Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Drew Gilpin Faust on Washington's "Burial of Latane"

I often walked around Lexington, Virginia when I was completing a graduate fellowship at the Stonewall Jackson House a few years ago. My walks took me by the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery on a number of occasions. At the entrance of the cemetery there is an information board explaining the location of famous people buried there. The cemetery is filled with important Confederates military and civilian personalities such as Jackson, Virgina war governor John Letcher, and poetess Margaret Junkin Preston. Also buried there is William Nelson Pendleton, artillery commander for the Army of Northern Virginia, as well as his son and Jackson aide Alexander "Sandie" Pendleton, who was a wartime casualty. The information panel also explains that there is another individual resting in peace at the cemetery, William D. Washington. Washington produced what may be the most popular Confederate painting to come out of the war, The Burial of Latane.

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:

The Burial of Latane

By John R. Thompson

The combat raged not long, but ours the day;
And through the hosts that compassed us around
Our little band rode proudly on its way,
Leaving one gallant comrade, glory-crowned,
Unburied on the field he died to gain,
Single of all men amid the hostile slain.

One moment on the battle's edge he stood,
Hope's halo like a helmet round his hair;
The next beheld him dabbled in his blood,
Prostrate in death, and yet in death how fair!
E'en thus he passed through the red gate of strife
From earthly crowns and palms to an immortal life.

A brother bore his body from the field
And gave it unto strangers' hands, that closed
The calm blue eyes, on earth forever sealed,
And tenderly the slender limbe composed:
Strangers, yet sisters, who, with Mary's love,
Say by the open tomb, and, weeping, looked above.

A little child strewed roses on his bier,
Pale roses, not more stainless than his soul,
Nor yet more fragrant than his life sincere
That blossomed with good actions, brief, but whole.
The aged matron and the faithful slave
Approached with reverent feet the hero's lowly grave.

No man of God might read the burial rite
Above the Rebel--thus declared the foe
That blanched before him in the deadly fight;
But woman's voice, in accents soft and low,
Trembling with pity, touched with pathos, read
Over this hallowed dust the ritual for the dead:

" 'Tis sown in weakness, it is raised in power;"
Softly the promise floated on the air,
And the sweet breathings of the sunset hour
Came back responsive to the mourner's prayer;
Gently they laid him underneath the sod
And left him with his fame, his country, and his God.

Let us not weep for him, whose deeds endure;
So young, so brave, so beautiful, he died
As he had wished to die--the past is sure
Whatever yet of sorrow may betide
Those who still linger by the stormy shore.
Change cannot touch him now, nor fortune harm him more.

And when Virginia, leaning on her spear--
"Victrix et vidua," the conflict done--
Shall raise her mailed hand to wipe the tear
That starts as she recalls each martyred son,
No prouder memory her breast shall sway
Than shine, our early lost, lamented Latane.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this! I am an art historian fascinated with the visual culture of the Civil War, which I believe has been understudied.

    Faust's comment linking the image to Christian doctrine has an interesting visual parallel in the representation of the slave in a pose that calls to mind a long tradition of representations of Adam with a shovel or spade after the "fall."

    Despite its "Lost Cause" message, there is a strange tension in this work that subverts that pro-slavery vision on some level. Visually, the analogy to Adam might imply to some enlightened members of the audience that all races share a common ancestry and are equal in the eyes of God. In Europe, the concept/image of Adam toiling was sometimes used to suggest the equality of the classes. The 14th century priest John Ball, who participated in the English Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, is credited with rhyme, "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman".

    I am also intrigued by the sexual tension implied by the somewhat virile body of the foregrounded male slave and the Southern women. The artist lessens the tension by taking takes pains to keep the races apart. He also emphasizes the bent pose of the slave in order to make the figure non-threatening and keep him"in his place.' . Bent and hunched poses long appeared on emblems of slavery; in 19th century genre pictures such poses often identify slaves.

    Nevertheless, the fact that the white man is dead, and the beautifully proportioned body of the black man represents the only sexually available male present amongst these women might suggest to some that the women might seek solace in his arms--a truth that was surely sublimated and unspoken in the Victorian/Civil War era!