Partying with the Confederacy: I just can’t do it


Alan and the portrait of Jefferson Davis.

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.

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14 Responses to Partying with the Confederacy: I just can’t do it

  1. Scott McDonald, on June 14th, 2010 at 5:28 pm said:

    Cynthia, I think that I can relate to what you’re feeling.

    In the late 90’s I was in Japan with General Motors for a 6-month assignment. On one of my weekends, I took the bullet train to Hirosima, not quite sure what to expect, but keenly interested in the historical aspects of that area.

    As it turned out, I was the only non-Japanese person anywhere near there. The experience was chilling and I couldn’t help but feel really guilty for the destruction, even if the A-bomb ended up saving more lives perhaps by ending the war much earlier than otherwise…

    I took no photos there and can’t imagine having much of a festive event at Hirosima, but the historical value was certainly there.

    All the best to my Knoxville friends – I think of you all quite often!

  2. Betty Bean, on June 14th, 2010 at 6:31 pm said:

    I’d have no problem with this, except things have gotten so one-sided around here. Where’s the hall memorializing the Union soldiers, whose ranks included my great-grandfather John Alexander Bean and my great-great uncle Creed Casteel?
    This was NOT a hotbed of the CSA and Union sympathies ran strong. My grandfather, who was the youngest of 11 children, felt so strongly about this subject that he would not allow me to watch The Gray Ghost (about Col. John Mosby’s raiders) on TV at his house. He was proud to call himself a Republican. A Lincoln Republican whose daddy fought to preserve the Union.
    Not the other kind.

  3. Cynthia Moxley, on June 14th, 2010 at 11:09 pm said:

    Thanks to both Scott and Betty for those very thoughtful comments. Others have posted some on my Facebook page. It’s a complicated issue.

  4. Jack Rose, on June 15th, 2010 at 2:23 am said:

    I hate to do this publicly, but I agree with Betty Bean.

    I recently had a similar discussion, and ended up googling my way to this Wikipedia entry:

    Bottom line, it says that a significant population from the eastern third of the state (28 counties) voted against secession from the Union twice, by almost 5:1 (5:1!) the first time, and 3:1 the second time. Knox county and its neighbors voted against secession both times.

    Opposition to secession was so strong that the 28 counties comprising east Tennessee held their own conventions with the intent of seceding from Tennessee, itself.

    Subsequently, ours was the last state to secede from, and the first state to re-enter the Union. And I’d guess that it’s no coincidence that our first governor under Reconstruction was from east Tennessee or that the VP who and sworn in after Lincoln’s assassination was also from east Tennessee.

    So Betty’s question is good one, where are the monuments to our Union sympathizing ancestors? Maybe Jack Neely knows.

    Meanwhile, isn’t it ironic that the progeny of all those Union sympathizers so proudly display the Stars and Bars on the back windows of their pick-ups?


  5. Melinda Meador, on June 15th, 2010 at 7:50 am said:

    A 10,000 square-foot home with terraced gardens that is considered a beautiful setting for weddings and lavish parties does not honor the Confederate dead so much as it honors the antebellum society the Confederacy stood for. That society — with its large plantations, its white-columned mansions, and its self-annointed aristocracy, was built largely on the backs of slaves.

    I grew up in a South that still revered the vestiges of that aristocracy — an aristocracy that, until the mid-sixties, was tolerated by the rest of the country. Yes, it was beautiful in a misty-eyed sort of way, and of course it is a historical fact that cannot be ignored, but it should not be revered. Never revered.

  6. Jim Nichols, on June 15th, 2010 at 8:43 am said:

    Cynthia, for those of us who live in East Tennessee, we know we are all very blessed… no major flooding, tornadoes, or hurricanes, and yes, lots of fun loving great people. But one of our most important blessings is that Cynthia Moxley chose to make Knoxville her home. Although this post is intended commentary about CMH, it is also an unintentional commentary about your heart. Thank you for sharing a tiny slice of your soul, and thank you and Alan for being my friend.

  7. Cynthia Moxley, on June 15th, 2010 at 9:44 am said:

    Wow, Jim: thanks so much. Alan and I are blessed to have you and Phyllis as friends.

