Confederates in the Time of Coronavirus: Walking Richmond's Avenue of Broken Dreams During the Pandemic
H-CivWar readers, I'm proud to present a unique essay by author Ben Cleary, a native of Richmond, Virginia, and a former National Park Service interpretive ranger at the Richmond National Battlefield Park. He's author of Searching For Stonewall Jackson: A Quest for Legacy in a Divided America (Twelve-Hachette Brook Group, 2019), a brilliant new biography of the Confederate leader that features a unique style of historical writing. Following Cleary as he strolls down Richmond's controversial Monument Avenue, this essay is in the same contemplative style as his book, ruminating simultaneously on the past and the immediate present. The monuments he visits face an uncertain future, especially now that Virginia's governor has signed legislation allowing local communities to contextualize, relocate, or remove such relics. Cleary only treads lightly into this controversy and the Lost Cause's enduring legacies, yet still gives his readers much to reflect upon in these uniquely strange times.
--Glenn D. Brasher, series editor
Confederates in the Time of Coronavirus:
Walking Richmond's Avenue of Broken Dreams During the Pandemic
by Ben Cleary
I parked my car on the street near Virginia Commonwealth University. The normally bustling urban campus was practically deserted, having closed due to the coronavirus. The ghostly feel of the campus, along with the pervading sense of doom, put me in mind of what it must have been like for both sides so often during the Civil War. I thought particularly of Southerners during the fall of Richmond--the army and the government fleeing south, downtown burning, the enemy approaching-- everything they've depended on crumbling around them.
It was so eerily quiet I could hear the birds, which, knowing nothing of the crisis, chirped merrily away. Spring was just around the corner.
Traffic picked up as soon as I left the campus. Guess no one got the memo about staying home.
The Avenue's first monument is to Lee's colorful cavalryman Jeb Stuart. Stuart always seemed to me to be a martial embodiment of spring, with his extravagantly plumed hat, forsythia-yellow sash, jingling gold spurs, and relentless bonhomie. His entourage even included a banjo player. In action on a prancing horse, fully bearded with flaring mustachios, he faces west down the grassy median with saber drawn. His warlike mien goes unnoticed by the pair of lovers strolling on the grass. Nor does it disturb the vaping dude who nonchalantly blows out a huge cloud of smoke.
A sidewalk surrounds the statue. I circle clockwise, glancing up from time to time. Jeb's horse is very anatomically correct. I recall an urban legend I heard years ago: there used to be an actual hole under the horse's tail. Bees discovered it and built a hive inside. When the statue heated up in the summertime, honey dripped out.
I was told recently by a friend that I had it wrong--the story originated with Lee rather than Stuart. A cursory search revealed she was right. "Hundreds of pounds" of honey were involved, according to the American Bee Journal from January 1908. The bees were "going in and out the parted lips and nostrils of General Lee and his steed."
There's definitely food for thought in the migration and modification of a good story.
Crossing the street, I backpedal quickly to avoid a man making a left turn. I resolve to be extra careful, reflecting that most people are too distracted to focus on their driving. There are no pedestrian walkways to any of the statues. Even in the best of times you have to be vigilant if you want to observe them up close.
Alert for other hazards, I search the grass for dog droppings as I walk toward Lee. Finding none, I give mental kudos to the owners for practicing due diligence with their plastic bags.
Looking back, I try to imagine Stuart Circle without Stuart. Were he removed, something many fervently wish for, the area would seem naked, with a hole at its heart rather than a center. One of the two surrounding condo buildings is called "One Monument Avenue." I wonder if it will change its name to "One No-Monument Avenue" if the statues are taken down.
Stately homes line the street. About a century old, they are all substantial and stylish, so different from the comparably priced McMansions in the 'burbs where I live.
With its simplicity and size, "Lee" is the Avenue's most impressive monument. I walk the block between him and Stuart slowly, watching the figure rise between rows of trees. The statue, along with its base, is sixty feet high, the largest and first of the monuments. A substantial circular lawn accentuates its effect.
