Sorrow Unutterable

The war brought an unrelenting string of funerals that stunned Confederate Richmond. “A deep gloom has just been thrown over the city,” wrote Judith McGuire, at the news of the death of yet another acquaintance in 1864. At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church the Reverend Charles Minnigerode reported 40 funerals in 1862, 80 in 1863, and 41 in 1864. By comparison, no year before 1861 saw more than 20 funerals. Thousands of bodies from nearby battlefields and from Richmond’s hospitals swamped local cemeteries.

The initial stirrings of Confederate memory emerged from the need to memorialize the dead. Later, ex-Confederates used loss and grief as vehicles for figuring—or asserting—the place of the defeated in the new United States. During the Reconstruction years, when military governors warily monitored any public activity with political overtones, memorializing the dead in cemeteries served as the chief means of commemoration. Women took the lead in a movement that culminated in one of the earliest Confederate monuments in Richmond.

On May 3, 1866, Nancy Macfarland and Ellen Caskie, representing a score of women, founded the Hollywood Memorial Association. They stood up subcommittees and established a fundraising plan, but the heart of the Association lay in the desire to “place…in order the graves of Confederate dead… so that the tombs of our fallen Soldiers may be permanently preserved from oblivion and their last resting places be saved from the slightest appearances of neglect or lack of care.”

The Association, understandably, desired to extend respect to brothers, fathers, and sons they had lost, but their work eventually encompassed the reinternment of thousands of corpses from old battlefields to Hollywood Cemetery, and the erection of a 90-foot stone pyramid to their memory.

Beyond Richmond, Ladies Memorial Associations across the former Confederacy—at least 66 such associations—organized, raised money, cleaned graves, and erected memorials; initiatives that one cataloger noted, “flowed from bleeding hearts… bound in love, [and] launched in hope.”

Where women channeled their sense of loss into maternal expressions of care during the Reconstruction years, many men understood loss in the context of military camaraderie. Ex-Confederate General Jubal Early did so in 1870.

On October 25, thirteen days after Robert E. Lee’s death (and several months after conservatives “redeemed” Virginia from the United States’ military oversight), Early issued a call to “the Surviving Officers and Soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia.”

He lamented the “sad tidings” of Lee’s death and the fact that by “interruption of all ordinary modes of travelling, very many of us were debarred the privilege of participating in the funeral ceremonies [or] of attending the burial of him we loved so well, or by concerted action giving expression to our own feelings on the occasion.” Lee had become the hope of the Confederacy during the war, but the bond between him and his soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia was particularly intense. According to Early, men “bowed down with sorrow unutterable.”

Yet Early did not just weep. He harnessed his “sorrow unutterable” to a righteous public purpose. Offended that some had spoken “the hoarse cry of ‘treason’” upon Lee’s memory, he rushed to stamp it out by finding a way to proclaim “for all time to come, that we were not unworthy to be led by our own immortal chief.” He called for a mass meeting of veterans where he proposed to “vindicate our manhood and purge ourselves of the foul stain [of treason] by erecting an enduring monument to him that will be a shining protest, for all time to come, against the judgment pronounced against him.” Early had skillfully blended personal grief over the loss of “our immortal hero” with a monument to make an unmistakably historical and political claim—the enduring virtue of Lee and his men.

Jubal Early eventually lost control of the Lee Monument project to civic boosters, women’s groups, and those who preferred an uncomplicated ceremony to fiery defiance. The memorial to Robert E. Lee went up in 1890 amid a fanfare of flags, cannon, and bands. Among the attendees were old veterans so moved by the thought of standing beside their chieftain once more that they took up their muskets and stood sentry during construction.

That funerary impulse that began at the close of the war—that desire to honor loved ones who had died—never really dissipated in the later age of Confederate celebration. For ex-Confederates, mourning, vindication, and celebration were inseparable in the effort to find meaning in loss and to prove that their sacrifices had not been in vain. From the effort grew an elaborate and multi-faceted explanation of the Civil War that we call the Lost Cause.

In the meantime, mothers and daughters continued to decorate graves in the springtime and humbler monuments continued to recall the bonds between families and soldiers, even while they said so many other things.


For more on the Ladies Memorial Associations in Richmond, see chapter 2 from Caroline E. Janney’s Burying the Dead but Not the Past, posted on the Select Reading List.

Next post, Lee and Dives: a Lost Cause parable of the New South, will appear on Thursday.