Virginia: Civil War

IN RICHMOND, the Museum of the Confederacy occupies a Colonial brick building that sits back from the White House of the Confederacy next door. Both huddle in the shadow of the skyscraper blocks of a modern hospital, cast high and dry by the passing tide of history in the century and half since President Jefferson Davis made his home here in 1861. He lived in this White House for the next four years of what later came to be called the “War Between the States“ during which some 620,000 soldiers died – one in four of those who fought.

The museum holds a poignant mix of bullet-torn uniforms and equipment, along with notes on death and glory won in victories, defeats and hard-fought draws. Faded photographs show men with ambitious facial hair, their eyes held wide open like a child’s for the long exposures of the time. Here is the place to read of Virginian heroes such as “Stonewall” Jackson losing his arm at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, then expiring with the words: “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.”

Dashing cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart is remembered with his sabre and scabbard. And General Robert E Lee’s “General Order No. 9” is a poignant handwritten farewell to his bare-foot and battle-weary troops of the Army of Northern Virginia on their surrender in 1865. Lee turned down command of the Union Army out of loyalty to Virginia, perhaps the only man in history to be offered command of both sides in a conflict.

Reading the accounts of the battles, one wants to shout through the centuries at the commanders whose seeming stupidity cost the lives of so many of their own men – usually on the Union side, although the so-called Pickett’s Charge on the last of the three days of Gettysburg may also rank as a folly. The Order of Battle lists the casualties in each regiment who took part, a total of more than 50 per cent killed, wounded or captured. When Lee asked General Pickett to rally his division afterwards, Pickett replied: “General Lee, I have no division.”

Here, in this museum, the disaster is presented more as a glorious moment, the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy” when brave men (not to mention possibly one woman) made it through the barrage of flying metal to cross bayonets with the Union line. One more push and Lee might have laid siege to the Union capital of Washington DC, only 170km from Richmond, ending the Civil War with a victory or at least a honourable draw. If only…

Written out of the story is slavery. I see only one black face in the museum’s displays, even though slaves made up at least a third of the total Southern population of around nine million. In the Museum of the Confederacy, it is the white people who suffered alone and the noble cause was “state’s rights”. (See for plans to move to a new site with updated exhibits.)

“Everyone talks about states’ rights but was there any right that was ever threatened other than slavery?” says award-winning history teacher Richard Deardoff, a New Yorker who has lived in Virginia for the past 40 years. “If you are given control of other human beings, you are going to become brutalized and the South tends to ignore that part of their heritage.” In the visitor’s book, a man from New Orleans has written: “The South will rise again!”

A few blocks away, the foyer of the Jefferson Hotel holds a gleaming white marble statue of President Thomas Jefferson, after whom Jefferson Davies was named by his father, an ardent admirer of the man who crafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776 with its ringing call “that all men are created equal”. It is 3.30pm when I sit down for afternoon tea on one of the sumptuous chairs but a black-clad waitress tells me: “Sorry, we have run out of food.”

Every face I see is white. I walk a few blocks north and the faces are Afro-American, while the shops that have taken over the faded but still elegant art deco blocks offer discount clothing, cheap wigs and plastic goods. A preacher stands by a bus promising salvation through Jesus, while “Harvey’s Progressive Barber Shop” sits under a beautiful Coca Cola sign from the late 1940s, its bulbs unlit.

The road out of town beckons and I take Interstate 64 for Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia. The freeway rolls straight and true over the hilly landscape, alternating concrete and blacktop as it passes through county lines. Sunlight flutters through the rows of straight tree trunks lining each side. Heavy trucks inch past with a deep rumble, while signs warn: “Speed Limit Enforced By Aircraft.” I entertain myself by spotting the personalized license plates and deciding between the urge to eat a second breakfast at IHOP, the International House of Pancakes, or go straight to lunch at a Waffle House.

On a hill just outside Charlottesville is Monticello, the Palladio-inspired home to which Thomas Jefferson retired in 1808 after his second term as President. “It is a 21-room house, built from bricks kiln dried right here on the mountaintop,” says tour guide Tom Nash, a tall, handsome man with a rich New Jersey accent and a spotless white wool blazer. “Below was the farmland, where wheat was the main cash crop. There were 175 people on the plantation and 135 of them were enslaved Africans. Jefferson in his lifetime owned over 600 slaves, so there were three to four generations of African-Americans who also called Monticello their home.”

