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Albert Pike - Hero or Scoundrel?

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 1

Carved at the base of Albert Pike's statue at Third and D Streets in Northwest Washington are the words, "philosopher, jurist, orator, author, poet, scholar, soldier." Some of his contemporaries could accurately add, ";libertine, traitor, glutton, incompetent, murderer."

Born in Massachusetts, Pike was six feet tall and weighed 300 pounds, an imposing image even without his waist length hair. He claimed he attended Harvard but no record of it exists. He made up for any lack of verifiable formal education with a self-taught curriculum in the classics and poetry, and he could converse in Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and French. With this training he became a schoolteacher, but by 1831 he left for the wilds of the west after rumors of affairs made it impossible for him to remain in Massachusetts.

After many adventures traveling south from Tennessee to the Mexican territories, Pike settled in Arkansas. He practiced law, specializing in claims on behalf of Native Americans against the federal government. In spite of his northern sympathies, he sided with the Confederates when the Civil War began. He negotiated treaties with several Native American tribes to fight for the South, and was made a brigadier general to lead them. In March 1862, his brigade fought at the Battle of Pea Ridge, resulting in a Confederate rout after which his men were accused of desertion as well as scalping and defiling the bodies of Union dead. For this, he was forced to resign and later he was even imprisoned when his fellow officers charged him with misappropriating funds.

After the war he abandoned his wife in Arkansas and roamed the east and mid-west practicing law, writing poetry, editing a newspaper, and reputedly creating the rituals of the Ku Klux Klan for Nathan Bedford Forest. This is quite possible, since at that time he was immersed in rewriting the rituals of Freemasonry, becoming Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite Masons. Pike finally settled in Washington DC in 1868, where he soon added more ammunition for his detractors to use against him by carrying on with the vivacious 19-year-old sculptress, Vinnie Ream, forty years his junior.

Undoubtedly, Albert Pike was brilliant and notorious, and perhaps because of both, contingents representing the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Masons came to regale his memory and decorate his statue when it was installed in 1901. Speeches that day extolled his work for the Masons, but carefully ignored his infamous reputation. One speechmaker predicted that, "the name of Albert Pike will grow bright as the ages roll by." Today, few recall his name and fewer yet recognize who that giant statue at Judiciary Square might have been.