As a Northerner visiting Richmond, Virginia recently, I not only learned much about the Confederacy — the four year period during which the South seceded from the Union, choosing Richmond as its capital — and the Civil War from the Southern perspective. I also gained new insights into the complexity of Southern identity.
For instance, I hadn’t realized that General Robert E Lee, leader of the Army of Northern Virginia, took on this role out of loyalty to his native state even though he personally opposed secession and slavery.
Then, too, being confronted with huge monuments of Civil War leaders gave me a new understanding of Southern pride. The city’s Monument Avenue —very appropriately named — has no less than five such monuments.
Lee’s equestrian sculpture, unveiled in l890, rises sixty feet high. As impressive, one dedicated to Jefferson Davis sports 13 Greek columns which represent the 11 states which seceded from the union and two border states that sent delegates to the Confederate Congress. Richmond’s own architect, Edward Valentine, designed it in 1907. A statue of Thomas Jackson depicts him at the Battle of Manassas in l862, standing ramrod straight (his erect posture earned him his famous nom de guerre, “Stonewall”).
Other monuments honor Major James E Brown Stuart, calvary commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Matthew Fontaine Maury, an oceanographer who directed the outfitting of the Confederate ironclad vessel, the Virginia.
Monument Avenue — recently named one of America’s Great Streets by the American Planning Association — is a pleasant place for a stroll. (There’s even a non-Civil War touch, in a statue honoring native son, tennis champion Arthur Ashe.) Lined with stately houses in varied styles — Victorian, Tudor, Colonial and more— the street is part of the Fan District, named because of its radial layout.
Civil War buffs can continue their exploration by visiting the museums devoted to the Confederacy. The White House of the Confederacy served as the residence of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy from l861 to l865. Now it’s a house museum that shows visitors exactly how it looked when Jefferson Davis lived here and plotted Confederate strategy.
Right next door to the White House is the Museum of the Confederacy, with exhibits ranging from newspaper articles announcing — in large, bold headlines — the secession to some 500 wartime flags. Exhibits about the soldiers and the Confederate leaders offer insight into the human side of the War. Taken together, they show tragedy, pride, patriotism, and the concrete reality of this defining event in American history.
Of course, Richmond’s history dates back long before the l860s. It was founded in l607 by two sea captains who made their way up the James River. The city was named Richmond because the bend in the James River is similar to that of the Thames where it bends in Richmond, England. Now, as the state capital — complete with a Capitol designed by Thomas Jefferson — it’s a modern city with Southern charm and a deep sense of history.
It has its symphony orchestra, plus ballet and opera companies. And the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts includes the largest collection of Faberge eggs outside of Russia, and is currently serving as the only East Coast venue for a traveling exhibition from Paris’ Musee National Picasso .
Food-wise, regional specialties include shrimp and grits, crawfish cake, fried catfish, and sweet potato puree. To explore beyond the Fan District, try Shockoe Bottom, a lively area near the Canal Walk, a delightful riverfront path extending for about a mile.
In fact, I finished up my tour of the city with a flat-bottom boat tour along those canals. Gliding past old warehouses transformed into posh lofts and offices, I knew Richmond would always be a capital, in all ways, city.
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