A Plaque for Mary Surratt

In June of 1917, a museum in Richmond, Virginia was given a memorial plaque. Measuring 15 inches high and 10 inches across, the bronze plaque featured a cast ivy design along the top, a central cross, four fleur-de-lis, and two small flowers. The tablet was a gift intended to be displayed on the wall of one of the rooms within the museum and spoke of the innocence of the executed Lincoln conspirator, Mary Surratt.

The plaque was commissioned by the Maryland Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It was created by a Baltimore artist named Joseph Maxwell Miller at a cost of $100. The Maryland UDC presented the plaque to the White House of the Confederacy, then known as the Confederate Museum. Within the museum there were 11 rooms devoted to the 11 different states within the Confederacy along with three others for the Confederates from the sympathetic border states of Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland. This plaque was an addition to the Maryland Room within the Confederate Museum.

The ladies of the Maryland UDC were quite proud of this piece. In their end of the year report for 1917, the following paragraph was included.

“For many years we have wished to place a tablet in memory of Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, of Maryland, an innocent woman who was tried and condemned by the Federal Government. This year we have accomplished our purpose, and the beautiful tablet of golden bronze, the work of Maxwell Miller, a young artist of Baltimore, is hanging in the Maryland Room in Richmond, with the inscription of her own words, “To God, I commend my cause!”

Aside from the fact that there is no evidence that Mary Surratt ever said the words the UDC attributed to her (and that the final plaque inscription doesn’t even bear that phrase), the plaque also puts the wrong date for Mary’s execution. Mary Surratt and the other condemned conspirators were executed on July 7, 1865, not the 9th as the plaque states.

It’s extremely fitting that, like the many other memorials and monuments created by the UDC and other Confederate groups, this memorial to Mary Surratt is a misrepresentation of history not just in fact, but also in intent. While there is an evidence based case to be made regarding Mary Surratt’s (possible) innocence, this plaque is not about portraying history as much as it is a tool for furthering the narrative of the Myth of the Lost Cause. It’s amazing how much the “murder” of Mary Surratt played into the narrative of Confederate organizations in the decades following her execution.

In looking for period documentation regarding this plaque I searched the issues of the Confederate Veteran magazine. The magazine was founded in 1893, at around the same time the White House of the Confederacy was opened as a museum. Confederate Veteran later became an official publication for the UDC and other Confederate groups. I finally found a mention of the plaque in the July 1920 edition which stated, plainly, “The Baltimore chapter also placed in the Maryland Room, Richmond Museum, a tablet to Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, the only Memorial by any Chapter to this martyred woman.” The Maryland UDC may have placed the only physical memorial to Mary Surratt, but her “martyrdom” was a regular feature in the Confederate Veteran magazine. Mrs. Surratt’s case was often used in conjunction with other Confederate talking points devoted to perpetuating the Myth of the Lost Cause and the villainy of the North. Here’s just a sampling of the Mary Surratt mentions I found while searching the 1916 – 1920 editions of the Confederate Veteran. Please note: very little of what follows is factually accurate and the points that are accurate are largely misleading or given false equivalences. As such, what follows is made up almost entirely of Confederate revisionist propaganda which constituted the bulk of the Confederate Veteran magazine.

June 1916: “For years after Appomattox the South was the victim of slander and falsehood heaped high – the Surratt case, the Wirz trial (the two darkest blots on the country’s escutcheon), the Andersonville stories, the Fort Pillow massacre, and a host of others circulated by rabid politicians in an effort to justify the horrors of Reconstruction.

Time works wonders, though, and one by one these bubble lies have been pricked by the pen of fact. Every intelligent American, except a few who still prefer to remain in darkness so far as the War between the States is concerned, knows that the South did not fight to perpetuate slavery, that the right of secession was believed by statesmen North and South to be guaranteed by the Constitution, that the suffering among Union prisoners in the South was due primarily to the refusal of the Washington administration to exchange prisoners, that President Davis and other Confederate officials were horrified by the assassination of Lincoln, that Mrs. Surratt had nothing to do with that crime, that the burning of Chambersburg was in retaliation for the burning and destruction by Hunter and others in Virginia, and that Chambersburg and Lawrence were the only two Northern towns put to the torch by Confederates, where a score of Southern towns were burned by the invaders.”

August 1919: “Students of our national history cannot fail to observe the marked and unvarying absence of any reference or allusion to Mrs. Surratt in works relating to American biography, textbooks, cyclopedias, etc., prepared under the auspices of Northern scholars and controlled by Northern publishers. The typical pupil would never become aware of her existence if dependent upon the authorities to whom he looks for light and guidance…Let me again commend the memory of Mrs. Surratt to the devout perusal of those educational oracles of the South who are unable to control or restrain their eagerness to grovel in the earth at the feet of a triumphant enemy whose crowning garland and wreath of glory was the slaughter of an innocent woman.”

March 1920: “Among the crowning infamies associated with our national record three may be cited as unchallengeable, preeminent, and unique in their ghastly atrocity, the murder of Mrs. Surratt, the campaign of Sherman in the Carolinas, and the treatment inflicted upon President Davis by specific direction of the Federal government while a prostrate captive in his cell at Fortress Monroe.”

