I recently finished reading renowned historian Drew Gilpin Faust's Southern Stories: Slaveholders in Peace in War. This great collection of essays included an article titled "William D. Washington's Burial of Latane" that contained an interpretation of the work which I found particularly interesting.
As stated above, The Burial of Latane was created during the Civil War (1864) by Virginian William D. Washington. The image first hung in the Washington's Richmond studio, but interest quickly grew in the painting and it was moved to the Confederate Capitol, where a bucket was placed under it to solicit donations to the Confederate war effort.
The image depicts the interment of Lt. William Latane, a cavalryman in J.E.B. Stuart's command, and the sole casualty in Stuart's daring ride around the Union's Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1862. Latane's body was left among strangers when he fell but was carefully laid to rest by loyal lady adherents to the Southern cause and their slaves.
Faust explained the slaves' role in the painting. "Slaves leaning on their shovels here bury no the family silver [to keep it from the Yankees], but a nation's spiritual treasure. And the Confederacy's mission of converting the African is advanced by this graphic enactment before slave onlookers of the drama of Christian sacrifice and redemption, with a white southern man [Latane] in the inspirational role. Washington's work thus forcefully emphasizes this central aspect of southern national purpose. Whites and blacks together affirm their commitment to God and nation in a ritual of community worship."
The black slaves are kept in the shadows to the left while the white women, especially the one center with the Common Book of Prayer are shown as enlightened and blessed. Faust claims that "Working together, the races are at the same time kept carefully apart... Physically linking them is a blond child, a representation of southern innocence and purity, who evokes, in a kind of play on symbols, the many popular prewar illustrations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Little Eva. Although in Uncle Tom's Cabin Eva dies to redeem the South from the sin of slavery, here she lives to affirm the moral legitimacy of the southern nation's peculiar institution. It is the northern army, not slavery, that bears responsibility for the death this painting illustrates."
Faust explained, "The Burial of Latane embodies the larger Confederate discourse about gender by illustrating its exemplary ritual. Women here enact their roles in Christian sacrifice and celebration; the burial is at once a holy and political communion. Even the clothes of the white ladies emphasize the conjoint religious and political significance of the narrative - two dressed in the black of Christian mourning, the others in the colors of the Confederate flag. And as strangers to the dead Latane, they generalize the particularity of the event to embrace a broader affirmation of Christian and national unity. Latane, like Christ, died for us all."
Faust summarizes the work: "The divergence between the realities of southern civilian life in 1864 and the ideal portrayed by William Washington is both dramatic and significant. In the years after Appomattox, adherents of the Lost Cause came to view the popular engravings of the Latane scene as a touching rendition of the virtues of loyalty and sacrifice the war had called forth. William Washington knew better. His painting was designed as nationalist rhetoric, as a persuasive rationale for continued struggle in the face of erosion of Confederate loyalty all around him. Instead of a paean, it was a plea. Curiously, however, it ultimately became a promise. The postwar engraving of Latane achieved its enormous popularity because it assured a defeated people that the South, like the dead lieutenant, could rise again."
Two years before the painting, the burial scene was captured in verse soon after the event in 1862, and published in the Southern Literary Messenger: