I don’t know how I have avoided it, having lived in Knoxville for more than 30 years, but I paid my first visit to the Historic Bleak House (a.k.a. the Confederate Memorial Hall) Friday evening.
The home, located at 3148 Kingston Pike, was built in 1858 as a wedding present for a well-to-do bride and groom and it only became the Confederate Memorial Hall in 1959, when it was purchased by Knoxville Chapter 89, United Daughters of the Confederacy.
The beautiful 10,000-square-foot home, comprised of 15 large rooms, and its five levels of terraced gardens sloping down to the Tennessee River are often used for weddings and other festive occasions, partly, I’m sure, because it makes such lovely pictures. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The cause of our visit this past weekend was a preview party for the Clarence Brown Theatre‘s upcoming season. I’ll do a separate post on that in a couple of days. But this post is about how partying in the Confederate Memorial Hall made me feel. Which is guilty.
At first, I didn’t really have a problem with it. I just thought of it as a historic building to be used for a fun special event. I camped it up a little, having my husband and my friends pose with portraits of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and Gen. James Longstreet, the Confederate leader who commandeered the house in the winter of 1863 during the siege of Knoxville. The Confederate troops camped on the grounds (which were much larger then) and some snipers stationed themselves inside the house and, using rifles with telescopic lenses, shot from the windows at the Union soldiers outside, fatally wounding one Gen. William P. Sanders, among others.
I took one photo of friends in front of a Confederate battle flag. That’s when I started getting a little queasy.
Of course, my husband, Alan, kind of brought the whole thing home when I told him later that I had posted a photo of him in front of the portrait of Jefferson Davis to Twitter and Facebook. “I’m sure our black friends are going to appreciate that,” he said wryly.
That abruptly sent my fun-meter to zero. I went into defensive mode, posting a message to Twitter and Facebook saying that I was only at the Confederate Memorial Hall because of the Clarence Brown event.
Then I got to thinking: why on earth did they have the event there? Why do people have weddings there? Why did I go to a location I would have to feel guilty about and apologize for? Would my black friends have felt comfortable there? Is it really an inclusive and welcoming location for them?
A history buff friend of mine attended the event with us. He said, essentially, that history is history. And the Hall is meant as a memorial for those who fought and died in the bloodiest war in the history of the United States. The war was a historical fact and artifacts from the war should be preserved and studied. He said there is nothing to feel guilty about.
I think he is right about the importance of preserving history. We preserve artifacts from many wars and that doesn’t mean we agree with every side in the war. Some things we preserve as reminders to ourselves and future generations of the indefensible positions some warriors fought for .
I’m from Georgia, so I’ve been steeped in all things Southern, believe me. And I love the South and most things Southern. But you can’t get around the fact that despite some Southerners’ assertions that the so-called “War of Northern Aggression” was not about slavery, but about “states’ rights,” that’s really not true. Those fighting for the Confederacy were defending the right to own slaves. To actually own other human beings.
So I’m OK with preserving artifacts from the Civil War. But preserving them and partying among them are two different things. I won’t soon be going to another party or wedding at the Confederate Memorial Hall.