Civil War Virginia

Our children had gone to Virginia to spend Spring break with their grandparents, who had flown over from England. On the Tuesday, Mr Pict and I were able to travel south to join them.  As regular readers of this blog will know, my husband is a Civil War nerd.  He was, therefore, relishing the prospect of spending some time mooching around Civil War sites in Virginia, though he agreed to restrict himself to the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 for this trip.  On our journey south, needing a comfort break, he selected the National Park visitor centre at the Tredegar Iron Works.  While I availed myself of the restroom, Mr Pict undertook a warp speed visit of the visitor centre and determined that we should return some time with the kids.  It was largely determined that Richmond should serve as the capital of the Confederacy because of these iron works so it is a significant site.  I did like that the visitor centre was housed within such a historic building.

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The next morning, with the four boys and my in-laws in tow, Mr Pict took us on a tour of Civil War sites.  We started at Yorktown.  Yorktown is more strongly associated with the War of Independence and so it proved to be at the National Park.  The focus was very much on Revolutionary history with just a slight nod to its place in the Civil War.  At the risk of muddying the waters of the boys’ learning for the day, we subjected them to the film about the history of Yorktown.  I write “subjected” because it had not been updated since probably the 1980s and the quality of performances and production values were pretty tragic.  I am not sure, therefore, that the boys engaged much with the film but hopefully some learning stuck and they at least took away from it that it was the place where Cornwallis surrendered.  They did, however, enjoy the various canons outside the visitor centre.  There was to be a lot of clambering on canons that day.

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Our next stop was the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.  As regular readers will know, I absolutely love cemeteries.  While I personally enjoy just wandering around and appreciating the memorial architecture and funerary sculpture, it is always useful to have some famous burials to search out and provide focus to the wanderings.  Turning a cemetery visit into a “treasure hunt” also helps engage the kids.  The reason for our visit was because the cemetery, while a public cemetery rather than a military one, is chock full of confederate graves.  It, therefore, formed part of Mr Pict’s Civil War tour.  We started with a massive granite pyramid erected to commemorate the confederate dead.  It was in an area where the confederate dead of Gettysburg had been interred following their recovery from the Pennsylvania battlefield.  Can you imagine the grim task of locating all of the remains on the battlefield and preparing them for transportation to Virginia?  Nearby was the grave of George Pickett, he of Pickett’s Charge.  We also saw the grave of JEB Stuart.

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I have no political, ideological difficulty with the commemoration of the confederate dead within the context of a cemetery.  The confines of a cemetery’s walls makes it about the living processing the grief of lost loved ones.  I can think that these are people who chose to fight on the wrong side of history, who were fighting to uphold an appallingly horrific system, who may even, particularly in the case of the military leaders, have been loathome, morally bankrupt individuals.  But I can square that against them being someone’s father, someone’s son, someone’s brother, and therefore deserving of being buried with dignity and not left on a battlefield to moulder.  What I have real difficulty with is when commemoration moves into the realm of celebration.  That is why I support the removal of confederate statues from public spaces.  Again, while tricky in the context of a cemetery, there was definitely something that troubled me about the grave of Jefferson Davis.  The fact that some workers were placing new cobbles around Davis’ statue, in order to make the whole area look polished and smart, seemed to me to underscore the fact that this was a site that was being venerated.  Then there were all the flags.  Those flags always make me feel uncomfortable.  This was not simply a place where family members could come and pay their respects to a departed love one, gather their thoughts about their experience of loss; this was a space that was bigger than that and was imbued with more political meaning than that.  It was weird.  Just weird.

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Hollywood is also the final resting place of two American Presidents.  They are buried within the same attractive circle in an area of the cemetery that is elevated and provides a striking view over the river.  James Monroe, fifth President, had a very unusual tomb, an elaborate and fancy cast iron structure, reminiscent of a gothic church, surrounding his granite coffin.  I read that it was known as the “birdcage” which is entirely apt.  Just a hop, skip, and a jump from Monroe’s grave was the monument to John Tyler, tenth President.  Tyler famously became President when William Henry Harrison died just one month into his presidency.  He also has two grandsons still living.  Imagine having a grandfather who was born in 1790?  His grave was marked by an obelisk with a bust built into its front facade.

