to it with an arrow saying, “no, they really believed this sh1t!”)

I’ve written before about the Dick Dowling monument in Houston (right). It honors Dowling for his command of Confederate artillerymen at the Battle of Sabine Pass in 1863, but from its dedication in 1905, it was a rallying point for Houston’s Irish community, many of whom came after the war. (It was sponsored, in large part, by the Ancient Order of Hibernians.) Certainly today, as I learned firsthand, the emphasis at the annual ceremony there is much more Irish in character than Confederate. It means a great deal to those folks, many of whose Irish ancestors’ arrival in this country postdates the Civil War by decades. They have no personal connection to the war or to the Confederacy, yet the Dowling monument nonetheless serves as a common bond among them irrespective of the uniform worn by the marble figure at the top. It really would be a shame to lose that.

I think we need to be done, done, with governmental sanction of the Confederacy, and particularly public-property displays that look suspiciously like pronouncements of Confederate sovereignty. The time for that ended approximately 150 years ago. But wholesale scrubbing of the landscape doesn’t really help, either, if the goal is to have a more honest discussion about race and the history of this country. I’m all for having that discussion, but experience tells me that it probably won’t happen. It’s much easier to score points by railing against easy and inanimate targets.

_________

Forrest monument image via PorterBriggs.com. Elmwood Cemetery image via ElmwoodCemetery.org.

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Dick Dowling and the Immigrant’s Call to Arms

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on February 7, 2014

DowlingStatueI’ve been honored to be asked to give a short talk at the annual Dick Dowling Statue Cleaning and Ceremony in Houston on Sunday, March 16 at 1 p.m. This event is now held in conjunction with the city’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration, but actually goes back more than a century, to 1905. The statue is believed to be Houston’s oldest public monument.

Last year, Houston writer and journalist John Nova Lomax spoke at the ceremony.  He also wrote that “today, Dowling the man is only remembered by Houston’s rapidly vanishing (if not downright extinct) coterie of Confederate apologists, military historians, and the local Irish community, who honor him at his statue every St. Patrick’s Day.” I’m not really sure where that leaves me, but I’m going to give it a shot. My working title is “Dick Dowling and the Immigrant’s Call to Arms.”

It should be fun. In the meantime, here’s a great profile by my fellow blogger Damian Shiels of John Thomas Browne (1845-1941), a native of County Limerick, who served as a Confederate soldier in his teens and went on to become Mayor of Houston in the 1890s. Damian has a new book coming this spring, The Irish in the American Civil War, that should be fantastic.

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Image by Flickr user Denaldo Dillo, under Creative Commons license.

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Oh, About that Black Confederate at Arlington. . . .

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on October 23, 2010

One of the oft-cited elements in discussion of Black Confederates is the inclusion of an African American figure (left) in the frieze encircling the Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery. The monument, funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and dedicated in 1914, includes around its base a bronze tableau of Confederate soldiers marching off to war, answering their nation’s call. The young black man, wearing a kepi, marches alongside a group of soldiers; the others are armed but the African American carries no visible weapon. Nonetheless, his presence among the soldiers is usually presented as prima facie evidence that African Americans, too, were enlisted as soldiers in the Confederate Army. He’s cited on multiple websites, such as here, here, here, here and here; a web search on the phrases “Black Confederate” and “Arlington” generates several thousand hits. This descripti0n, on the blog of the California Division of the SCV is typical:

Black Confederate soldier depicted marching in rank with white Confederate soldiers. This is taken from the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery. Designed by Moses Ezekiel, a Jewish Confederate, and erected in 1914. Ezekiel depicted the Confederate Army as he himself witnessed. As such, it is perhaps the first monument honoring a black American soldier.

Sounds pretty convincing. Too bad it’s not, you know, true. As James W. Loewen and Edward H. Sebesta point out in their recent anthology, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, the booklet published by the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the time of the monument’s dedication gives an entirely different identification. Going back to that original text, it is detailed and explicit:

But our sculptor, who is writing history in bronze, also pictures the South in another attitude, the South as she was in 1861-1865. For decades she had been contending for her constitutional rights, before popular assemblies, in Congress, and in the courts. Here in the forefront of the memorial she is depicted as a beautiful woman, sinking down almost helpless, still holding her shield with “The Constitution” written upon it, the full-panoplied Minerva, the Goddess of War and of Wisdom, compassionately upholding her. In the rear, and beyond the mountains, the Spirits of Avar are blowing their trumpets, turning them in every direction to call the sons and daughters of the South to the aid of their struggling mother. The Furies of War also appear in the background, one with the terrific hair of a Gordon, another in funereal drapery upholding a cinerary urn.