However, Mulberry Row, the line of slave cabins and workshops that were the beating heart of the farm, has been swept away, leaving only signs saying “The Wood Shop” and “The Forge”. An historic marker notes the comments of the Duc de Liancourt: “Every article is made on his farm; his negroes are cabinet makers, carpenters, masons, bricklayers, smith, etc.”

In the entrance hallway of the main house is a map of America before Jefferson’s greatest achievement as President: the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, which more than doubled the size of the United States. While planting the seeds of the modern country, it also started a dispute about slavery in the new territories that led inexorably to war 60 years later. Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the new territory and on to the Pacific Coast, and the hall holds recreations of some of the discoveries they sent back. These include “peace tokens” from native tribes and massive dinosaur bones.

When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, he was still writing up his memoirs and tinkering with Monticello. His embrace of innovation can be seen in its clever architecture and gadgets such as the dumb waiter to bring wine up from the cellars or the “Polygraph” which made an exact copy of his letters as he wrote. Other artefacts remember his work designing the Grounds of the University of Virginia and establishing the famous US Military Academy at West Point.

Jefferson was very much a man ahead of his time but was ambivalent about slavery. Although outspoken against it, he only freed five of his own slaves, thought to be his children with his long-term slave mistress Sally Hemmings. When the country was undergoing explosive growth, the issue of slavery was deliberately ignored to keep the states together in a fragile coalition that endured until the outbreak of war in 1861. The very first casualties were on Virginian soil, in Alexandria, although the first shots were really fired in 1859 when John Brown led an invasion of Harper’s Ferry, also then in Virginia, with the aim of triggering a slave uprising.

“Slavery is the central irony of Jefferson’s life,” says Nash. “The man who wrote ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ was accompanied on his way to Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence by his own personal slaves.”

Jefferson’s road to Philadelphia would have been through the Shenandoah Valley, my next destination after a detour to see the sparse room of poet Edgar Allen Poe in the university’s student blocks. The I64 continues on to Staunton, a major Confederate rail and supply depot during the war. Here, the slowly rising waves in the landscape that the road has been cresting, natural battlements against the invading Union armies, steepen sharply into the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the Shenandoah River runs through the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy”.

When the first colonists began to cross into this valley in the 1730s, the Iroquois Indians objected. Only the peace-loving Quakers, who had made their way down from Pennsylvania and founded the frontier town of Winchester, were safe – though they still brought their guns to the prayer hall in case of wolves on the trail. During the Civil War, “Stonewall” Jackson was smart enough to realize that conscripting these stubborn pacifists into the military was pointless when they would refuse to shoot the enemy. He allowed them to stay on their farms where they could better serve the Confederate war effort by growing crops and it is still a landscape dominated by tidy farmhouses, large wooden barns and neat fences.

Almost any road north will lead me through historic battlefields – whether through Fredericksburg, near where four major battles were fought; or through the Shenandoah Valley itself, where Jackson launched his Valley Campaign in 1862 and through which Lee marched to Gettysburg in Pennsylvania a year later.

Exasperated by this open back door, Union cavalry general Philip Sheridan launched his own Valley Campaigns in 1864 to finally deny the Confederacy this rich resource, pioneering the scorched earth policy used by Sherman in his later March to the Sea through Georgia. Roadsides are littered with signs pointing to Civil War sites, while large cast iron signs memorialize events such as “Where Pelham Fell” or “Lee’s Narrow Escape”.

“I regard the US Civil War as the English Civil War Part II, between descendants of the Roundheads and Cavaliers,” says Deardoff, who teaches in pretty Fauquier County at the heart of rural Virginia. “The people in the South, particularly in Virginia and Maryland, were trying to recreate the feudal system of Europe. Slaves were the serfs. It was an agricultural environment and you have this whole idea – led by philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rosseau – that if you live close to nature you are more moral.

“But it was a war between a bunch of used car dealers and a bunch of farmers. The North was monetary and productive. The industrialists won the Civil War and went rampant.”

As the North forged ahead, the South – and Virginia – resisted change, bringing the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s whose final battles are still going fought. “They resisted because the oppressors were telling them to do it,” says Deardoff. “That legacy meant we allowed ourselves to be retarded in our development and growth, because if we change it means the North was right.”

