Back Across Virginia: I Didn’t Want to Love You
Our five years of visiting the entire South would soon be over. As we left central North Carolina, George and I still had a huge portion of Virginia to cross, this time following the Blue Ridge Mountains back to D.C. for our flight home to Denver.
Did I suffer from National Historic Site Fatigue? I even felt ambivalent about looping off US 29 to see Appomattox. Maybe it was just plain old fatigue after weeks packed with chance encounters, tightly scheduled conversations, wrong turns, and too many roadside non-attractions across Virginia and North Carolina. But it was just after the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant in that village courthouse, and George wanted to stop there, so we took state route 24 through some of the most magnificent rural country I’ve ever seen. Mile after undulating green mile, completely devoid of franchise cluster-mucks, billboards, Econolodges, strip malls and stripper joints. Small, tidy settlements nestled between pastureland and patches of undisturbed forest, curvaceous scenery that could make anyone a Virginia lover. When we reached the Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, already in love with central Virginia, I fell even harder—the preserved village could not have been more quaint and frozen in 1865. It took little effort to envision two exhausted armies converging nearby, on the very same dirt roads that humped over spring-green horizons ravaged from four years of destruction.
One historical re-enactor played a Union soldier from Ohio, an occupying peacekeeper just after the war’s end. Engaging in his role play, George asked about conditions existing in the village on the war’s final days and after. The soldier lamented that he fought all this time to end slavery and ended up having to manage disputes between newly released freemen and their impoverished, resourceless former owners. “I have to prod Negroes to work for their their previous owners, to help plow the fields to fend off starvation this season. Then I have to prod the former owners to care for the Negroes even though they can’t pay them.”
The Ohio soldier created a portrait of structural, almost hopeless postwar deprivation and chaos I had never fully considered. My history books in school had always celebrated the surrender at Appomattox: the Union won, the slaves were free, and that was that. But no teacher or text ever detailed the desperate, immediate financial and institutional collapse of the South, farmers left with no viable currency or, in April, a single crop to bring to market. The soldier pointed toward the long, narrow roadway wending east and west and remembered for us his final sight of the Confederate men wandering to uncertain prospects. He said many of the Union eyes held tears for their erstwhile American brothers as they began the long march homeward to utter devastation.
Our retreat from Appomattox, however, was glorious. Back roads took us north by northeast through more gorgeous rolling forest and farm country and finally along the thickly wooded east side of the Blue Ridge, a pretty evening of prime Virginia.
The next morning, we stopped at Monticello, the highly organized preservation of the third president’s hilltop manor brought to us by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Despite so many historically accurate settings throughout our Virginia and North Carolina travels, I still expected a slanted presentation here, glorifying Jefferson with the usual panting admiration for the Age-of-Reason Rich Kids we call The Founding Fathers. The vast parking lots and hordes of middle class families waiting for shuttle busses seemed to guarantee a Disney version.
Expelled from the shuttle onto the top of Jefferson’s little mountain, George and I found ourselves jostled into the next scheduled tour of the enslaved peoples’ shacks, which lined the slope above extensive gardens. The slaves’ circumstances were brought to life with an excellent guide, Don McCraken, a former Navy man. Don stressed the dark side of Jefferson’s choice to go on enslaving people while living an unsupportable, debt-ridden life despite their unpaid forced labor. To manipulate grounds-keeping affairs and settle a power struggle, Jefferson even pitted two of his enslaved workers against each other, resulting in injury. As we leaned in to listen, marveling at the Jefferson Foundation’s boldness and honesty about the atrocious topic, a white woman with a strong Southern accent felt compelled, in distress and out of the blue, to assert her view. “Despite my many, many friends of the black persuasion, I have to say slavery was a norm of the time! Jefferson was a creature of his times, sir, and it isn’t fair to judge him by our standards.”
The large group turned to her in uneasy silence. Blonde and well-dressed, she boldly stated her objection and waited for a response. Don simply asked her, and us, if Jefferson had a choice. Several voices arose en masse to counter the blonde. It was undeniable that our third president freely chose to go on supporting the enslavement of his extensive work crew, which contradicted the very immortal words—all men are created equal—that had made Jefferson a world famous revolutionary and statesman.
