National Book Festival 2013 — And Robert E. Lee’s Arlington House

Even though I live 2,287 miles away (as the crow flies), I’m an unabashed lover of the Library of Congress. So complete is my ardor that I carry my LOC reader’s credentials with me almost everywhere. Well, that’s actually because, through a quirky matchup of humidity, growth rate, and human vanity, I was having such a good hair day when they took my photo for the card that it’s come to be “the” reference photo I show a barber or hair stylist whenever I’m about to go under the shears.

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That being the case, it was a singular honor to be invited to the Library of Congress’s 2013 National Book Festival several weeks ago, which luck brought in under the wire just a few weeks before the government shutdown. I do not know which Festival judge or Library staff member noticed the book, so I’ll just try to thank them all. And thank you so much to everyone who hung around until the event’s practical “Last Call” to check out my reading.

The Festival was a terrific event. It was great to see so many book lovers come out to the National Mall.

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And it was flattering to say the least to be featured in the Graphic Novels & Science Fiction (and sometimes both) along with Lynda Barry and the comics legends the Hernandez Brothers. There was more to being part of the Festival than I’d initially fantasized, so I did not get to see too many other author presentations. I did manage to check out Lynda Barry’s, though. And once the Library of Congress has an audio or video stream of her speech I suggest anyone with a good sense of humor should check it out too. She said something about science giving us the metaphors we need to understand art, and art giving us the metaphors we need to understand science, that I haven’t been able to stop turning over in my mind.

The weekend was a bit of a whirlwind. But as someone interested in the Civil War — and in, if you like, the enigma of Robert E. Lee — I would have been derelict in my duty not to see some historical sites close up. For years I’ve been wanting to see the Lincoln Cottage a.k.a. Soldiers’ Home (which appears in the book on Page 28). But I was staged on the wrong end of the District to make this feasible. Instead I made my way to Arlington House, the onetime home of Robert E. Lee. It was also meant to be the setting of one of the images in the book: Lee resigning his commission in the U.S. Army on Page 26. Arlington House stands on a high bluff on the Virginia side of the Potomac with a commanding view of the whole District of Columbia.

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Just to give a thumbnail sketch of the history of this mansion inside in the boundaries of Arlington National Cemetery, the large home and grounds had come into Robert E. Lee’s possession by marriage. The place has a provocative history that dates all the way back to the days of the Early Republic, along with firm links to George Washington. But I won’t get into that.

Lee and his family knew shortly into the Civil War that the federal government would almost certainly, at the earliest opportunity, take this land by force. It had too much of a tactical advantage for anyone who aimed to either attack or defend “Washington City.” So the family more or less gave it up for lost. And true to Lee’s prophecy, Union forces did (I believe, bloodlessly) take the property in May 1861. It was officially seized due to non-payment of taxes.

As the war’s casualties swiftly rose there was the snowballing problem of where to bury Union soldiers. U.S. Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs had a particular axe to grind against Robert E. Lee. Meigs, a Union man from Georgia, unreservedly regarded Robert E. Lee — a former mentor — as a traitor. As the war went on, Meigs seems to have wanted to do something to deal Lee and his family a permanent black eye.

So Meigs agitated for fallen Union soldiers to be buried at Arlington House. At first this was just on the property’s extensive grounds and gardens. But as the years passed, the burials were directed to be closer and closer to the actual family home. Meigs saw to his end goal: to insure that neither Lee nor any of his relatives could ever make Arlington House their residence again.

Meigs’ son, John Meigs, was a Union lieutenant on General Philip Sheridan’s staff. John Meigs was killed in action near Harrisonburg, VA, in 1864. Meigs was so distraught over his son’s death that he ordered the exterior of the man’s sarcophagus to be made to look exactly the way the corpse was found. So the way Meigs buried the dead definitely carried a strong personal bent.

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Photo credit: Tim Evanson

I’ll mention one other thing which surprised me about the visit to Arlington House — even though it might get me in trouble.

As I mentioned, my free time in D.C. on this trip was short. Even the run to check out Arlington House was fraught with the possibility of missing something else I had to do. So at one point, looking for a short cut to Lee’s former mansion, I set out up the hill across a lawn. Only later did I see signposts indicating that this is verboten.

In any event, just downhill from Arlington House, I more or less stumbled onto Sheridan’s tomb.

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I have to think that the placement of this particular grave was another stinging barb directed at the Lee family. At the same time, though, the tomb is almost impossible to see from anywhere an average visitor to Arlington Cemetery would be. It may very well have been the case that I was trespassing when I found it. I certainly was not looking for it.

If that’s not an example of America’s split personality when it comes to remembering the Civil War, I don’t know what is: spitting on the memory of Robert E. Lee on the one hand, and making sure no one knows about it on the other.

 

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