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.
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
Well said, Dave.