GDG- If I ran the Cemetery
joadx1 at netscape.net
joadx1 at netscape.net
Thu Jan 5 00:12:20 CST 2012
I think that Mr. MacNeill's passionate explanation of his feelings about Arlington National Cemetery deserves a compassionate response. As someone who makes his living balancing the historico-political claims of both the past and the present, I'd like to offer a sketch of what I would say if I was a private tour guide at Arlington.
First, of course, I would introduce the place (never take that sort of thing for granted), explaining that this is Arlington National Cemetery, American "sacred ground" since the Civil War, established as a final resting place for the men and women who fight the nation's wars.
I would also explain that there are other, non-military burials in the cemetery and say a few words about the process by which those happen and identify some of them.
I would then turn to the question of how the Cemetery came to be, and would begin by pointing to the grand mansion. I would explain that it was once the home of Robert E. Lee, though owned by his wife, who was the great granddaughter of Martha Washington, and thus a relation to George Washington. I would then explain that this was a plantation, worked for generations by slave labor, which was seized by the forces of the Union Army when Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army and cast his lot with the Confederacy, but that it only became a cemetery in 1864 when Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, a Georgian who remained loyal to the United States, chose it as a final resting place for the Union soldiers who had died in the war, soldiers who included his own son. I would note that he probably did so to prevent the Lee's from ever getting the plantation back, and would mention that they indeed tried to after the war, eventually, after R.E. Lee's death, receiving a cash settlement from the government, but not the house or grounds.
This would only take a few moments. I would sum up that this was a place that combined some of that which is both best and worst in American history: once a slave plantation, it has become a place where Americans honor those who die for her with a fitting resting place--and when that is not possible, with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as a symbolic monument to their sacrifice. I would also explain that this is the great contradiction in American history: that America is at once the place that sufficiently values the common man (as no feudal European nation ever did) such that it established such a place as Arlington National Cemetery to honor the ordinary men and women who die for her. And acknowledging that it was also once a slave plantation, I would note that it wasn't one anymore, precisely because of the sacrifice, best described in Lincoln's Gettysburg address, made by many of the men who were buried here.
I would then ask my clients what they would like to see, and what details they would like to here further about, acknowledging that no single brief tour could exhaust everything there was to learn and see here.
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