Much of Virginia’s charm comes from this sense of still living in the past, with quiet good manners in daily life and other old-fashioned virtues. People in shops and restaurants have time to chat and small towns are still places to leave doors unlocked. ”In 1860 the population of Fauquier County was 21,000. In 1960 it was 24,000. It was flatlined for a century,” says Deardoff. ”Things stayed the same.”

In the Shenandoah National Park, I follow Skyline Drive, the 35mph speed limit an unnecessary restriction when every corner brings a desire to stop and admire the view. Lying below me, the Shenandoah Valley to the east, the Piedmont to the west, I can see the varied landscape of hill, forest and farm that could feed – and hide – an army. But up here, all is peace, with white-tailed deer tiptoeing out of the trees to pose before my camera and then vanishing with a bound.

In the distance, the hills fall in ever-varied shades of blue to the horizon, their colour coming from the isoprene released into the atmosphere by the dense stands of spruce. In summer, Virginia’s thick grass also has a blue sheen – giving its name to Bluegrass Music – but in winter it is dry and brown. Both sides went to ground then and it was June 1863 when General Lee marched his army north, thinking themselves invincible after a string of brilliant victories, usually against heavy odds.

One dark omen was the loss of Jackson at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May. Another was the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9, involving 17,000 horsemen and the first time the Union cavalry held their own against Stuart’s men. Born in the saddle, riding their own magnificent horses, the Virginians had always swept aside the town-bred, badly mounted Federal troopers. “Cavalry was not going to decide the war,” says Dearborn. “It was an infantry war.”

A few days later, the infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia swatted aside the Union garrison at Winchester, screening their movements in the mountain passes on their way to leaving home soil at Harpers Ferry. Winchester, full of quaint shops, retains its pretty colonial air and also proudly wears the label of the most contested town of the Civil War. Locals say it changed hands 72 times (15 is a more reliable estimate) and its Confederate sympathies led U.S. secretary of state William H. Seward to say: “The men are all in the army, & the women are the devils.”

In the Old Court House, used as a military prison during the war and now a museum, I read graffiti left by soldiers from both sides, listing their name and regiment or hometown – often the whole regiment was from one town. This was a war in which brothers, friends and neighbours died alongside each other, leaving whole communities to grieve together.

The town became a hospital for the wounded from Gettysburg as it had for the earlier invasion that ended at Antietam in 1862. That battle left more than 22,000 dead, wounded, and missing, still the bloodiest single day in American history, but Gettysburg was to see more than twice as many casualties in its three days of fighting. One factor was “the paralysing evaporation of initiative that crept over the senior generals of the Army of Northern Virginia the longer and deeper they remained in the unfamiliar environment of Pennsylvania,” says Professor Allen C. Guelzo in Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.

The fields and hills of Gettysburg are covered with memorials to those who fell, after the veterans of both sides engaged in a post-war battle to mark the heroic deeds of their units. Following them, I can trace the progress of the battle as the Union force stubbornly gave ground before digging into Cemetery Ridge and holding off repeated Confederate attacks. Pickett’s Virginian regiments were the freshest troops in the final charge, urged on by his cheer: “Don’t forget today that you are from Old Virginia!” They ended the day as torn up as their shredded battle flags that now line a wall of the Confederate Museum.

Although Gettysburg was a major Union victory, the war was to drag on for another two years, until the fall of Richmond and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in 1865 took Virginia out of the war and made the end inevitable. Appomattox sits in a landscape that is already heart-breaking in its beauty and it is easy to imagine the conflicting emotions of the battle-weary Virginians as they finally laid down their arms, ready to return to their homes and rebuild.

Virginia had one last unwanted moment in the spotlight, as the refuge of John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated Lincoln in 1865 while shouting “Sic semper tyrannies” (“Thus, always, to tyrants”), still the state motto. “African slavery,” wrote Booth, “is one of the greatest blessings that God has ever bestowed upon a favoured nation.”

At Gettysburg, Lincoln had made a famous address at the dedication of the cemetery a few months after the battle. It started “Four score and seven years ago …” and ended “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”. At a time when most nations were still ruled by monarchs, it was a remarkable sentiment and Lincoln acknowledged his inspiration was Thomas Jefferson.

“All honour to Jefferson,” he said, “[who] supposed there was a question of God’s eternal justice wrapped up in the enslaving of any race of men, or any man, and that those who did so braved the arm of Jehovah.”

Published by Kieran

Travel writer

%d bloggers like this: