In the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh, in April 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant wrote that “it would have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction stepping on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.” It was the bloodiest battle in American history to that point, although it would soon be eclipsed by the carnage of Chickamauga, Spotsylvania, and Gettysburg. More than 1,700 Union soldiers lay dead, and an equal number of rebels. Fully one quarter of the men who fought on those days were maimed, missing, or dead.
The bodies were piled into mass graves and, although the Union dead were later re-interred in a nearby cemetery with full military honors, the remains of the rebels remained in the shallow battlefield burial trenches. The fates of their commanding officers were quite different. General Albert Sidney Johnson, who fell on the first day of the battle, now lies in an elaborate tomb in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin Texas. General P.G.T. Beauregard was buried in his home state of Louisiana when he died, an old man, in 1893. And General Marcus J. Wright, whose men lie unmarked in the Tennessee soil, passed away quietly at the age of 91 in 1922. His body lies in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.
It is surprising enough to find the remains of a traitor to his country buried alongside America’s honored dead. It is, however, astonishing to find it at the foot of a memorial to the “heroes” of the Confederate States of America on what is often called “the nation’s most hallowed ground.”
Dedicated on a bright June day in 1914, the Confederate Memorial is a enormous, baroque sculpture depicting scenes of southern heroism, pride, and honor designed by Moses Ezekiel, himself a confederate veteran. He is buried near the base of the monument, alongside Wright, and two other rebel officers, Harry C. Marmaduke and John M. Hickey.
In many ways, the memorial marks not so much the memory of the Civil War, but the historical moment when sectional reconciliation was sealed in an act of revisionist amnesia. It was, in fact, the most concrete expression of an explicit national policy that elided southern racism and treason in shared white citizenship and brotherhood. President William McKinley made this clear in 1898, only three years before officially committing federal resources to the maintenance of Confederate monuments: “Every soldier’s grave made during the unfortunate Civil War is a tribute to American valor. And while, when those graves were made, we differed widely about the future of the Government, those differences were long ago settled by the arbitrament of arms — and the time has now come in the evolution of sentiment and feeling under the providences of God when, in the spirit of fraternity, we should share with you in the care of the graves of the Confederate soldiers.”
Indeed, the memorial was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the principal agent of white supremacist historical revisionism after the Civil War. These were the ladies who funded Gutzon Borglum’s vast sculpture at Stone Mountain, GA, and dozens of monuments and memorials across the south. They had reached the pinnacle of their political and cultural influence, writes David W. Blight, by the time the memorial at Arlington was unveiled “through their funding of monuments, efforts to control Southern textbooks, lobbying of congressmen, and their ubiquitous essay contests whereby Southern youth could exhibit the ‘truth’ of the Lost Cause.”
After Charlottesville, after Dylan Roof, the sheer scale of Confederate public veneration is no longer even an open secret, it is simply an unsettling fact of the landscape of American memory. The Confederate memorial at Arlington is only one of more than 700 memorials across the country. It is almost mundane – except for the fact that is located on public land managed and maintained by the government the Confederate States of America sought to destroy, land which had been set aside to honor the memory of the men they killed.
It anchors the shameful history of official white supremacy in the United States in the very geography of “America’s most hallowed ground.” The memorial stands proudly in Jackson Circle, just inside the Selfridge Gate at Farragut Drive, one of the main entry points for visitors coming from the West parking lots. It is the first, and most imposing, monument that most of them will see before continuing to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and John F. Kennedy’s eternal flame. And virtually none of these visitors will ever see the only memorial to the United States Colored Troops who died in the Civil War. This is a tiny plaque, tucked into a small grove a mile away in Section 27, more than a mile away, at the far northern edge of the cemetery. It was installed in 1992.