At Large

Memorial Day in Richmond

Navigating the river of memory.

By 5.28.13

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The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, is currently offering a special exhibition on the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. There you will find a blow-up of a famous photograph of less than a dozen veterans of Pickett’s Charge, bald and aged, running through the fields of Gettysburg. There was no information offered about the image, but it may have been taken at the 50th anniversary of the battle, which saw the decimation of the brigades that participated in one of Robert E. Lee’s less successful stratagems. The Union line held. The Confederacy lost there and at Vicksburg, Mississippi, on what had to be the most fateful couple of days of the entire Civil War. The Confederate nation was served in two and reached its high-water mark in Pennsylvania.

My wife and I spent part of the Memorial Day weekend in the former capitol of the Confederate States of America and our current home of Virginia. Having lived in the northern suburbs near Washington for nearly a dozen years, we thought it was time to visit Richmond. In Richmond you can still get a taste of the Old Dominion, its history, tradition, and psyche. Northern Virginia is more like living on the outskirts of Philadelphia or New York.

Richmond is one of the few cities left in the United States still awash in the mighty river of historical memory going back to the original settlement by Europeans, the Revolutionary War, and, of course, the Civil War. Visiting the Virginia State Capitol, you get a sense of this river shifting between different channels which seem to diverge, converge, and then diverge again. The original building was designed by Thomas Jefferson while he was in France serving as ambassador. He drew his inspiration from the Maison Carrée in Nimes, France, a structure in the style of a classical Roman temple. The cornerstone was laid in 1785 when Patrick Henry was governor.

The legislative chamber in the Virginia Capitol was used to film the scenes of the debate on the 13th Amendment in the recent film Lincoln. At the center of the beautifully restored building is Jean-Antoine Houdon’s sculpture of George Washington (1796) as he appeared at 53 years of age. The guide said this is the only authentic representation of Washington. Evidently, Washington allowed the artist to make a mask of his visage in preparation for the work itself. This statue is complemented by a fine, new statue of Jefferson in the new portion of the Capitol, which is the entry point for tourists. Outside, on the Capitol grounds, is a towering statue of General Washington on a rearing stallion atop a very high pedestal, which commands the entire area. 

Yet, when you enter the old chamber for the original House of Delegates, there you find a life-like statue of Robert E. Lee, busts of Joe Johnston, Stonewall Jackson and other heroes of the Confederacy. For most Americans this juxtaposition might be jarring. But the Commonwealth of Virginia, like other places in the South, viewed its revolution as part of a consistent thread with the first one. No doubt, not all Virginians share this view. But there are still enough to support the public displays of honor and affection for the Confederate leadership. 

The same is true visiting the White House of the Confederacy, just next door to the Museum, where Jefferson Davis and his family lived until the last 10 days of the war, when they had to evacuate to Danville. Washington’s portrait is found in Davis’s office.

Davis was a hero in the war with Mexico, served in Congress and the Senate. He was Secretary of War when the Civil War broke out and, like Lee, decided to stand with his native state (Mississippi). After her husband’s death, Mrs. Davis eventually moved to New York where she and Mrs. Grant became friends.

Across the street from the museum and the White House once stood the home of the famous diarist of the war, Mary Chestnut, a friend of the Davis family, whose writings were edited by the famous historian C. Vann Woodward.

Less any Yankees reading this think Virginia is in a time warp, they might recall that the Commonwealth celebrated the inauguration of the nation’s first elected African-American governor in 1990. Governor L. Douglas Wilder is a grandson of slaves and became Virginia’s 66th governor.

Monument Avenue is a beautiful boulevard in Richmond on which can be found massive statuary honoring Davis, Lee, Jackson -- and Arthur Ashe, Jr., the late, great tennis star.

Again, the riverine channels of memory are fluid and in continuous flux.

But not all our time was spent pondering the imponderables of American history. We stayed at the Jefferson Hotel, a magnificent old world hotel built in 1895 with Tiffany glass everywhere, expansive public areas, and a grand staircase which was the model for the famous scene in Gone With the Wind. We indulged ourselves in the champagne brunch on Sunday and dinner in the hotel’s wonderful restaurant, Lemaire, named after Etienne Lemaire, Jefferson’s French chef while he lived in the White House – that is, the one in Washington, of course.

We concluded our Memorial Day by praying for all Americans who served and died in our armed forces at noon Mass in old St. Peter’s Church, built in 1841, the former seat of the Diocese of Richmond. Leaving town, we saw that the American flag was flying at half-mast giving honor to all Virginians who have died before, during, and after the Civil War. May they rest in peace.

Photo: Skip Plitt (Creative Commons 3.0).

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.