Both of our other guides, including the garden guide, reiterated the importance of Jefferson’s dependence on unpaid, shackled labor. The manor house guide, Virginia, a University of Virginia history student, stopped to make a clear distinction between Jefferson’s famous words on equality, still displayed over his desk, and his dependence on enslavement. Still, she gave a mostly admiring tour explaining how his sensibility and genius informed his household arrangements. I pulled her aside after the tour to ask if she knew how the themes and facts of the guide’s presentations had altered with time. She answered that critical presentation was not an enemy to the tours but the Foundation’s goal, to present Jefferson as a remarkable human, a flawed man who spawned a remarkable but flawed new nation. Virginia told me that most guides scrupulously stress the role of enslaved people and use only that term today. That role is mentioned far more frequently today than previous guidebooks she’d studied, which glossed over slavery’s role in Monticello almost as an afterthought. One older visitor who overheard our conversation confirmed that his visit in the 1980s celebrated Jefferson as a patriot and inventor and barely mentioned the vile institution that made his patrimony and inventiveness possible.
George and I discussed how ending our journey at Appomattox and Monticello helped redeem our perception of the South. By having the enlightenment and courage to present the deeper truth about our original sin of slavery, the horrors of Civil War and the racist chaos that followed, Virginia’s historical presentations set a healing example for our entire nation. We gain nothing from a whitewashed version but self-delusion and entropy. From my earlier interview, Virginia Senator McEachin’s words echoed, his hopeful belief that Virginia would lead the US in race relations and advancing civil rights, healed by what Virginia “has already confronted and worked to change.” As George said as we left Monticello, “All these historic sites in North Carolina and Virginia are putting conversations about American realities forward. And they’re doing it knowing the conversation will be difficult, that we can’t go forward without facing the truth.”
After recovering from an annoying bout of brain surgery, I’m starting up the blog again and finishing the last major stretch of our journey—Virginia and North Carolina. Those states were our last jigsaw pieces of the South, so along with Kristen’s recent travel in Louisiana, we’re done with the whole puzzle, our goal of exploring every southern state. But the South remains puzzling, maybe even more so than before we embarked on this project. It’s an intimate bewilderment now, as if we’ve been dating the entire region on and off for five years, jig-sawing between intense affection and irreconcilable differences.
To add to the bewilderment, since our travels in May, new conflicts about old issues have exploded across the South, most notably the church massacre in Charleston leading to removal of the Confederate flag from official sites. Even my old nemesis, slave-trader, Klan founder, war hero/ war criminal Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, will have his body disinterred from its monumental grave in a Memphis park. That 1860’s war never ends, does it?
- One Hell of a Mother
Watching reruns of The Virginian as a kid, I thought the conscientious title character from that state was too good for the trashy Western likes of me. Now, heading to the Old Dominion as a grown-up aware of the state’s self–mythologizing of Cavaliers and wealthy old families, I figured Virginia would be like a refined old Confederate general stuck knee deep in his own bullshit. Despite its aristocratic image and traditions—Mother of Presidents, Mother of States—Virginia has long been mired in extreme controversies. In 1951 black high school activist Barbara Johns led her classmates to denounce segregated schools and demand access to equal educational opportunity; the governor responded by shutting public schools statewide for weeks and completely closing those in Johns’ county for five years. The 1967 Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court case began when a multiracial couple challenged Central Point police who’d barged into their bedroom and arrested them for being married while having different skin tones. In 1999 Reverend Jerry Falwell of Lynchburg accused the British preschoolers’ program Teletubbies of gay menacing. Mistaking his plush purple pelt for gay apparel, the Virginia Reverend bullied poor Tinky Winky nationwide.
In the 21st Century, Virginia’s habit of stirring controversy extended beyond attacking cartoon characters and denying equality into denying science. Acting on the behest of dirty energy profiteers disguised as the American Tradition Institute, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli investigated University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann in 2010, including personal correspondence, which UVA called “an unprecedented and improper governmental intrusion into ongoing scientific research.” Meanwhile, back at the plantation, old-timey corruption reigned. Disgraced Virginia Governor McDonnell and his wife were charged with accepting gifts and loans from a wealthy Virginia businessman in exchange for promoting his company. The jury also found first lady Maureen McDonnell guilty of eight corruption counts as well as obstruction of justice. As I write, the governor is bound for prison.
Before setting foot in Virginia and considering its deep history, I planned to focus on the usual themes for our project—conflicts between preservation and oblivion, forgetting and revision, denial and commemoration. As our earliest settled British colony as well as the state most bloodied in the Civil War, Virginia must balance colonial and revolutionary glory with bitter defeat. Hosting the capital of the Confederacy, Virginia endured the losing side’s humiliation, trashing the very national heritage the state originated when Jamestown was founded in 1607. Born as an English money-making venture obliterating natives’ prior claims and home to the very first stolen African “servants,” the state really birthed us all. Instantly committing both our original sins while cradling the whole American shooting match in stark inhumanity, Virginia’s been one hell of a mother.