Then the sons and daughters of the South are seen coming from every direction. The manner in which they crowd enthusiastically upon each other is one of the most impressive features of this colossal work. There they come, representing every branch of the service, and in proper garb; soldiers, sailors, sappers and miners, all typified. On the right is a faithful negro body-servant following his young master, Mr. Thomas Nelson Page’s realistic “Marse Chan” over again.

The artist had grown up, like Page, in that embattled old Virginia where “Marse Chan” was so often enacted.

And there is another story told here, illustrating the kindly relations that existed all over the South between the master and the slave — a story that can not be too often repeated to generations in which “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” survives and is still manufacturing false ideas as to the South and slavery in the “fifties.” 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. is to correct history. Ezekiel is here writing it for them, in characters that will tell their story to generation after generation. Still to the right of the young soldier and his body-servant is an officer, kissing his child in the arms of an old negro “mammy.” Another child holds on to the skirts of “mammy” and is crying, perhaps without knowing why.

My emphasis. “Faithful negro [sic.] body servant” is not a soldier under arms. But it is consistent with the “loyal slave” meme  — or “astonishing fidelity,” as the monument’s description calls it — so central to the Lost Cause during those years; similar sentiments appeared on monuments throughout the South.

The comparison to “Marse Chan” further reinforces the theme. “Marse Chan” was a short story by Thomas Nelson Page (1853-1922), that first appeared in Century Magazine in 1884. Nominally set in 1872, “Marse Chan” is told in flashback through the eyes of Sam, a young slave in antebellum Virginia who is assigned as body servant to his master’s son, Tom Channing. Tom grows up and, when the war comes, Sam follows his young master into the army, describing his assignment in the dialect-style of writing commonly used by white authors of the period when writing dialogue for black characters: “an’ I went wid Marse Chan an’ clean he boots, an’ look arfter de tent, an’ tek keer o’ him an’ de hosses.” A contemporary classic of Lost Cause fiction, “Marse Chan” was Page’s best-known work. It would have been familiar to those attending the dedication, who would have understood exactly how its protagonist was the literary parallel of the figure in bronze.

The figure on the monument doesn’t represent a soldier, but it wouldn’t matter much as historical documentation if it did; had the sculptor, Moses Ezekiel, depicted the man explicitly as a soldier, it would reveal only that thought it important to include as part of the story he wanted to present — not necessarily that such men were commonplace. Those claiming the figure as “evidence” of African American soldiers in Confederate ranks a half-century prior to the monument’s unveiling make the common era of assuming that the memorial represents history as it actually was. In fact, no memorial does that; rather, they reflect the story and impressions that their sponsors and artisans want to be remembered, and depict the past in a particular way. Some monuments are more objectively accurate than others, but none is without its bias.

The rush to point to the figure on the Arlington memorial is, sadly, typical of the “scholarship” that informs much of the advocacy for Black Confederates. It reflects a sort of grade-school literalism; there’s a black figure in among the soldiers, therefore this man was a soldier, therefore this is proof of African Americans in the ranks of the Confederate Army more generally. The truth, of course, is not quite so obvious, but revealing it requires taking time to go back to the primary sources and giving some consideration to the context of the time of the monument — 1914, that is, not 1861-65 — and the preferred interpretation of the monument’s sponsors, the UDC. Once you understand those things, and not before, you can start looking for meanings and evidence contained within.

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Additional, October 28: Stan Cohen and Keith Gibson’s Moses Ezekiel: Civil War Soldier, Renowned Sculptor reveals no further information about his design process or his own views on the Confederate Monument at Arlington; it simply repeats the description in the official UDC booklet. Ezekiel also completed statues of Thomas Jefferson for the University of Virginia and of Stonewall Jackson on the parade ground at VMI. It’s beautiful little  book, highly recommended.