  8. Dawn Ford, on June 15th, 2010 at 12:02 pm said:

    Once again Cynthia has written a good and thought provoking blog. I don’t believe the CBT thought about the implications of holding an event at Confederate Hall nor did any of the hundred or so people who attended including us. But as I learned recently from my friend Phyllis Nichols we tend to look at things through our own lens and don’t look often enough through the lenses of others. I believe the “history buff” referred to in the blog is my husband who actually has an advanced degree in history and taught American history for many years at the junior college level. Born and raised in a part of the South that was also pro-Union it isn’t surprising that he used to lecture his students that Robert E. Lee although a great general was also a traitor to his country. He is right that we should all visit places of historical value even if they make us uncomfortable. He once dragged Alan, Cynthia and I through Appomattox a place every American should visit as it was there that the South surrendered and the bloodiest war in our history came to an end. When we were in Germany we insisted our children visit Dachau although they did not want to. But if we do not familiarize ourselves with these places and events we cannot assure they will not happen again. But partying at these sites – Cynthia has a good point!

  9. LaVance Davis, on June 15th, 2010 at 1:15 pm said:

    Monticello and several of the homes and plantations in SC (probably other places that I am not aware of) have added exhibits and information telling the stories of all the people associated with the place. Without revenue places like the Confederal Memorial Hall cannot exist so avoiding them causes other problems which lead to a loss of history. I would suggest that if they don’t already, then CFM should increase the story they tell by adding information about everyone connected to the house- be it Union, Confederate, White, African American, etc.

  10. rachel craig, on June 15th, 2010 at 2:25 pm said:

    I’m with Bean. My great-great-grandfather James William Ventis fought in the Union Army – and then came home to Bearden, where we lived out the rest of his life.

    Of course, I had ancestors on the other side of the family who fought with the Confederacy. I suspect most east Tennessee natives have similar histories.

  11. Susan Kemppainen, on June 15th, 2010 at 3:28 pm said:

    This post sent me running to research the Armstrong family who originally owned the house. Sadly, I couldn’t find much information which would tell me whether they were Confederate or Union sympathizers. Of course, as has been stated, Knoxville was a Union town.

    Funny, but growing up in Knoxville in the 60s, I never heard the mansion called Confederate Memorial Hall…always Bleak House. Of course, I knew the history behind the house. Longstreet’s headquarters. Sniper’s nest. General Wm. P. Sanders.

    Had the Knoxville Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy not purchased the house in the late 50s, it more than likely would have been torn down completely (which was, and sadly still is, a trend in Knoxville). Whatever it may have been intended to memorialize, Bleak House is one of the few antebellum mansions left in this city.

    I wonder if the same thoughts, and reactions, would have occurred if the house had been saved by the Daughters of the Revolution; and, was named, Colonial Memorial Hall?

    Is it proper to hold functions at the American Museum of Science and Energy (which, by the way, was called the Atomic Energy Museum for decades), a museum originally dedicated to the efforts of the Manhattan Project? Parties are held at the School Book Depository in Dallas. Functions are held at Ford’s Theatre.

    Bleak House serves as a quiet reminder of a period of our American history that has come to represent, to some, an era of states’ rights. A “Don’t Tread On Me” attitude, if you will. Some misguided folks use it as a justification for bigotry and hatred.

    Make no mistake, the Civil War was about states rights…the right of states to maintain an agrarian society built on the backs of an enslaved class. But, Bleak House may serve as a reminder that it’s not an attitude we should revisit.

    All this to say, I understand how you feel, Cynthia; but, think perhaps, it has more to do with the intention of the function, rather than where the function is held. You were not there to glorify the Old South and what it stood for…but, to celebrate the arts…which is a better pursuit.

    Evidently, this post has struck my amateur historian nerve, and caused me to revisit how I remember American history.

    I’ll be quiet now.

  12. Cynthia Moxley, on June 15th, 2010 at 4:53 pm said:

    Great comment, Susan. Thanks for posting. Have you looked at the Q&A section of the Bleak House website?

    It is quite interesting. (Maybe the fact that I’m driving so much traffic to their site will make the Bleak House folks not so mad with me!) Anyway, it addresses the question of which side the Armstrongs were on — apparently they were Southern supporters. Although, since they remained in the house during its occupation, they would have been smart to ACT like Southern supporters whether they were or not!

    I see many of your points. But I still have to ask myself if my African American friends would have been comfortable attending a party there. And that was really the purpose of the party — to invite new folks to the theater.

    Thanks again.

  13. Susan Kemppainen, on June 15th, 2010 at 5:55 pm said:

    Believe me, I agree with you, Cynthia, that CMH may not be an ideal place for an event like the CBT event. All too often, we don’t look at situations through others’ eyes.

    I recall, back in the 80s being uncomfortable attending an event at Cherokee Country Club, for many of the same reasons you felt about CMH. At the time, CCC had extremely outdated and exclusive membership rules regarding women, minorities and religion. I had to attend because of my work; but, I was uncomfortable, nonetheless.

    Great topic!

  14. Bob, on June 15th, 2010 at 6:57 pm said:

    No dog in this fight • war is the folly of men • who fail at all else.

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