In June 1862, twenty-nine-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 and a Christian burial. The next day, slaves from Westwood and the neighboring family plantation of Summer Hill prepared the body and 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. Mrs. Brockenbrough's sister-in-law, Mrs. Willoughby Newton, read the service while the white children and 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, and 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 and 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 and wives on the home front who feared their sons and 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 (sometimes called William De Hartburn Washington) immortalized the scene on canvas. Seeking models to pose for the image, Washington visited Miss Pegram's School for Girls in Richmond. From these 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; and the children of Westwood and Summer Hill plantations with flowers to strew 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 twenty dollars, 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 and one free copy of the print for every five orders of their books. According to historian Drew Gilpin Faust, the prints "became a standard decorative item in late-nineteenth-century white southern homes."
Resonance of Image
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 heralded Confederate women's heroic self-sacrifice and 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 thus became emblematic of women's devotion to Confederate nationalism.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the print proved integral to the Lost Cause. Depicting the war from a female perspective, the painting celebrated Confederate women's valor and extolled their virtue. Just as much as Confederate soldiers, women on the home front had been faithful to the cause. The image likewise celebrated the so-called loyal and faithful slave perhaps as a model of 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.
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First published: January 21, 2010 | Last modified: March 31, 2011