Memory in the Former Confederate Capital

Jackson Honor Guard

After our last post about memory and the Confederate battle flag, Casey Breslin ’11, one of our history majors, who has recently moved to Richmond, Virginia, offered to write a post about what he discovered there when he contemplated the town’s history. One Thing after Another was happy to accept his submission–and his photograph above of Confederate re-enactors patrolling around the Jackson monument on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.


Richmond, Virginia, is a city on the rise. Young people flock to it because the cost of living is cheap, the job market is decent, and the atmosphere is everything a young twenty-something could want in a city to start a career. Whether it is a locomotive factory that has been converted into a movie theater or a developer who has transformed an old feedbag factory into an apartment building, Richmond has a unique strain of entrepreneurship that seems to incorporate the past by repurposing it for current ventures.

It is an artistic and musical city (the metal band Lamb of God is based in Richmond) and according to NBC news, it is the third most tattooed city in America with 14.5 tattoo parlors per 100,000 people. Many of the younger residents sport the hipster look and could easily be cast as extras in IFC’s Portlandia. Luckily, they remain and thrive in this diverse southern city. Trade publications and consumer reports consistently rate Virginia’s capital city as one of the most business-millennial-friendly cities in the United States.

Yet, within this cosmopolitan and forward-looking environment, there are many reminders of the four bloody years when the states were not united under one flag. The state capitol of Virginia once served as the capitol for the Confederacy. Its capture, along with that of the Shenandoah Valley (the Confederacy’s bread basket), was the operational goal of the Federal Army of the Potomac. Few other areas in the continental North America were more affected by war than the 100-mile radius surrounding Richmond. To commemorate the Virginian lives that were lost, the city is littered with monuments, museums, and memorial plaques—to the Confederacy.

I recently moved to Richmond and had visited it every weekend for almost a year before that. When I got to know the city, I barely noticed the monuments at first. I was excited to be closer to many of the battlefields but didn’t notice the men being commemorated at first. Sure, they are quite large and often have infuriating traffic circles around them, but Monument Avenue is flanked on either side by historic multimillion-dollar homes and townhomes. In effect, Monument Ave is somewhat of a sensory overload, and the monuments, however impressive , do not command the full attention of one driving by in a car.

I first took real notice of the monuments during Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in 2015. While walking along, I saw Confederate soldiers, with fixed bayonets I might add, marching around the perimeter of the Stonewall Jackson Monument.

I did a quick Google search and realized that I was down in Richmond on Lee-Jackson Day Weekend. This Virginia state holiday is celebrated on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Established in the late 1880’s to commemorate Robert E. Lee’s birthday, Jackson’s name was added to it for his birthday in 1904, and then it was merged with Martin Luther King Jr Day in 1983. In 2000, they were formally split, and have since been celebrated separately, but on the same weekend.

The obviously awkward juxtaposition of legacies demonstrates a perfect conflict, once again, the various levels of city, state, and federal government. The legislature in the state house located in Richmond instituted these holidays celebrating the lives of two of the finest Confederate generals, yet Richmond as a municipality declines to celebrate it: no parades, no wreath laying, no services. Many other municipalities in Virginia have elected not to observe it as well. Any commemoration in Richmond proper is done by private citizens like reenactors in the picture. Virginians from across the state meet in the capital building to write laws, yet the city government has since declined, or if I want to be really cute, nullified that potential political football. Imagine that! It appears that in the last few years, Richmond residents are aware of the tensions this holiday can inspire and have chosen to ignore the state’s intention.

Given the tragic event in Charleston, South Carolina, last month, non-observance of the Virginia state holiday on Richmond’s party is the right choice. Once again, state governments must decide how to remember the Civil War in a way that accounts for all of the human suffering that constituted the Civil War. Richmond, as a city, has struck the correct balance as of late.

As mentioned earlier, the 100-mile radius around Richmond was changed forever, and many of the young men who lived there never returned home. I can say with charity and sincerity that it must have been more difficult to accept the outcome of the war living this city, because the reminders were everywhere. On the other hand, a printer from Concord, NH could go home to a similar life. A sensible person can realize this, even while keeping in mind the vile peculiar institution which ended as a result of the war and those who fought to codify and preserve it forever. Memory has blended in with the fabric of this city, much the same way as historic buildings have been renovated to fit current commercial needs.