For organizations like the United Confederate Veterans, the UDC, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Mary Surratt was an effective and useful recruiting tool. By taking the legitimate ambiguity regarding her knowledge of the assassination plot against Lincoln and the difficult legality regarding her trial and conviction, Confederate apologists slowly developed Mary Surratt into a martyr for their cause. Over time, they perpetuated the uncertainty regarding Mary’s guilt, transforming it into a near universal belief of her innocence. Once that was done, she was brought up constantly, becoming the epitome of the virtuous and innocent Southern woman who paid the ultimate price at the hands of the villainous North. In this way, Confederate groups could use Mrs. Surratt’s established infallibility to assist in the development of other false equivalences. In the 1916 excerpt from above, for example, Mary Surratt’s name sits in a list with the claim that the South did not fight the Civil War over slavery, thus helping this highly erroneous statement portray itself as just and legitimate as the established truth of Mrs. Surratt’s innocence.

The 1920 excerpt is perhaps the most telling of the Confederate Veteran‘s (and therefore the organizations attached to it) goals. When speaking of the three most heinous crimes ever committed in our nation’s history, the execution of Mrs. Surratt, the wartime crusade of General Sherman, and the shackling of Jefferson Davis while imprisoned, all superseded our country’s centuries-long abominable practice of genocide and rape known as slavery – a practice that the South absolutely fought to perpetuate. It is in this way that Mary Surratt’s claimed innocence did the most damage. Her agreed upon martyrdom allowed Confederate revisionists to literally whitewash the atrocities of the past, providing them with a virtuous, white, Southern woman to supplant the millions of enslaved men, women and children, who toiled and died in bondage.

The modern effort of reassessing and removing Confederate monuments of the past is a study of whose history was supplanted when these monuments went up in the first place. Whose story did our ancestors choose to elevate and whose did they choose to ignore? As a society we need to constantly be reassessing the actions and motivations of those in the past in order to create a better future. Even the White House of the Confederacy knew this to be true when they renovated their museum in the 1980’s. They transformed the museum from a collection of shrines to the different Confederate states, into a historic house museum which educates the public about the time period in which the Davis family lived there. Mary Surratt’s plaque has been off of the walls of the museum since 1988 with no “loss of history” having occurred as a result. The White House of the Confederacy has continued to reassess itself and its place in furthering the narrative of Confederate apologists. In 2013, the then Museum of the Confederacy merged with the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. Together they took the name of the American Civil War Museum and have been actively increasing their collections to house more artifacts relating to the Union and enslaved peoples. Their efforts are commendable, especially in the wake of backlash from the remnants of the UDC and other neo-Confederate groups that exist today.

This plaque to Mrs. Surratt is currently housed in the collection of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond. The debate about Mary Surratt’s guilt or innocence in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln will continue to take place even without this memorial tablet on display and interested visitors can make research appointments to view this artifact as we did. It may seem like merely a plaque for Mary Surratt but, like so many other Confederate memorials, its a representation of the values of the people who commissioned it and, as such, no longer represents who we want to be as a nation. Let us, instead, continue to work to balance the scales of representation and allow other, previously suppressed stories of pain and perseverance rise from the overlooked depths and find their place in the historical narrative of commemoration.

References:
American Civil War Museum
Minutes of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy
Confederate Veteran magazine Volumes 24, 27, & 28

Categories: History | Tags: , , , | 19 Comments

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19 thoughts on “A Plaque for Mary Surratt

  1. Dave Grimm

    Well said, Dave.

  2. John P. Dumville

    Very thoughtful.

  3. On the money, Dave. The Black Flag was raised even before the war began–in the Kansas-Missouri Border War, for example, and in Bleeding Kansas. The Civil War did not initiate it; it merely continued it. It is unquestionably true that both sides were guilty of wretched excesses, as is the case in nearly all . wars. Finding greater fault with one side or the other is an interminable and mindless exercise. Using plaques, monuments and other symbols to demonstrate this or that excess is similarly mindless, especially, as in this case, when the symbol is historically inaccurate.

  4. Rich Smyth

    Excellent! Were those articles attributed to a specific writer?

    • Rich, I believe all of the articles were written by different authors, showing how widespread these views were among members of the Confederate Veteran subscribers. If you click the links to the different volumes in the reference section, the articles should come up.

  5. Excellent article.

    It echoes the work I have done on the commemorative mindset in the 1920’s and 1930’s in relation to the 150th anniversary of the American Revolution, the U.S. Constitution, and Washington’s Inauguration along with the 200th birthday of Washington in 1932. (The 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights was cancelled due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.)

    Countless memorials, statues, museums, and parks (local, state, and national) were supposedly created for patriotic reasons, but there is little or no effort to accurately portray events or people that are being commemorated. In fact, many celebrations, memorial dedications, and public events were in truth organized by groups, such as the KKK, who wanted to equate political and social values of the early 20th century with the Founders.