"Lee" was controversial when it was erected because it was outside the city limits. I've seen pictures of it in a tobacco field. Ten thousand people were present when it was put in place in 1887. They pulled four carts that carried the statue in pieces. Afterwards, the ropes were cut up and distributed, the segments becoming treasured mementoes in households that still honored their Confederate past.
As I near the monument, I see a middle-aged man and his wife taking pictures. They're back in their car driving away before I can engage them in conversation. Although a host of people are out and about, these are the only ones I see taking any notice of the statues today or on subsequent visits.
Joggers, dog walkers, Moms with strollers--crisis? What crisis?
Douglas Freeman, Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, saluted the statue as he drove to his day job as editor of the Richmond News-Leader. I used to regularly see pictures of sunbathers lolling on its base, but haven't for many years. I suppose the photo editors don't want to depict something as lighthearted as sunbathing in close proximity to a cultural flashpoint. There's a discrete notice near the edge of the grass: "This area is monitored by 24 hour surveillance." All the Confederate monuments are vandalized regularly.
Successful from a distance, "Lee" disappoints from below. He's just too far up there. There's something metaphorical in this: after the war, southerners elevated the general to such dizzying heights that he barely seemed human. If you ignore his failings, like his disastrous lack of leadership at Malvern Hill, you can't really appreciate his merits, like the fact that he won most of his tactical victories against two-to-one odds.
Now, of course, the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction: Lee is habitually excoriated, both militarily and personally. He and his fellow Confederates are all evil because they fought for slavery. The fact that they did is undeniable--but they had a variety of other motives as well. Historical figures need to be seen in the context of their times, as flawed human beings, who, like ourselves, should be celebrated for their accomplishments and condemned for their failures.
Walking toward Davis, I wonder if we will emerge from our present ordeal with a deeper toleration of others, past and present; or will it be like post-World War I Germany, with national pain paving the way for demagoguery?
I pause at a mounted cannon which commemorates the fact that, during the war, this was the site of a Star Fort, part of Richmond's inner defenses. The cannon is Confederate, manufactured in 1862 according to the inscription on its muzzle. Most of the rest of the writing has weathered away. Trying to puzzle it out, I remember a disgusted southern artilleryman calling the guns he had to fight with "alleged cannon," because of their proclivity to blow up in battle. The Confederates coped. I recall the story of a captured rebel infantryman being taken to the rear during a battle. The party escorting him, in no hurry to return to the front, allowed him to peruse some artillery pieces waiting in reserve. He studied their markings ostentatiously, then pronounced with mock surprise: "Why ya'll got as many of them U.S. cannon as we do!"
Sighting down the barrel, I see that, if I could somehow get it functioning, I could take out the base of Jeff Davis' statue. Elevate it a little and I could obliterate the man himself. It's an outcome that would have been heartily applauded by his wartime enemies, north and south. A touchy micromanager, Davis was, in many ways, a disastrous choice for President. It didn't help that he had an impossible job. Redeemed somewhat after the war, he's despised again in the present. With the possible exception of Nathan Bedford Forrest, he's the Confederate people most love to hate.
Lee's statue, with its one-word inscription--"Lee"--is as reserved as the man himself. Davis bears all the wordy earmarks of design by committee. There are medallions representing Confederate States, inscriptions honoring the army and navy, a quote from Davis' 1861 secession speech, etc. With its white pillars and preponderance of Latin, the monument wouldn't have been out of place in ancient Rome. There's even a lady in a toga on top of a column behind him.
Davis--a much younger Davis than I'm used to seeing--is the centerpiece, his right hand extended in rhetorical appeal. The statue brings to mind the evocative opening of Shelby Foote's famous Civil War trilogy: "It was Monday in Washington, January 21; Jefferson Davis rose from his seat in the Senate. . ."
The heart of that speech is inscribed behind Davis, saying, in part, that the South was fighting for "the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited, and which it is our duty to transmit unshorn to our children..."
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Davis tried to frame his justification for secession in terms of state's rights rather than protection of slavery, setting the tone for Confederate apologists for years to come.