- “You’d have to put a fence around Virginia to preserve everything”
Inevitably, when I mentioned my destination to friends in Colorado, some cautioned me that modern Virginia wasn’t really Southern at all, “nothing like Mississippi or Alabama.” They might make that point about Maryland or even Kentucky, neither tethered to the Confederacy—though not for lack of trying—but to me Virginia’s Southern identity was granite-solid, literally monumental. Massive equestrian statues celebrating Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis punctuated Richmond’s Monument Avenue. Manassas National Battlefield, where two major battles emboldened the Confederacy in the early days of the Civil War, was a silver dollar’s throw from the Walmarts and strip malls of northern Virginia, enveloped by Washington DC’s suburbia.
When we exited I-95 near Fredericksburg, the only vaguely Southern image was the smiling but sinister fake “colonel” on a KFC sign. Along a chaotic commercial strip of unplanned, unhindered development, orange barrels lined semi-rural pasture and forestland, an ugly scab being widened from four to six lanes. Given that the town straddled four major Civil War battlefields, I could only wonder what human and martial remnants of war’s carnage were being churned by earthmovers or buried under asphalt paving.
We soon realized we were lost in Fredericksburg’s intensely trafficked rural outskirts. Turning around and heading downtown, we were flabbergasted. Historic Fredericksburg was a model of preservation. The center was a forty-block cluster of buildings and homes from the 1700s and 1800s, having survived ferocious Civil War battles as well as the contemporary trend toward Disneyfication of quaint places. Fredericksburg wasn’t cute or precious. The centuries-old residences looked well maintained but lived-in. The town celebrated claims on a visit by Captain John Smith in the early 1600s as well as George Washington’s family residence. The slave market was remembered by a small stone marker.
George and I joined locals enjoying a spring evening, packed foodie restaurants lining a bustling main street not far from where the Union built amazing prefab pontoons to cross the Rappahannock River and take back the town from General Lee’s forces. Runners jogged the greenway winding above rapids that marked the fall line between hilly Piedmont and flat, swampy Tidewater.
On our first Virginia morning, just south of the town center, we visited Phillip Greenwalt, Historian at Fredericksburg Military Park and co-author of Virginia war histories, Bloody Autumn: The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 and Hurricane from the Heavens: The Battle of Cold Harbor.
Phillip stressed the need to understand the true span of the Civil War, being able to grasp the young nation’s emerging perspective as battles intensified and corpses piled up. That meant realizing in the war’s early years Americans had no idea whatsoever they were about to embark on our nation’s greatest catastrophe. Fredericksburg’s December 1862 battle came when few expected the war to last a few months longer, let alone until 1865. In the early battles, the Union avoided any damage to Southern property, which also meant Yankee soldiers returning slaves to their Confederate owners in ‘61 and ’62. Only in the last half of the conflict did most Union minds seriously consider slavery’s moral and spiritual abominations.
Phillip told us that some visitors can’t appreciate those grand abstractions, asking why battlefields should be preserved at all when they were just blood-soaked commemorations “of men killing each other.” Fundamentally, Phillip said, “the real story is not the senselessness of men killing men, but the evolution of the human struggle to determine how we all should treat each other.”
Unlike at Deep South battlefields, Phillip saw few Fredericksburg visitors who stirred up Lost Cause controversies over interpretation of the war, though he knew of occasional encounters with the KKK. While we visited, he guided other visitors to ancestors’ sites or clarified details of the battle with calm authority. Phillip’s ability to feel the struggles of ordinary soldiers and civilians, and to evaluate perspectives rather than be embedded in them arose in part from his own upbringing in Baltimore; being a native of a border state, he always felt “halfway between North and South.” He agreed with George that the Civil War might be our true origin epic even more than the Revolutionary War, because the northern victory established our nation as truly unified states rather than as an affiliation of former colonies.
When I mentioned that commercial development must be burying any last chance to preserve Civil War locations and sites all around the town, Phillip sighed and conceded the difficulty with treating all significant battlegrounds as sacred and worth preserving. “You’d have to put a fence around Virginia to preserve everything.”
- “Hand-made respect for the past”
Only a few miles east of Fredericksburg, at a rural crossroads, the small family-run White Oak Museum, once a schoolhouse, did its best to preserve and commemorate a small corner of Civil War history. The crossroad was just far enough from town to escape its busyness and construction; set in rolling pasture and woodlands, it took no imagination to envision the landscape as it was in the 1860s. The museum grounds even featured reproductions of winter camps, including sunken bunkers, scattered throughout adjacent meadows. I was curious to meet the owner, full of expectations and stereotypes about a backcountry, obsessive Confederate defender and looked forward to collecting some juicy material.