    One of the most extreme examples was a series of all day speeches in the Reichstag in Germany to commemorate the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth. Many speakers compared Washington’s unification of the 13 states into a powerful nation to what the Germans were doing to unite Europe under its control. (Germany also issued a commemorative coin that featured Washington’s head on one side and a swastika on the other.)

  6. Here is a link to an interesting, but short article, on historic markers that was in the Smithsonian Magazine in July 2017.
    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-it-comes-historical-markers-every-word-matters-180963973/

  7. Susan Higginbotham

    Fascinating. I never knew about this plaque.

  8. LAURA VERGE

    A photocopy of the plaque was given to the Surratt House Archives over 40 years ago.

    I might also note that, ca. 1985, the large bronze plaque on granite monument that stands by the walkway as one approaches historic Surratt House was completely redone (to the tune of $900) in order to remove original wording created by the town’s Committee for the Restoration of the Mary E. Surratt House. One phrase was deleted and generic wording inserted. The deleted phrase referred to Mrs. Surratt as “an innocent victim of the hysteria surrounding the Lincoln assassination.”

    Another point as to hurt feelings over this controversy: An author in the field of study actually cancelled her Life Membership in the Surratt Society when we sold Kate Clifford Larson’s “Assassin’s Accomplice.” This author was very sympathetic to Mary.

    Finally, for those of you not aware of the mission of the museum and its associate group, the Surratt Society: We take no official stance on the guilt or innocence of Mrs. Surratt. It is our purpose as an educational institution to portray both sides of the conflict in Maryland and the positions that the Surratt family took. We hope that we inspire our visitors (especially the children) to read further and develop their own ideas.

    Personally, I believe that the lady was involved, but that the government failed to prove it to the degree that the hanging was justified — and I’m director of the museum… I will also add, however, that I do not agree with positions such as what has been posted here favoring a “cleansing” of American history (no matter what the topic). Once things are gone, the history behind them fades away also. I would urge folks to use their verbal and written skills to do positive things for current and future generations without creating and nurturing further negative activities that only harm the U.S.

  9. Rich Smyth

    An alternate view of the post above – The purpose of the UDC was to “cleanse” the image of the Confederacy from one of secessionist states that wanted to perpetuate “the peculiar institution” to one of noble and gallant southern soldiers fighting the northern aggressor who wanted to take away their states rights and the loyal slaves who did not care about freedom and wished to remain as chattel under the care of kind and protective masters. That is and was the only reason for the UDC to erect the monuments dotting our landscape today. And is it any wonder the time frame for the placing of the statues in public squares and major intersections coincided with the second rise of the KKK in this country? Thankfully one southern high school recently changed its name from Jefferson Davis High School. Think about the the young Black students that had to cross that threshold every day! This is not about the removal of history but growth and understanding the feelings of others. A small step towards heeling in this country over 150 years after the war. The time has come; it is long, long overdue.

  10. Laurie Verge

    I knew Rich would be the first to respond because we have “debated” this ad nauseum on the Lincoln Discussion Symposium over the past few months. If anyone really cares to see the extension of this issue, they can visit the Symposium. I just feel there are better ways to “cleanse” a country’s history than to eliminate vestiges of its heritage.

    • There will always be additional ways to improve our country for the better but, to people like Rich, myself, and, I think, a large majority of Americans, eliminating the commemorative vestiges to our country’s white supremacist’s “heritage” is a worthwhile improvement.

  11. William L. Richter

    Your problem is that you think you have the truth, and brook no other. To censor the Confederacy does not help in that search at all. Like not or not the CSA is part of American History and cannot be avoided.

    • Memorials (of any kind) do not truly represent the history of the subject they enshrine but, rather, the history of how we, as a society, chose to remember them and ignore others. Societies have the right to constantly learn, address, and reassess, its past memorials to decide whether what was commemorated in the past continues to speak to the values of today. It is the study of history that gives us the tools to make these decisions. I know of no one who would want to censor the study of the Confederacy. In my view, it has been due to evolving study of the Confederacy that we have been able to work through the memory of groups like the UDC to develop a more accurate history.

  12. Laurie Verge

    Just a quick sidebar that may inspire hope in those of us who think that full histories can be told and circumstances understood: As I type, Surratt House has over 50 county social studies teachers participating in a summer institute geared around how local history can be applied to county curriculums and, most importantly, applied to current issues nationwide.

    Our museum has created a pilot program for that project that tells the story of the Civil War in Maryland, the choices that the Surratt family made, and the repercussions. Modern applications include the continuing struggle for civil rights (for various ethnic groups who have immigrated here for 300 years), the possibility of applying martial law, suspending the writ of habeas corpus, creating military tribunals in times of national emergencies — and even teaching the changing role of women in American history, which was bolstered by the Civil War and continues today.

    Believe it or not, there are still folks who are interested in all facets of history, including the erection of statues and memorials as a backlash to rising civil rights movements that surged ahead because of the rebirth of race issues in the first quarter of the 20th century — and that rebirth led to the momentous changes that began in my generation of the 1950s-1970s and continues today. My point being that there is something to learn about every facet of history, and that is the point that I concentrated on as a used history teacher for the first decade of my professional life.

    I am now stepping down from my soap box…

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