Traces of the Confederacy in Washington, not all gone with the wind

The ladies sounded like Scarlett O’Hara and identified themselves on formal occasions by their husbands’ first and last names. The gentlemen nursed grudges and missing limbs. Senators and Cabinet secretaries accepted their flowery invitations and joined gallant toasts to the memory of the Lost Cause.

A century ago, an evening at the rowhouse later nicknamed the “Confederate Embassy” was as exclusive as any on Embassy Row.

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The Queen Anne-style brownstone at 1322 Vermont Avenue NW in Logan Circle was one of the more counterintuitive addresses in Washington. From 1908 to 1997, Confederate Memorial Hall stood as a refuge for Rebel veterans and their descendants, an unlikely homage to Southern culture flourishing in the heart of the Yankee capital.

The hall was built as a private residence in 1889 and purchased by an umbrella group called the Confederate Memorial Association in 1908, according to city planning and deed records. In the early years, it was referred to as a Confederate “home,” and by some accounts, veterans of the war lived there. A period photo shows men in uniforms lined up out front.

What is certain is that veterans groups, sons and daughters groups, Dixie charities and Southern state societies held meetings and lectures, teas and balls there. The doings were chronicled in newspaper society pages. For a time, the hall was a pillar of Washington’s white social establishment.

It was situated ironically down the avenue from the statue of John A. Logan, the Union general who later led the main Union veterans group. It was two doors away from the house where Mary McLeod Bethune once lived and where she first headquartered the National Council of Negro Women.

Now the hall is defunct, transformed into a private residence once again by an owner with no connection to Confederate nostalgia.

Gone with the wind, it symbolized an interlude in Washington’s social history, after Reconstruction and before the civil rights era, when it became possible and politically correct for the capital of the victorious Union to memorialize — both officially and socially — the vanquished South.

“This was all from the early 20th-century period of reconciliation, let bygones be bygones,” says Gary Scott, regional historian for the National Capital Region of the National Park Service. “Left out were African Americans. It was a reconciliation of the white South and the white North.”

For many years after the Civil War, decorating the graves of Confederate dead in Arlington National Cemetery had been forbidden. In Washington, no bronze likenesses of Southern heroes were granted admission to the pantheon of Northern generals on horses in prominent plazas.

Gradually, attitudes changed. To pick up the Confederate trail today in Washington, you have to know where to look. The principal examples date from that pre-World War II period when Confederate Memorial Hall and its backers were at their social and political peak.

Memorializing Confederates started bashfully, in 1901, with the unveiling of the only outdoor statue in Washington depicting a Confederate general. He was Albert Pike, who organized Indians to fight the Yankees. He also wrote alternative lyrics to the tune of “Dixie” to rally Rebel spirits.

His status as a Confederate commander and lyricist wasn’t the chief reason he earned a statue in Judiciary Square. This was early in the reconciliation period, and his Southern allegiance appears to have been nothing to brag about for members of the Supreme Council of Scottish Rite Masons, which erected the statue. (After the war, Pike went on to become a pivotal Masonic leader.)

The statue on D Street between Third and Fourth streets NW depicts Pike in civilian dress, holding a book. His attributes are listed on the base of the statue — “Philosopher, Jurist, Orator, Author, Poet.” On one side, difficult to see, is “Soldier.”

“We’re not embarrassed in the least that he was a Confederate general,” says S. Brent Morris, managing editor of the Scottish Rite Journal in Washington, who is quick to add exculpatory facts, such as Pike’s stand against secession before siding with the South.

“Even in 1901, I don’t think the United States Congress would have approved honoring a Confederate general, so he was honored for all his other accomplishments,” Morris says.

The following year, the landmark McMillan Commission proposed a Memorial Bridge to symbolically link North and South as part of its vision for monumental Washington. The bridge would run on a line between the projected Lincoln Memorial and the former Robert E. Lee mansion in Arlington.