D.P. Newton founded the museum on family land with his parents, building the outdoor sunken bunkers himself, then continued to develop and refine his collections with his mother’s help after his father died. In his 1960’s boyhood, D.P. played in these meadows and creekbanks, finding bullets and equipment scattered everywhere from battles and skirmishes a hundred years before.
When we visited D.P. on a sparkling May afternoon, he was assisting a family with ancestral connections to the Fredericksburg battles. In a small warren of displays, many faces stared out from Civil War portraits, including lots of Newton ancestors, and well-catalogued collections of bullets, weaponry, uniforms and equipment found in the nearby meadows and woods, plus an excellent indoor re-creation of soldiers’ winter encampments. Exhibits were clear-eyed about money as a motivator for soldier’s joining the Cause–$30 for willing Confederates. (For $300, drafted Union soldiers could buy a substitute to fight in their places). Renowned for its authenticity, the collection was a resource for Civil War re-enactors. D.P.’s dedication to and quiet pride in the small museum was palpable.
Now in his 60’s, sad-eyed D.P. had a grizzled visage that didn’t match his gentle and ingenuous manner of speaking. Joined by his associate Ken Pitts, a friend from childhood, D.P. responded to inquiries with a boyish sincerity, in a curious accent with rounded vowels and hints of an almost Canadian or Scottish “oot” and “aboot,” plus a soft Southern drawl. (I later learned that his was a Tidewater dialect much-studied for its Early American purity). When he and Ken reflected on their Southern identities, they proclaimed that they were Virginians first, then joked that no, they were Stafford County natives first—but not really, after all—they were natives of the village of Falmouth above all else. Rooted in this plot of land since birth, they claimed that they rarely went into Fredericksburg itself. When I asked if he ever tired of being surrounded by the Civil War and its buffs and enactors, both D.P. and Ken firmly responded that they never did. They found satisfaction passing on knowledge and helping people connect to family ties about the war’s soldiers, lost and found.
Ken and D.P. both expressed concern—even in these surroundings, essentially a random cemetery for thousands of Civil War corpses, with Fredericksburg stuck in a long tug of war between the Confederates and the Union—that few current school kids seemed to be taught much about Civil War history. Ken confessed he didn’t know much either until he began to understand that his own relatives had fought for the Confederacy. “Everyone feels closer to the war experience when a genetic web was strung,” D.P. added, “no matter how thinned and brittle.” He’d seen those webs grow stronger and more complex as DNA compelled contemporary people to study ancestors’ roles. D.P. produced an album of his own ancestors, including an African-American great-grandfather and a great aunt with African features, whose droopy eyes mirrored his own. D.P. noted that interracial pairings were common—often between a white man and black woman—among pre-war poor folk.
Surprised by D.P.’s openness about his African-American blood connection, I wondered what he made of the civil rights movement when he was growing up and how it affected the local area. Both he and Ken still expressed wonderment; having spent their childhoods playing with local blacks, they’d puzzled over why those friends had to go to separate schools. They’d assumed the human rights clashes in the 50s and 60s were a problem for adults for whom there had “always been segregation,” but not for kids. They had no recollection of local violence, except for one incident at a basketball game, where one black attendee was physically abused. Local schools began to be integrated one level at a time after 1962, just when Ken graduated.
D.P. felt his heritage was vanishing, estimating that only ten or fifteen percent of the locals were still connected to the “old ways.” High taxes made it hard for many to remain in parents’ homes. Today, D.P. and Ken didn’t recognize anyone in shops and around the community, seeing only new faces as Stafford County became lured into the widening web of northern Virginia’s DC exurbia. I wondered if D.P.’s lack of partisan attitudes about the war arose from the purity of his connections to a disappearing world, tethered to a small plot of land and removed from the 21st Century’s ideological battles.
As we headed back to town, I was ashamed of myself as a writer whoring for material, expecting, even hoping for old-timey prejudice and delusion to spice up the chapter. Instead, I was surprised by admiration for D.P. and told George I hadn’t met anyone like him anywhere. D.P. indicated no impulse to choose camps or hustle viewpoints. Neither D.P. or Ken glorified the war or sought justification for the Confederate cause. The facts dominated their views without attempts at slanting or sentiment.
George noted that both men reminded him of Ruth Ann Butler in Greenville, how their homey museums existed to help others find connections almost lost to the blur of history. “They put a lot of love put into the displays,” George said. “Hand-made respect for the past.”
We would soon see whether that respect would be on display in our next stops further south in Virginia and North Carolina.