Honoring Treason: Commemoration, Reconciliation, and Confederate Burials at Arlington National Cemetery, 1864-1914

Christopher A. Warren

Advisor: Christopher H. Hamner, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Meredith Lair, Jane Turner Censer

Online Location, https://smithsonian.zoom.us/j/82748486385?pwd=V2NFL1Z5alR2Tm1NWDF0amxnUEhDdz09
April 20, 2022, 10:00 AM to 01:00 PM


Established during the American Civil War, the United States national cemetery system was a practical response to the unprecedented number of casualties dying on the battlefield and succumbing to disease and illness throughout the conflict. Arlington National Cemetery, created to house the remains of thousands of soldiers killed on the battlefield, also contained the remains of those who died in Washington, D.C. area hospitals. Because of its location near the nation’s capital, Arlington was unique, as it was one of the few national cemeteries that also held the bodies of Confederate soldiers, prisoners-of-war who died in region. These rebels remains, interred alongside those who remained steadfast and loyal to the United States, received the same honored burial treatment as their former adversaries, but the type of recognition and remembrance of these Confederates experienced significant change over the next fifty years.

This dissertation describes the change in time that occurred at Arlington National Cemetery over acceptable commemoration and treatment of Confederate burials from 1864 to 1914. From initially deeming “treasonous” Confederate burials unworthy of remembrance, and even preventing their decoration during commemoration ceremonies, to the erection of a thirty-two-foot monument to the Confederacy in the middle of a congressionally authorized Confederate burial section, Arlington, over this fifty-year period, reflected the changing nature of sectional reconciliation and national unity witnessed throughout the country.

This dissertation examines questions such as why this radical change in the treatment of Arlington’s Confederate dead occurred; how the federal government and the American public evolved from disallowing any type of recognition of Confederate graves to eventually committing to their perpetual care and maintenance; what occurred during this period to alter the perception of Arlington’s Confederate graves from an insult to the memory of the Union dead, to deserving honored rest adorned with memorial statuary; and how Arlington, as the nation’s premiere national cemetery, influenced commemorative practices throughout the nation.

This change was a slow transformation over time, heavily influenced by the war’s effect on changing gender roles in the South as well as fluctuating race relations throughout the nation. As the northern public became weary of continued federal involvement in the South, southerners began advocating for recognition of their dead, focused initially on the shared experience of combat endured by both sides during the war. This continued focus on the valor of all soldiers created a common bond between the loyal and the treasonous, strengthening national reconciliation. As the North increasingly capitulated to a southern interpretation of war memory, Arlington’s Confederate graves, once scorned as the final resting place of traitors, became celebrated as martyrs to a righteous and lost cause.