His left hand rests on a pedestal that grows organically out of a boulder. The rock is inscribed "1776" and "Jamestown 1607," symbolizing that his philosophy is based on the founding principles of Virginia and the United States. There are books on top of the pedestal; ponderous tomes open at his feet. I'm striving to make out the titles when I'm startled to realize I can see up Davis' nose. Like Stuart's horse, most of these figures are best observed from the middle distance.
In 2018, the mayorially appointed Monument Avenue Commission recommended that Davis be removed. Just before his death, the celebrated Civil War historian, James I. Robertson, Jr., echoed the commission's sentiments for the quaint, anachronistic reason that Davis wasn't Virginian.
I've lived with Davis all my life and it would be sad to see him go. He probably will, along with all the others, though it's hard to think of anyone having that as a priority at any point in the near future. It doesn't comfort me to think that removal has solid historical precedent. Roman emperors who fell out of favor had their statues toppled, sometimes even dragged through the streets. Less offensive potentates merely had their inscriptions chiseled away, along with their faces, which were then resculpted to resemble the subsequent ruler. Don't tell me the Romans didn't know how to do historical revision.
Stonewall Jackson is only three blocks away. The leaves are not yet out, but he’s still partially obscured by tree branches, reminding me that one of his signature military tendencies was secrecy. Though sometimes as immovable as a stone wall, he was equally likely to appear out of nowhere, striking at lightning speed with devastating effect. At Chancellorsville, his final battle, he made a flank march around General Hooker with 28,000 men, an achievement equivalent to hiding an elephant in your living room. The day of the march, Hooker got frequent reports about what was happening, but discounted them, assuming that no one was capable of such a maneuver. He was as surprised as his lounging soldiers, who were at first amused to see deer, rabbits, and turkey running through their camp, then horrified to hear the rebel yell coming toward them through woods they thought were impenetrable.
In private life, Jackson was also unforthcoming. Some members of his staff didn't know he had a daughter until a month after she was born.
"Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy," he famously said. He still mystifies us today, even in effigy. His sculpted likeness looks inscrutable, as if he's concealing his thoughts from the rushing traffic. And rushing it is, here at the intersection of Monument Avenue and Arthur Ashe Boulevard. There's a sidewalk around Stonewall. I dart out to it between cars, but proximity adds nothing to my appreciation. All I can think about is the traffic that's passing so close I can reach out and touch it.
I toy briefly with the idea that Jackson, particularly as he is represented here, is Winter to Jeb Stuart's Spring--cold and severe--though his second wife Anna avers that privately he was anything but, playing hide-and-seek with her inside their Lexington home and calling her pet names in the Spanish he picked up during the Mexican War.
I sprint across to the median when there's a gap in the flow. What's the purpose of placing a sculpture where it can get no more than a passing glance? Possibly real estate, I conjecture, noticing that the houses bordering the avenue are suddenly a little less grand. Maybe the monuments to the major Confederate pantheon were less about the Lost Cause and more about attracting development on a certain scale to a certain area. I think immediately of Major Lewis Ginter, who, when he founded the elegant neighborhood of Ginter Park a few miles to the north, had his old commander A. P. Hill disinterred and reburied in a traffic circle with a suitable statue above. I'm disturbed by an unsettling thought: if they remove Hill, will they disinter his body as well? And then will it be kept "in an undisclosed location" like the monuments taken down in New Orleans?
Matthew Fontaine Maury, "The Pathfinder of the Seas," is the most exuberantly imaginative of all the Avenue's monuments. Seated in a throne-like chair, holding compass and charts, Maury is surmounted by an enormous Planet Earth. A host of figures, fluid and dramatic, swirl around the base of the globe. There is a storm-tossed ocean, a drowned man, a lifeboat with desperate survivors, and wet, worried people scanning the horizon, presumably for the paths the Pathfinder found. There's even an oppressed-looking dog and cow. “Maury is listening to the storm," wrote the sculptor, F. W. Sievers. "[He's] visualizing human suffering, and pondering ways of relief.”
I'm very taken with a female figure in a diaphanous dress made even more translucent because it's been soaked by the waves. Polished by the elements to a softly glowing sheen, she leans against the lifeboat and doesn't appear to be suffering much at all.
