Friday, May 15, 2020

At Arlington National Cemetery, an opened 1915 time capsule yields two items tied to the Civil War and national reconciliation

Caitlin Smith, Tim Frank open copper box containing capsule
"Confederate Dead" pamphlet (Arlington National Cemetery)
On Oct. 13, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson made the short journey from the White House to Arlington National Cemetery, where rows of headstones are set on the hills overlooking Washington. Surrounded by thousands of spectators – including veterans of the Civil War and Spanish-American War – Wilson laid the cornerstone for a new Memorial Amphitheater.

A crane lowered the hollow cornerstone to rest above a copper box that contained items those attending hoped Americans would find meaningful when opened a century later.

Among other items, there were maps and plans of Washington, a signed photograph of Wilson, a 46-star US flag, local newspapers, a signed Bible and two artifacts tied to the Civil War: A program for the recent 49th encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic near the U.S. Capitol and a pamphlet, labeled “Confederate Dead,” which detailed burial places for Southern soldiers in the area, including – in recent years – Arlington.

Items in amphitheater lower chapel (Elizabeth Fraser, Arlington National Cemetery)
Last month, the box was opened as part of the centennial of Memorial Amphitheater’s opening on May 15, 1920. The marble structure is used for services and special events, including the president’s annual Memorial Day address.

The cemetery is marking the amphitheater anniversary this week with the launch of an online exhibit. The Washington Post first detailed the opening of the time capsule.

Among those opening the box and examining its near-pristine contents on April 9 was cemetery historian Tim Frank, who described the “once-in-a-lifetime experience” in a cemetery blog post. The capsule included a Boyd’s Directory of the District of Columbia, and Frank was able to find a listing for an ancestor. 

Frank had the privilege of removing the contents of the box one by one, according to the Post. (Video above includes the examination of the items)

“These items were carefully tied, wrapped and arranged in the inner box, which was soldered shut,” he would later write in the blog. “That box was then surrounded by pieces of plate glass to keep an air gap between it and the larger copper box, ensuring that no condensation would damage the precious documents and mementos inside.”

The “Confederate Dead’ pamphlet’s cover was printed in gray, and featured the Southern battle flag and the words “Charles Broadway Rouss Camp 1101 United Confederate Veterans Washington, DC”

Removal of copper box before its opening (Elizabeth Fraser, ANC)
I was able to find a copy of the 1901 booklet online. Scattered throughout are references to and diagrams of Confederate burials at Arlington. About 400 Rebel soldiers are buried in that section.

The cemetery devotes an online page to the subject. Confederate soldiers were allowed to be reinterred at Arlington 35 years after the war’s end. The article notes the end of the 19th century brought a spirit of national reconciliation, at least for the white population.

In 1898, then-President William McKinley said, “In the spirit of fraternity we should share with you in the care of the graves of Confederate soldiers…. Sectional feeling no longer holds back the love we feel for each other. The old flag again waves over us in peace with new glories.”

President Wilson dedicates amphitheater cornerstone (Library of Congress)
The article points out that the “spirit of fraternity” cited by McKinley did not include African-Americans, who had largely been disenfranchised in the South.

“In 1871, a group of black soldiers had petitioned the War Department to relocate the graves of hundreds of United States Colored Troops (USCT) from the “Lower Cemetery,” where they were buried alongside former slaves and poor whites, to the main cemetery near Arlington House, where white Civil War veterans lay at rest. The War Department denied the petition. Arlington National Cemetery would remain segregated until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman desegregated the armed forces by executive order.”

The second Civil War item found in the capsule – which was moved a couple times since 1915 -- was a program for the Sept. 27-Oct. 2, 1915, meeting of the Grand Army of the Republic in Washington. This gathering of former Union soldiers was marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the conflict.

Tim Frank holds GAR program (Elizabeth Fraser, Arlington National Cemetery)
By then, membership in the organization had dwindled as time and wounds took the lives of tens of thousands. The succeeding Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War describes why veterans sought such fellowship, even into their 70s and 80s.

“Men who had lived together, fought together, foraged together and survived, had developed an unique bond that could not be broken. As time went by the memories of the filthy and vile environment of camp life began to be remembered less harshly and eventually fondly. The horror and gore of battle lifted with the smoke and smell of burnt black powder and was replaced with the personal rain of tears for the departed comrades. Friendships forged in battle survived the separation and the warriors missed the warmth of trusting companionship that had asked only total and absolute commitment.”

(The final encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic was held in Indianapolis in 1949.)

Ceremony at US Capitol during 1915 GAR meeting (Library of Congress)
President Wilson, just two weeks before the laying of the Memorial Amphitheater cornerstone, spoke to the group during its Capitol encampment, citing their reconciliation with former foes.

You feel, as I am sure the men who fought against you feel, that you were comrades even then, though you did not know it, and that now you know that you are comrades in a common love for a country which you are equally eager to serve.”

By their nature, time capsules are meant to provide a snapshot of what was important for those who left them for future generations. Cemetery command historian Steve Carney told the Post that 1915 was a time of nostalgia about the Civil War and Arlington was a symbol of reconciliation between North and South.

“You’re really transporting yourself back,” he told the newspaper. “You’re putting yourself in the mind-set of those individuals in 1915 that were saying, ‘Okay … what do we put in? What makes the cut?’ ”

Arlington National Cemetery plans to install later this year a time capsule to be opened in 100 years. Details on what might be included are not yet available.

David Ferriero, archivist of the US, with contents (Elizabeth Fraser, ANC)

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