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After Hollywood Cemetery, Mr Pict took us to visit battlefield after battlefield.  The first was Gaines Mill and it was only slightly more interesting than the sites that followed because of the presence of a house.  Mr Pict and his father were very interested in a creek that ran through some woods that flanked the fields and went off for a wander there but to my mind the site was pretty featureless except for that house.  I read that the house was home to an elderly widow whose slaves carried her out of the house on the day of the battle.  She was never able to return home because the house was all but destroyed during the conflict.  I think the next stop was named Glendale Crossroad or Frayer’s Farm but I didn’t even bother to get out of the car for that stop and cannot remember what my husband told me about it.  As far as I was concerned, it was literally a crossroad and there was nothing to see.  The last stop was at a spot named Malvern Mill.  Mr Pict was very keen on this spot and explained why but I did not absorb the information.  To me, these were literally just fields filled with scrub or the stubble of old crops.  The only thing that indicated it was a place of historic significance was the presence of canons lining the field.  The boys enjoyed clambering on the canon and seeing a whole car lot filled with fire trucks as firefighters were running a controlled fire nearby.

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I would like to claim that I learned something new or interesting about the Civil War that day but honestly I did not.  I am none the wiser about the Peninsula Campaign than I was before because I just could not absorb the information my husband was sharing with us.  My brain just is not that keen on military history, what can I say.  Still, the cemetery was attractive and Mr Pict was very happy so it was a day well spent.

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27 thoughts on “Civil War Virginia

  1. As always, thanks for sharing your travels. It’s fun to learn about my own nation’s Civil War through Scottish emigrants. ( : And those flags are beyond jarring to me. I’m afraid I wouldn’t have been able to stay, so I appreciate your thoughts.

    • I am glad you find my wanderings of interest. I find I can just about tolerate the flags within the context of a cemetery – I find it weird but I accept it almost as an anachronism – but I do find it very intimidating to be on streets where people are flying Confederate flags on their properties. Same is true of bumper stickers and cap badges. I know some folks argue that for them the flag represents Southern pride but to me it communicates a message of hostility and prejudice and it automatically unsettles me and makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. As a white, English-speaking woman, I am aware of how much worse that feeling has to be for people from other communities and backgrounds.

      • Having once lived in Oklahoma (a tangential part of the “old south”) the flags ceased sometime ago to be simply a part of history or an honoring of the dead. They became instead a cult-like talisman representing a particular group’s racist misogynistic view of “the way the world should be.”. When living in Okla. I often felt like wearing a t-shirt saying “one white English-speaking woman who does NOT share the current Confederate racist view” and was keenly aware that if I did so I’d likely be shot etc.

      • Thank you for sharing that perspective, Sue. Sometimes I wonder if maybe I just don’t “get” it because I am an alien in this country as it is and feel even more alien in such contexts. I am reassured to know that born and bred Americans find it disconcerting too.

      • So glad you didn’t mind my sharing. Yes, tho born bred and raised in the U.S. South I am utterly mystified by many of the attitudes. My best analogy/understanding is that many of the “old south” people are like a dysfunctional family – focused on some tit-for-tat detail of an old grievance and ignoring the bigger pictures of today’s general health and happiness.

      • I think a lot of people are just like that wherever they are located in the world. I am, for instance, mystified by the attitudes and values that led to Brexit being the result of the UK referendum.

      • I’m quite sure you’re right about there being versions of this “closing up/shutting down” attitude all over the world. It’s amazing to live in our era and be aware of both history and psychological/biological ways of responding, of being able to know what in the past has worked, what hasn’t – and then watching choices made. Brexit has mystified me too. In both of these cases I’ve been reminded that the more successful responses when encountering a private/personal trouble is to reach out for help to someone else. Often that’s not what we feel like doing – but if we are able to reach out (instead of shut down) things tend to work out better psychologically/socially etc.

  2. When you mentioned the 1980’s style movie you subjected the boys to, I envisioned, “Duck, and cover” drills from school.

    Love the cemetery photos.

    I wonder if the fields would have been more engaging if there had been re-in-actors performing the battles.

