- The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery by Micki McElya
On Memorial Day Weekend, 2007, John Moore photographed Mary McHugh lying in front of her fiancé’s tombstone in section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where he had been buried after dying in Iraq. The photograph quickly went viral, a visceral reminder of the human costs of war that became part of a larger national conversation about sacrifice, patriotism, and wartime obligation. One meme presented the photo with a chastening message: “Memorial Day: In Case You Thought It Was National BBQ Day.”1 Moore’s photograph and the uses to which it has been put illustrate the profound place that Arlington National Cemetery occupies in debates over the contours of service, sacrifice, citizenship, and patriotism in U.S. culture.
Despite the persistent interest in sites of memory in U.S. culture, however, Arlington National Cemetery somehow never received significant attention from cultural and social historians. Fortunately, Micki McElya has corrected this historiographical failure. The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery is thoroughly-researched, well-written, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the cultural and social history of the United States’ memorial landscape.
McElya begins by analyzing the racial politics that attended the space from the years prior to the Civil War through the aftermath of the War of 1898. She first expands upon the well-known history of Arlington as the Custis family plantation. She demonstrates that Robert E. Lee, who married into the family, was hardly ambivalent about slavery but rather sought “to make as much money from the slaves’ labors as possible” before they were manumitted (21). More importantly, she analyzes the narrative that surrounds Salina Gray, one of Lee’s [End Page 191] slaves, illustrating how an enduring “faithful slave” discourse obscures the realities of her bondage and her own agency during and after the war. The question of African-American agency also informed the space’s post-war use as a Freedmen’s Village where recently freed slaves were expected to learn how to be good citizens (62). Many white Americans doubted African-Americans’ capabilities, while former slaves argued that their previous labors entitled them to the land (62, 67). Throughout these early chapters, McElya illustrates how the space that would become Arlington was always caught up in debates over race, citizenship, and obligation—questions that loomed over the space’s use in the twentieth century.
McElya’s strongest chapters document Arlington’s emergence as the preeminent national cemetery and the role that discourses of race and gender played in that process. She describes the seminal role of General Montgomery C. Meigs, who sought to punish Lee for his treachery by transforming his beloved estate into a Union cemetery (96). But Meigs also oversaw the entombment of unknown Confederate soldiers in the war’s immediate aftermath (111–112). The construction of this memorial marked an early instance of a reconciliationist impulse that came to dominate Arlington. If McElya is clearly following the work of scholars like David Blight and Cecelia Elizabeth O’Leary here, what is new is her assessment of how the elision of slavery from Civil War history and the silence regarding African-American service in that war and the War of 1898 facilitated Arlington’s emergence as a truly national space (138, 143). And if it was the First World War and “the grand ceremonial burial of an otherwise unidentifiable body of an American soldier [that] solidified Arlington’s identification as a singularly national and representative terrain,” that moment was also defined by assumptions that soldiers were “not only male but also white and protestant” (171, 185).
This definition of martial citizenship set the tone for debates over inclusion at Arlington throughout the twentieth century. Drawing on diverse sources, McElya demonstrates how African-Americans resisted assumptions about the Unknown Soldiers’ whiteness and offers fascinating accounts of ceremonies and burials that intersected with almost every major social movement of the twentieth century: nativist protests in the...