By Karen A. Grava
Micki McElya is haunted by a cemetery. In fact, she is using one to tell the history of our nation.
In a book under contract with Harvard University Press, McElya, assistant professor of history in CLAS, will explain why Arlington National Cemetery chronicles the history of the United States even though it is not the oldest national cemetery (there are 20 that are older) or the busiest or the largest (Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island is both).
McElya hopes Grave Affairs: Arlington National Cemetery and the Politics of Death and Honor, will be finished by 2014, the same year the cemetery will celebrate its 150th anniversary.
Arlington, one of 132 national cemeteries, is the most famous national cemetery, in part because the nation was glued to its collective television screens when the assassinated President John F. Kennedy was buried there at his family’s request.
Today, the eternal flame that marks his grave is a familiar site, as are the rows of uniform white headstones that mark the graves of the men and women who have served in the military.
Remains of soldiers from every war have been interred in the cemetery, including those from the Revolutionary War that predate the cemetery’s existence.
“The cemetery is designed to tell the entirety of our nation’s history in a small bit of land. Every complicated messy facet of our history is represented there,” says McElya, who is on a one-year fellowship at the Newhouse Center for the Humanities at Wellesley College.
The 624-acre cemetery was established in 1864 on the site of the plantation owned by Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s family. The land there was earlier appropriated to found Freedman’s Village, a community for the formerly enslaved, termed “contraband” by the federal government, in 1863. The idea was to move communities of formerly enslaved people who had freed themselves or run away.
Even though attempts were made to disband the community as early as 1868, residents of the village resisted eviction until1890. Today, there are 3,700 residents of Freedman’s Village buried in Section 27 of the cemetery under stones marked with their names, when known, and “citizen” or “civilian.”
Arlington National Cemetery has 300,000 graves with an average of 30 new ones each weekday. Predictions are that it might be full by 2030.
The cemetery is home to nearly 1,500 Civil War-era graves of members of the U.S. Colored Troops, and it has tributes to female members of the service, Jewish service members, and, of course, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
McElya first became interested in the cemetery while working on her most recent book, Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America.
“There is a fantasy held by many white people that ‘mammies’ were loved by the families that enslaved them who they in turn loved. But life is not Gone With the Wind and many of the fictional representations we have are false histories,” McElya says.
Mammy is part of a Arlington’s Confederate Monument that includes images of faithful slaves and a mammy figure.
The approach to the cemetery is marked by rows and rows of white headstones, JFK’s eternal flame and, dominating the vista, a plantation house behind which are two slave cabins. The house was owned by Lee’s family and is now a national monument to the Confederate general. It sits directly across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial. North and South are linked by the Memorial Bridge.
Behind the slave cabins, there are bathrooms for tourists. “There is a real mix here of tourist space, mourning, and history,” McElya says.
Although the tombstones in the cemetery send an image of orderliness and simplicity, a recent and ongoing scandal about who is really buried where and how many people are buried in some graves shows that there is “chaos literally beneath the surface,” McElya says.
“The horror of the mismanagement is profound and contradicts the image of stability and awesomeness and sorrow.”
Who is allowed to be buried at Arlington has been an issue over time, she says, and there are many stories to tell about who is buried there and who was not allowed.
There is a lot of history that lies beneath the ground. “The full story of the cemetery has not been told. We have not really considered what it represents for our national history, what it means to define a nation by wars, or the individual histories there. We need to think about the heroes that we don’t talk about.”