Monday, October 25, 2010

Women & the Painting "The Burial of Latané"

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William D. Washington
(American, 1833-1870) The Burial of Lantane Detail 1864

The Burial of Latané was one of the most famous Lost Cause images of the American Civil War (1861–1865). Painted by Virginian William D. Washington in Richmond in 1864, the work shows white women, slaves, & children performing the burial service of a cavalry officer killed during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. The incident first inspired a poem & then the painting, which became a powerful symbol of Confederate women's devotion to the Confederate cause.

Latané's Interment

In June 1862, 29-year-old Captain William Latané of the 9th Virginia Cavalry was the only Confederate killed during J. E. B. Stuart's famous ride around Union General McClellan's army during the Peninsula Campaign. After Latané's death at Old Church in Hanover County, his brother John Latané removed the body to the Westwood plantation two miles away. The plantation's white men were all away serving the Confederate army, but Mrs. William Spencer Roane Brockenbrough, the mistress of the house, assured John Latané that his brother's remains would be rendered proper care & a Christian burial. The next day, slaves from Westwood & the neighboring family plantation of Summer Hill prepared the body & constructed a coffin. According to the story that circulated at the time, Mrs. Brockenbrough sent one of the slaves to retrieve the family minister, but Union pickets hindered his arrival. Without any men to assist them, the women performed the funeral themselves. It was believed that Mrs. Brockenbrough's sister-in-law, Mrs. Willoughby Newton, read the service, while the white children & slaves watched.

Scene Becomes Iconic Image

Within days, the details of the burial had been reported in the Richmond press. The much-publicized incident inspired John R. Thompson to compose a poem eulogizing Latané's death among strangers; the restrictions placed on funerals during the war; & the patriotic role of women who had performed the burial. Published in the July–August issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, the poem read in part:

No man of God might read the burial rite
Above the "rebel"—thus declared the foe
That blanched before him in the deadly fight,
But woman's voice, in accents soft & low,
Trembling with pity, touched with pathos, read
Over his hallowed dust the ritual of the dead—

An instant success, the poem was immediately reprinted as a broadside. Its message resonated throughout the Confederacy, as thousands of young soldiers died alone, far from home with only strangers to care for their remains. Mothers & wives on the home front, who feared their sons & husbands might experience a similar fate, could take solace in knowing that other Confederate women would provide loving care for their departed on distant battlefields.

Two years later, in 1864, William D. Washington immortalized the scene on canvas. Seeking models to pose for the image, Washington visited Miss Pegram's School for Girls in Richmond. From his sketches, he painted a 36-by-46-inch oil that featured loyal slaves; Mrs. Willoughby Newton at center performing the rites; Mrs. William Spencer Roane Brockenbrough, who agreed to care for the body; & the children of Westwood & Summer Hill plantations with flowers to decorate on the grave. The painting was first exhibited in a Richmond studio, but the great masses of people wishing to view it compelled officials to relocate it to the Virginia State Capitol. According to several accounts, a bucket was placed under the painting to solicit contributions for the Confederate war effort.

After the war, Washington arranged for A. G. Campbell to produce a steel engraving of the image. It originally sold for $20, a considerable sum in the postwar South. But the price of the print declined, as its popularity rose. In 1868, Campbell engraved the image for William Pate, one of New York City's most popular print-houses. The Southern Magazine, a publication begun in 1871 to celebrate the Confederacy, offered free copies with the purchase of a $1.50 annual subscription & 1 free copy of the print for every 5 orders of their books. According to historian Drew Gilpin Faust, the prints "became a standard decorative item in late-nineteenth-century white southern homes."

Years later, Mrs. Brockenbrough revealed that in fact neither she nor her sister-in-law had performed the service because a Methodist minister arrived just in time. Regardless of this revelation, the painting continued to herald Confederate women's heroic self-sacrifice & their special responsibility for mourning. Alone on the home front, Confederate women had shown their patriotic devotion to the nation through private acts such funerals. Women's wartime mourning thus marked an increasingly political tone of the formerly private grieving process. As would be the case in the postwar Ladies' Memorial Associations, these women were not grieving for their loved ones; they were grieving for the entire Confederate nation. The painting became emblematic of women's devotion to Confederate nationalism.

During the late 19th & early 20th centuries, the print proved integral to the Lost Cause. Depicting the war from a female perspective, the painting celebrated Confederate women's valor & extolled their virtue. Just as much as Confederate soldiers, women on the home front had been faithful to the cause. The image also celebrated the loyal & faithful slave, perhaps hoping to serve as a role model for southern race relations during the uncertain years of Reconstruction (1865–1877). Applauding freedmen who might tearfully mourn their former masters allowed southern whites to praise those black people who knew their "place" in the postwar society—those who did not question the authority of whites, meddle in politics, or stage Emancipation Day celebrations.

Article from Janney, Caroline E. " The Burial of Latané ." Encyclopedia Virginia. Ed. Brendan Wolfe. 25 Oct. 2010. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. 23 Aug. 2010 .
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