Maury doesn't have a sidewalk. He's surrounded instead by a serious-looking spiked fence. I peruse the figures on the side of the globe as I walk in the road between waves of traffic. Behind him, out of the flow, I discover that someone has left the gate open. Assuming that the Forces of Authority are otherwise occupied during these trying times, I push back a small mountain of leaves and go inside. Wonderfully rendered sea creatures circle the bottom of the pedestal, birds and bats above. There's even a couple of jellyfish on the arms of his chair. It's as though Sievers was breaking out of the restraints imposed by his static rendering of Jackson two blocks away. "Just the General on his horse, please," I imagine the committee saying firmly when they ordered the sculpture of Stonewall the decade before.
Maury was unveiled November 11, 1929, less than three weeks after the disastrous stock market crash that brought about the Great Depression. The audience for the ceremony must have wondered if Art or the Lost Cause had any relevance at all when things were falling apart so precipitately worldwide.
As I walk out the gate and close it behind me, I wish fervently that we had a Pathfinder to help us navigate through our present dilemma.
I've tried for years to like the monument to Arthur Ashe. More than a champion tennis player, Ashe was also an author, humanitarian, and inspirational public figure who died tragically young. Poorly conceived when it was erected in the nineties, his statue hasn't aged well and does a disservice to both the man and his legacy.
The commemorative aspects of Monument Avenue cease a half block west of Ashe with another mounted cannon marking the second line of Richmond's defenses. Someone has placed a small blossom from a nearby cherry tree by the cannon's trunnion, making me think that there are some things, like spring, that transcend even war. I take a picture of the flower with my phone and start back to my car.
Kehinde Wiley's "Rumors of War" belongs in a story on Monument Avenue even though it's a few blocks south at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I've read dozens of times that "Rumors" is "in answer to" the Avenue's Confederate statues and Wiley has said as much in several interviews.
The sculpture depicts a young, contemporary African-American who looks back over his shoulder from atop a spirited steed. Both horse and rider echo Stuart. Although I'm disturbed by the man's self-satisfied expression, I'm intrigued by the work and attracted to it. Like all good art, it creates more questions than it answers.
Unlike Lee, "Rumors" has an earth-friendly pedestal that doesn't elevate the figure so high it can't be seen. It's also away from the street, so you can take your time and look at it from all angles.
I've been grousing throughout this article about the difficulty--sometimes downright danger--of observing the statues on Monument Avenue. "Be careful what you wish for," I remind myself, as I sit down on one of the granite blocks in front of the statue. The blocks have been strategically placed so that viewers can sit and gaze reverently at Art; or, better yet, listen to a Lecture by an Expert. I suddenly miss the presence of bustling commuters and strolling pedestrians that make the Monument Avenue statues a vital part of civic life. I wish that "Rumors" could have been on Monument Avenue. It would inspire a far more robust conversation than the oft-recommended written disclaimers that bring to mind the warnings on packs of cigarettes.
Neither viewers nor experts were present when I visited "Rumors." A masked dog walker gave me a wide berth. A security guard, thinking probably that I was lingering too long, came out and circled the statue, locking eyes with me for a moment before he walked back inside.
After my first walk in early February, I revisited all the statues many times. I also read about them and studied photographs. A picture from the "Rumors" unveiling is to me the most poignant. Sculptor Wiley is radiantly happy, his multi-hued suit standing out against the crowd of monochrome dignitaries. They're all packed together, with nary a mask or glove in the bunch. The Good Old Days--just a few months ago, December 2019.
Looking southward, Wiley's defiant African American horseman seemingly gallops forward in an assualt on the building next door housing the Daughters of the Confederacy, the organization primarily responsible for the first wide prolifferation of the Lost Cause. On my first and subsequent visits, I notice a bundle of mail in front of the ornate doors. No one had gotten it--people weren't coming to work because of the epidemic. I contemplate picking it up and forwarding it to the organization later, but hesitate. I didn't want to touch it; also, I was probably on video back at some central location. My good deed might be misconstrued and the security guard sent out again.