My brother lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, so I'm visiting in the south, always creepy and exciting together -- the Confederacy, the other country inside the United States.
We've been civil warring up and down the Shenandoah Valley, so beautiful that Washington Irving and Fenimore Cooper would blush. Flush with soldier boy blood.
Today we're off to the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond. The museum of the Confederacy is in Richmond. That's right, Museum of the Confederacy, that society built on slavery. Edward Rothstein, Museum Critic of the New York Times, gave it a recent rough going over. I expect the same.
We have already visited the Museum of the Confederacy Annex outside Appomattox. My brother told me they had been added because the Richmond site doesn't mention slavery. Can you imagine? Germany not mentioning Hitler?
The Appomattox Museum was brand-new, covered in young GIs from Fort Lee (where else?), and not too overwhelmingly Confederate with a brand-new interpretive term: enslaved African American, not slaves. Of course, we weren't slaves, you enslaved us. Game changer, coming into common interpretive view.
First stop in Richmond, a sort of Sacramento sized state capital decides the James River, is the Tredegar Ironworks, a national historic site, brick building remnants of the foundry where they fashioned the ironclad sides for the Virginia/Merrimac of the famous Monitor fight -- talk about Jules Verne come to life.
It's outstanding, immaculate, hardwood and brick giving you cannons and the other ordnance of the slaughter if that's your thing. I always answer my thing with the words of George Patton from the film “Patton” -- “God help me, I love it so...”
Here is the siege of Richmond -- for years the Rebs won't give in and the Yanks can't get in, having at each other at mills, farms, taverns, churches and orchards.
I almost hate to admit it but I read Bill O'Reilly's book “Killing Lincoln.” Yes, that Bill O'Reilly. If Hitler wrote a book on Lincoln, I'd read it. Come to think of it -- no, not even the O'Reilly is in that class, is he? Anyway, his book wasn't much. James L. Swanson's “Manhunt” about John Wilkes Booth and his attempted escape was far superior. But O'Reilly led me out from Petersburg outside Richmond along with Lee's retreat to eventually Appomattox. Grueling, brutal stuff.
Next door to the Ironworks is the Civil War Center, a perfect presentation of the disaster, as our country comes to be, the coming storm, and the bloodstorm itself, evenhanded and precise in its presentation of what the war was, what it meant, what it means.
Alongside this section of the James River, a local music fest, lots of brothers and sisters, descendents of the enslaved. Makes you shiver.
On to the Museum of the Confederacy, totally surrounded and overshadowed by a sprawling medical center. Even the Rebs shouldn't have allowed this.
This isn't as awful as I imagined, a bit stale at the edges, battle flag of the Confederacy, chillingly empty, stars and bars like funky swastikas, all Confederate all the time.
Robert E. Lee's field tent and his statue in the field gear. Jeb Stuart's gear. Stonewall Jackson's gear. Strange business this. A large, somewhat grotesque portrait of Lee and Stonewall just before Stonewall got friendly-fired at Chancellorsville, Virginia.
Bobby Lee, gentlemen/giant of the South. I think he was nuts -- traitor, coward, oath breaker, slave master, seller of humans, mass murderer, still trying to escape with his skeletal, non-slave-owning army to continue the slaughter. And his master tactician reputation. If he had been up against US Grant early on in Virginia he'd have handed over his sword in surrender a lot sooner.
That's enough of this. The state capital is next.
My brother runs the house tours at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and I used to run the tours at the California State Capitol in Sacramento, so we know our stuff.
The Jeffersonian/Greek White House State Capitol up on its green hill. It's Jeffersons, of course, like the Frank Lloyd of Virginia. You enter below on street level through a rather Tut's Tomb entrance, across the state seal and state's motto -- sic semper tyrannis -- “thus always to tyrants...” Sound familiar? It's what lunatic John Wilkes Booth shouted out after destroying Lincoln and the post-war peace.
You go up to the Capitol building underground, brand-new shining stone and stainless steel railings up to the brand-new life-sized governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson. Unfortunately, a chocolate bronze Thomas Jefferson. Odd, in a chocolate bronze Thomas Jefferson way. Better off a Frederic Remington pewter bronze.
George Washington in white marble. Why I wanted to come: a life-sized reality, Washington as Cincinnatus, sword put aside, arm resting on a plow and a Roman fasces. I will not be king, but President. Virginia's historical bigshots all around us in the rotunda, Washington on his pedestal platform.
Lafayette is here and a marble bust and all the rest is the usual stuff, grand legislative chambers where nothing worthwhile gets done.
Almost done, a bike to be in a would-be Irish pub on a cobblestone street; only Monument Row on a Monument Boulevard. The usual suspects: Jeb Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, Lee, Jeff Davis, permanent on a gorgeous block of frat houses and formal Southern comfort, and Arthur Ashe. Imagine what that took.
It took almost four years and 622,000 dead to rid ourselves of slavery and yet our South still...