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  • "Defend with True Hearts unto Death"Finding Historical Meaning in Confederate Memorial Hall
  • John Bardes (bio)

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Confederate Memorial Hall (here) provides a remarkable window into the minds and imaginations of Confederate war veterans, their spouses, and their children. It embodies Civil War revisionism—the efforts of late-nineteenth-century stakeholders to rework symbols, memories, and meanings associated with the war. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. "Confederate Memorial Hall, New, Orleans, La." New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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In May of 2017, as the world watched mammoth cranes in New Orleans lower a sixteen-foot-tall likeness of Robert E. Lee from a sixty-foot-tall marble column, few took note of the stately brick building behind the warring throngs of protestors and counter-protestors: Confederate Memorial Hall, home to the world's second-largest collection of Confederate artifacts. Founded in 1891 as a joint family heirloom preservation center, veterans' meeting hall, and museum, the modern visitation experience incorporates aspects of a traditional history museum, Antiques Roadshow, and a Veterans of Foreign Wars post. In the past twenty years, mounting discomfort with sympathetic portrayals of the Confederacy has presented new pressures for revision, leading to a seemingly Sisyphean effort to reconcile conflicting historical forces and audiences. Yet nineteenth-century photographs of the museum and itemizations of its contents indicate that its collection and curation have remained largely unchanged.1

Confederate Memorial Hall provides a remarkable window into the minds and imaginations of Confederate war veterans, their spouses, and their children. It embodies Civil War revisionism—the efforts of late-nineteenth-century stakeholders to rework symbols, memories, and meanings associated with the war. In particular, analysis of how the Hall treats its artifacts reveals these stakeholders' faith in the intrinsic power of heirlooms to transmit political and social messages. As the nation reconsiders the cultural significance of Confederate monuments and artifacts, we would do well to understand what original meanings the postwar creators of this visual lexicon intended. These late-nineteenth-century southern theorists launched an enormously successful campaign to redefine the Confederacy's legacy. Their theory is splayed out, for all to witness, at Confederate Memorial Hall, the self-styled "Battle Abbey of the South." The nickname is significant, casting the memorial as a house of worship and pious contemplation.2

Memorial Hall's curation, even in the face of numerous twenty-first-century challenges to the institution's existence, highlights the resilience of its nineteenth-century ideological configurations. Curatorial choices originally implemented to disguise regional politics in the name of national reconciliation are repurposed, in the twenty-first century, into assertions of political neutrality and impartiality. Religious imagery, through which the children of Confederate veterans once converted their fathers into revered ancestors and their fathers' objects into sacred icons, now demands ongoing preservation, devotion, and protection from its adherents. Memorial Hall showcases, in short, the self-perpetuating structures of the "Lost Cause."

Memorial Hall teaches history through physical objects without explanatory text or historical context. War flags, portraits of uniformed Confederate officers, armaments, and several bullet-riddled tree trunks are the museum's dominant visuals. All but four of the museum's nearly thirty display cases contain artifacts [End Page 30] carried into battle. Virtually all of the objects were once family heirlooms, donated by veterans' widows and children, giving visitors a sense of intimacy. Some items appear odd or macabre to modern audiences: a pig's jaw bone, locks of hair, a crown of thorns that Pope Pius IX bequeathed to Jefferson Davis.3


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The museum's architecture—a symmetrical, long hall with vaulted ceiling, facing raised altar, and stained glass window—resembles a church. A life-sized stained-glass rendering of Father Abram J. Ryan, whose postbellum writings earned him the epithet "Poet Priest of the Confederacy," silently observes visitors from on high.

Unveiling of Father Abram J. Ryan's memorial window. Gift of the Ladies' Confederate Memorial Association to the Confederate Memorial Hall, October 21, 1950, courtesy of the Louisiana Research Collection, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 29-45
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-19
Open Access
No
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