Book Review: The Politics of Mourning by Micki McElya

On first glace, Micki McElya’s The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery appears to be a history of the creation and development of the United States’ most famous national cemetery. Very quickly, however, the reader realizes that this book is a much deeper analysis of how Arlington National Cemetery grew from a family home and plantation to the country’s most sacred burial grounds, one that considers race, gender, memory, and politics. As a result, this work illuminates not only the history of the National Cemetery, but the society in which it developed.

Arlington did not begin as a place of sacred ritual; instead it began as a family home and plantation of paternalistic slavery. Many Americans know the foundation of the national cemetery: born out of necessity and spite, soldiers dying from the American Civil War were buried on the estate that belonged to Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his family. Over time, the number of burials grew and, with its proximity to Washington, D.C., Arlington transformed into the largest and most sacred of the country’s national cemeteries. While that trajectory is roughly accurate, McElya paints the cemetery’s history with far more complex layers that speak volumes about questions of race, gender, and national honor. The premise of McElya’s book is that the “history of Arlington National Cemetery is necessarily the history of the legal, political, cultural, and affective relationships between American citizenship, belonging, and military service” (p. 8) in which various groups of Americans have sought inclusion.

Arlington began with a tangled history of race between the white owners and black laborers who lived on that estate before and during the Civil War. This racial relationship complicated the use of the land during and after the war because Arlington hosted not only the seeds of the future national cemetery, but also Freedmen’s Village, a contraband camp for former slaves seeking freedom. Issues of race, segregation, and future reconciliation shaped the development and design of the early cemetery as burials eventually took precedence over the Freedmen’s Village, and sections remained segregated by race. Reunion also led to a Confederate section, which has been the subject of recent controversy. It was not until closer to the turn of the twentieth century, with the repatriation of bodies from the Spanish-American War and war in the Philippines, that Arlington began to hold significant as a national symbol for military sacrifice and honor. This was solidified with the construction of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in response to the nation’s inability to repatriate all the United States dead from overseas. The Unknown is meant to represent the sacrifices and honor of all servicemen and women lost in war, and thus serves as a symbolic unifier that placed more emphasis on the importance of Arlington itself. Because the Unknown is meant to represent all American military, it became a symbol of inclusion that diverse Americans could claim. This has strengthened until today, when Arlington is viewed as the national symbol of military honor, sacrifice, and citizenship. Because of this developed meaning, various groups within American society—women, different racial and ethnic groups, social groups such as LGBT Americans—have sought inclusion in the nation’s story of honorable citizenship through inclusion in Arlington through burials or memorials. Thus, McElya argues: “Since before its inception as a cemetery during the Civil War, Arlington has been the scene of pitched struggles over the use and shape of the place, struggles that have always been about the larger meanings of freedom, sacrifice, citizenship, honor, state authority, and the nation itself and about which bodies, alive and dead, are most representative, most capable and valuable, and most difficult to lose” (p. 10).

McElya’s book deftly explores the interwoven threads of race relations, gender, national politics, memory and commemoration, and the development of Arlington into the national cemetery we know it as today. By examining the transformation of the Curtis-Lee Estate from family plantation to symbol of national importance, McElya reveals much about the racial, gendered, and political tensions in American history from the end of the Civil War to the present. In a way, she re-humanizes the rows of white tombstones by illuminating the very human emotions, social expectations, and problems that shaped the cemetery. The book is structured chronologically, starting with the Arlington plantation before the Civil War and ending with the modern administration of the cemetery (and National Park site) and the 2010s scandal over cemetery management. Because of the long time span, McElya pulls from a large variety of letters, official records, media reports, and scholarly works to build her argument. My only criticism—and it is a very slight one—is that the book is very front heavy. Almost half the book is dedicated to the time period before, during, and immediately after the Civil War, and then the chapters move quickly through the rest of the time period, focusing primarily on the main military conflicts that shaped the cemetery’s development. As a Civil War historian, those first three chapters were greatly appreciated; however, it is a shame that the rest of the time span could not get the same detailed attention. Outside that very small imbalance, this book is a useful resource for any scholar studying the National Cemetery system, Arlington, race and gender politics in the period 1860 to the present, or the development of military citizenship. In addition, it is not inaccessible for a non-scholar reader interested in Arlington or the burial of military servicemen.

Review originally posted on H-Net Reviews

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010-2014 and has worked on various other publications and projects.