The monuments in Richmond are large and impressive, but at the same time they are only really visible to people who are actively looking for them and want to remember. Not everyone who comes here is a Civil War buff like me-it’s just a city that has a big Wells Fargo building downtown. In the hustle and bustle, monuments are easily lost. Like so many of the historic parts of Richmond, the monuments are there if you look, but blend perfectly in if you do not—even if some of them have traffic rotaries near them. Many are placed on grass dividers that separate the sides on Monument Avenue, and college students from Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond are often found there playing corn hole and engaging in various types of open container violations. Clearly they aren’t active Confederate sympathizers, and from what I can tell, no neo-Confederate forces have mustered to stop them.

The Confederate battle flag is not near or attached to the monuments, unless people bring it there—which has happened. There are also people who have used the battle flag to protest the lack certain memorials and plaques in part of the city. The feeling towards these people is that they are the dying embers of a far less polite generation. I am not prepared to level charges of racism because I do not know any of them. However, some of these protests are regularly held in an area not far from a synagogue and a historically black church, and I find a certain lack of sensitivity there. A red banner calls attention to itself in a way that violently clashes with the more muted and reserved presence of the monuments.

Richmond still maintains the White House of the Confederacy and the Museum of the Confederacy. These are excellent sites to visit, and they do not wave a politically charged flag for all to see. Rather, they explain to those who wish to know what that flag meant to those who carried it. Everyone benefits from that clear spirit of compromise, and it can hopefully be instructive to similar southern cities who wish to make their streets more welcoming to all southerners.

This is not to suggest that Virginia as whole has no more issues to wrestle with in terms of its Confederate past, or that is has somehow escaped Jim Crow. Far from it, actually. Route 1 is also known as the Jefferson Davis Highway, and this name is currently protested heavily in the more liberal parts of Northern Virginia. Monument Avenue also has a monument to Jefferson Davis, not exactly someone who was on the ground fighting it out with the average soldier. In my Yankee mind, his monument is the hardest to accept. However, in the nineties, one of Richmond’s finest sons, Arthur Ashe, was added to Monument Avenue. The addition of this African-American athlete sparked all the predictable protests and racial tensions. Of course, no monuments have been erected remembering slaves who formed the backbone of the Virginian economy for so many years.

For now it seems, a live-and-let-live approach has the tacit approval of Richmond residents, even if there is a disparity in who exactly is actively remembered. The monuments blend into this busy city, and for the most part, do not disrupt the daily life of your average pedestrian. Those who have waved the Confederate battle flag in protest strike a dissonant note, and when they gather, I can see members of a younger generation view them with embarrassment and annoyance while accepting their right to assemble peacefully. The closest thing to a Confederate soldier these days in Richmond, ironically is the gaunt, bewhiskered peace-loving hipster. He uses his disposable wealth to buy what look like rags, silly felt caps, and he often declines to wear shoes. If you put an Enfield in his hands, however, he’d look like a Confederate private, ready for a forced march around the Federal left flank.

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One comment

  1. When you judge history by the standards, ethics, and views of any other time you fail to comprehend the whole point of history — that it is a foundation people build on. If you examine your own life, foolish teen years, awkward twenties, etc. and look at the relationship you had, that failed, that taught you how to become who you are today, you’ll realize those events are what made you part of who and what you are today. You don’t go back and destroy photo albums and pictures of the jack ass you were in your teens, believing it will make who you are today “better”. The past is what reminds us of how far we’ve come and how much we’ve changed. Respecting it, honoring it, acknowledging it for what it was at the time — ie “Doing the best we could with who we were at the time,” is how we continue to grow. Sharing what we’ve learned from our past (When I was a teenager…) is how we teach future generations. If you eliminate the “litter of monuments” then you destroy the library of knowledge future generations may have to understand their lives. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. I’m sad to read this….you don’t understand yet how critical history is, and more importantly you don’t understand that you can’t judge the past by the present. In another 30 years you might understand, if you haven’t destroyed your diaries, journals, blogs and photos…because, after all, THEY are YOUR history, just as the Confederacy, for all it’s sins and omissions, was the South’s history. Destroying the history of the past doesn’t destroy its reality – unless you’re a revisionist – claiming that the Holocaust didn’t happen….because when you destroy the history of the Confederacy you’re in essence destroying any history of slavery, of loss of state’s rights and you’re laying the groundwork for socialism to move in….oh. Yeah. That’s the plan tho.

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