ARLINGTON, VA. — The battle over Confederate monuments has reached America’s most sacred soil. The U.S. military has started the removal process of a 32-foot tall monument located in Arlington National Cemetery. But a time capsule once buried deep underneath, one that contains Confederate symbols and Lost Cause narratives, could remain.
The Arlington monument’s removal is being fiercely debated in newspaper op-eds and ongoing public meetings held by cemetery leadership. Former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia wants it to stay. Historians applaud its removal. A pro-Confederate group is suing. Through all the back-and-forth, the time capsule — which has some South Carolina ties — has received no mention.
People on both sides of the debate told The Post and Courier the box’s existence below ground was forgotten and, therefore, not accounted for in removal orders. The newspaper began asking questions about the capsule after finding a description of the box on the cemetery’s own website, buried deep within a reprint of a seemingly unrelated historical document.
The order to remove the statue and its accompanying bronze features follows guidance set forth by a naming commission set up by the overwhelmingly bipartisan 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. The Department of Defense has directed the stripping of all Confederate “names, symbols, display, monuments, and paraphernalia” from military installations.
“I don’t know anything about a time capsule,” said Ty Seidule, who served as vice chair of the military’s naming commission and is a professor emeritus of history at West Point.
A majority of the eight-person naming commission visited Arlington to assess the monument in person. According to their final report, what they saw above ground were objects that “sanitized” the Civil War and the antebellum South.
Seidule said the naming commission didn’t know to consider things below ground.
Standing in Arlington, one sees a bronze goddess representing the glories of the South towering over bronze vignettes that contain depictions of enslaved persons that, according to the commission’s report, deny the “horrors of slavery.”
The commission pointed to the depiction of a “Mammy” — an overweight enslaved woman holding a child. Another depiction shows a “faithful slave.” One bronze panel contains a Latin phrase that references a noble “Lost Cause.” Taken together, the bronze artwork shows a whitewashed view of American history, historians say. All but the monument’s bare granite pedestal could be gone by year’s end.
The pedestal will stay as to not disturb any graves in the immediate vicinity. Currently, there are no plans to dig beneath it.
There are 482 graves of Confederate soldiers surrounding the monument, 11 of them from South Carolina. This area, Section 16, was created by Congress at the turn into the 20th century to re-inter Confederate soldiers whose remains were haphazardly buried in public cemeteries in the Washington, D.C., area during the Civil War. Many of those Confederate soldiers died in U.S. Army hospitals from battle wounds.
Take, for instance, David E. Brown, the first Confederate buried in Arlington. His grave is one of the closest to the Confederate memorial. He was from Townville, S.C., and fought for the 14th South Carolina Infantry. He was wounded in battle and died at the age of 23 at a hospital in downtown Washington.
Another Confederate soldier, Thomas Meekin, from Fairfield County, S.C., was wounded beneath the famous 22-inch oak tree at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. The tree’s stump, riddled with bullets and blasts, became a symbol of the war’s horrific violence; it now sits in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Meekin died of his wounds 12 days later and, for years, was likely buried in a nearby public cemetery.
The Arlington monument honored these dead, re-interred in Arlington with dignity, and was funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. But the monument’s final design also gloried and reframed the South’s cause. As one contemporary put it, it reflected “Confederate sentiments.”
According to the naming commission’s final 174-page report, Arlington National Cemetery provided a 2021 briefing to the naming commission on all of its Confederate-affiliated assets, which includes the towering bronze monument and two cemetery roads named after Confederate generals. Not inventoried is the time capsule buried during the monument’s construction. It contains over 40 pro-Confederate objects.
Some of the objects are benign, like newspapers and a South Carolina state flag. Others are the kind of objects the military is purposefully removing from installations across the country.
According to archival records, the buried box likely contains Confederate stamps, Confederate coins, pre-Civil War South Carolina currency, a flag emblazoned with the Confederacy’s “Star and Bars” banner and a plaster cast of the “Great Seal of the Confederate States.”
The box likely rests directly under the monument’s cornerstone, which was laid in the dirt in 1912 by one of Robert E. Lee’s living daughters and Hilary A. Herbert, a South Carolina native and Alabama congressman who historians call a “staunch White supremacist.” Herbert, immediately before dropping the time capsule in the dirt, gave a speech arguing that the newly re-interred Confederate soldiers died for a cause that had nothing to do with slavery.
“Of course, we know that the South was fighting to keep slavery,” said Seidule, the historian who also wrote the book “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause.”
These lies about why the war was fought, repeated multiple times by Herbert during the burying of the box and laying of the monument’s cornerstone, are the most dangerous, Seidule said.
It’s possible that those same stories about the Lost Cause may be locked inside the 111-year-old time capsule, as well.
Records indicate the buried box contains the “Program of the Laying of the Corner-Stone of Arlington Monument.” Herbert, the main speaker at the cornerstone’s laying, also served as the vice chair of the committee that created the monument. He later published a book about the Arlington monument, which seems to contain a reprint of the “Program” that may be inside the time capsule.
Herbert’s “Program” contains text that says Southern secession was not “rebellion or revolution” but instead an indication that the Union had made an “infraction of that (Constitutional) compact” of states rights. The program also states: “The historian no longer repeats the falsehood that the men who lie before you …. died that slavery might live. That was not the issue upon which the war between the North and South was fought.”
Seidule said it was typical for groups that erected Confederate monuments after Reconstruction to disseminate Lost Cause lies like this, trying to rewrite history for future generations: “The propaganda enforces White Supremacy. That’s what it’s there for.”
Black scholars agree.
“To reconcile the North and South in the early 1900s meant denying the war was fought over race,” said Robert Greene II, an assistant professor of history at Claflin University, South Carolina’s oldest historically black college. He agrees with the monument’s removal. “Yes, Arlington had been a site of reconciliation … But that reconciliation after the Civil War was done on the backs of African Americans.”
Others think the monument should stay. And they see pro-Confederate time capsules differently — as historical artifacts.
H. Edward Phillips is an attorney for the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. He said one of the groups would gladly take ownership of the Arlington time capsule if found. He’s representing the Sons of Confederate Veterans in an ongoing lawsuit to stop the Arlington monument’s removal.
Phillips, of Nashville, Tenn., said he wasn’t aware of documents referring to a pro-Confederate time capsule buried in Arlington. But he said he wasn’t surprised. Phillips, who has represented pro-Confederate groups in dozens of monument removal suits, said that when historical documents mention a time capsule it’s usually there “nine times out of 10.”
When asked about its knowledge of a time capsule buried under Arlington’s Confederate monument, a spokeswoman from the Arlington National Cemetery Public Affairs Office said: “Some sources state that the Arlington Confederate Monument Association buried a time capsule below a cornerstone. The exact location is unknown. The Army will not deconstruct the granite bases in any way or conduct any subsurface disturbance. If the time capsule is inadvertently located while removing the bronze elements of the memorial, Army National Military Cemeteries (ANMC) will develop a plan in conjunction with the Department of Historic Resources (DHR) and consulting parties, for disposition of the time capsules.”
The military began removing Confederate objects and renaming bases in January 2023. It must complete that work by January 1, 2024. Arlington cemetery is currently in the middle of a public scoping process to assess the environmental and historical impacts of the monument’s removal.
Seidule, the historian, is also a retired Army brigadier general. His body will be buried in Arlington one day. He remarked on the irony of a box of objects glorifying the Confederacy remaining in the cemetery’s sacred soil even as the military tries to remove it.
“This Lost Cause stuff,” said Seidule, “it never goes away.”