Soon Congress began welcoming statues of Confederate soldiers and statesmen into the Capitol itself. They came as gifts to the National Statuary Hall Collection. Each state could contribute two. Several Southern states took the opportunity to introduce likenesses of men who once wished to march on the Capitol.

The first, in 1908, courtesy of Alabama, was a statue of Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army, according to the Architect of the Capitol’s notes on the collection.

The most famous is the bronze of Robert E. Lee, donated by Virginia in 1909.

At least half a dozen other Confederate statues in the Capitol include Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States (Mississippi); Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Confederate vice president (Georgia); and Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, one of Lee’s favorite cavalry commanders (Alabama).

As these few institutional acknowledgments of Confederate honor established themselves, the social celebrations at Confederate Memorial Hall continued apace.

In 1910, President Taft’s secretary of war, Jacob Dickinson, visited the hall for a social “smoker” given by the vets, where he reminisced about his service in the Confederate Army. In 1912, members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy attended receptions at the hall after hearing Taft praise the “common heritage of courage” of North and South during a speech to their annual convention. In 1914, former Texas Sen. Joseph Bailey warned in a speech at the hall that “if colored men get the vote and the whites are divided, our civilization will be in peril.”

Across town, construction of the Washington National Cathedral was proceeding, and descendants of the rebellion sought inclusion. In the 1930s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy donated half the money for the Lee-Jackson Bay. The stained glass windows depict the lives of Robert E. Lee and Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Confederate flag motifs appear in the colored glass.

“It is unusual that it is here, and yet it is a very important part of American history,” says Anne Harman, manager of visitor programs at the cathedral.

The social whirl of Confederate Memorial Hall involved fundraising, too — both for upkeep of the historic house and for other charitable works. While smaller affairs were held in the hall, the annual ball at the Willard Hotel to support the hall was a highlight of the social season.

In 1938, the ball’s patrons included Speaker of the House and Mrs. William Bankhead, Rep. and Mrs. Hamilton Fish, Sen. Harry F. Byrd, Rep. Sam Rayburn, Sen. and Mrs. Claude Pepper.

The Lee-Jackson Bay was dedicated in 1953, the year before the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Few, if any, more significant memorials to the Confederacy or its heroes were undertaken in Washington.

By the 1960s, Confederate Memorial Hall was losing its momentum, too. The pulse of social Washington beat elsewhere. It was becoming increasingly controversial, if not career-ending, for power-Washington figures to identify with the Confederacy.

The hall had a brief revival as a museum and library in the 1980s, displaying minor artifacts and artworks tied to the South. A nasty and protracted legal battle for control of the hall broke out between the president of the Confederate Memorial Association, John Edward Hurley, and representatives of sons and daughters chapters. When the place was finally sold in 1997 — to pay legal fees, Hurley said at the time — it was a wreck. (Hurley said he was unavailable to be interviewed for this story.)

While tributes to the Confederacy are scarce, Washington can be grateful for statues that did not get built, says Jane Freundel Levey, director of heritage programs at Cultural Tourism D.C. In 1923, Southern society ladies in town were raising money for a “Mammy” memorial statue, and the Senate passed a resolution in support. The proposed design showed an African American nanny holding a white baby while her own children compete for her attention.

Just outside the capital, of course, are a multitude of monuments to Confederate heroism — the statue of a Confederate cavalry private in Rockville; the statue of Lee erected by a neighbor of the Antietam battlefield; the Jefferson Davis Highway in Alexandria, where there also is a statue of a Confederate private.

The most important, with a direct connection to the federal capital, is the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. President Wilson unveiled the 32-foot-tall sculpture in 1914.

Each year on or near Davis’s birthday, June 3, sons and daughters groups hold memorial ceremonies at the monument.

Likewise, the local United Daughters division sponsors an annual commemoration before Lee’s statue in the Capitol on or near his birthday, January 19.

“You don’t want people telling you who you are, you want to know who you are, who went before you,” says Lloyce West, a past president of the Washington division of the United Daughters, who also is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. “I think all of our ancestors need to have someone remembering them.”

Staff researchers Alice Crites and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.

 
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