    • Reenactments definitely help. I find it also helps if the landscape has more distinctive features so that they can imagine the events of the past better. They can imagine the soldiers assembled on Little Round Top or among the rocks of Devil’s Den but trying to imagine troop movements on a scrubby, flat field is just too much of a challenge.

  3. A place I have been! Yorktown. I have also been to Richmond but to the White House of the Confederacy which was interesting, though I entirely share your views about glorification and statues etc. I don’t remember it being too bad – and the history needs to be told.

    • I concur about the history needing to be told. It is just that in some places it needs to be reframed so that it becomes almost a cautionary tale rather than a celebration of antebellum times. I would like to go back and visit Richmond some time. I think its history would appeal to me. There is also a museum about Edgar Allan Poe there which I would love to visit. Likewise I would like to properly explore Yorktown. That whole area is not too far from us so I am sure we will return at some point.

      • Living now in the Pacific Northwest the history of the Civil War is told with the cautionary tale stance. And more often than not from the Union point of view. Coming from the Oklahoma pro-Confederacy predominant view I’ve found the Pacific Northwest view refreshing. An added twist is that this region of the U.S. was once-upon-a-time British soil with many French speakers and other multi-pluralities – the regions history is not talked about as “predominately pro-white” but rather there is emphasis on the multiplicities/diversity of the region since before it became a part of the United States. So the Civil War is not a predominate focal point as it was in Okla. A breath of fresh air for me!

      • It is interesting how the same story is told from differing perspectives and with differing agendas depending on the geographical location and bias. Many years ago now, my husband and I witnessed a very energetic argument taking place at the Shiloh battlefield between a man who identified as a “proud southerner” and a National Park employee. The former was incandescent that the Confederate flag was not being flown while the NP person was trying to explain that the Union had won the war and that, therefore, it was the US flag that was flown at all NP properties. It was very eye-opening to me as I had assumed that people had generally been able to accept that the Confederacy had been defeated after over a century.

      • Yes. It is fascinating. And scary even because there are many (from my time in Okla and that region I could share about 3 dozen similar events like the argument at Shiloh that you witnessed) – the Civil War is still very much currently being fought in the U.S. South by a certain small group (and getting smaller I hope). The weird thing is they are fighting it in the current sense while the rest of the U.S. has long ago moved on. Thus the whiplash effect felt when we encounter one of the Confederate sorts who assume only white men are in authority etc. I read an article recently that the people with that white-male-only Confederate attitude are not generally employable within today’s corporate (read international) world due to their attitudes – possibly explaining their currently rising anger. They feel left behind but instead of the issue/attitude being something within their own ability to fix it is someone else’s fault….

      • Your analysis is very interesting. I find that some people are prone also to a sense of tribalism that relies too entirely on the identity of that tribe being forged in opposition to an “other”. I saw that a lot in Scotland with sectarian divisions and with a brand of Scottish patriotism that is less about celebrating all of the wonderful things about Scotland and more about historic chips on shoulders and being anti-English, letting the “bully” neighbour define you. Thankfully a minority and shrinking.

      • I agree with you. Seems like the Scottish patriotism you mention and the confederacy have much in common. And I think that tribalism and a need to have a sweeping one-size-fits-all definition of an event that glorifies one group and demonizes another is a human problem. Kind of like the “how to deal with the awareness of death” is a human problem. The only thing I know to do is to enjoy mundane life and share the joys – finding as many points of commonality as possible – and thus (as far as possible) avoiding personally adding to those afore mentioned tribal-bully problems. Here’s to the shrinking of bully tribalism.

  4. I too am interested in Civil War history, but not well-traveled, so it was enjoyable to read your account, as well as your perspective as a Pict. I understand your – dare I say – boredom ? One site i have visited is Petersburg, and when I saw “The Crater” as it currently presents, I found it hard to envision soldiers trapped in it and unable to climb out, as now the sides slope gently and the center of the pit is probably not 10 feet below ground level. Of course the day I was there, there were no destroyed earthworks, blood, bodies or pieces of bodies,
    camp gear, debris from the mine, etc etc.
    It also reminded me of a trip I took for a class on Ohio History. We were visiting “Mound Builder” sites, and I have been interested in the Mound Builders since grade school. But it was sometimes hard to distinguish a true “mound” and, after awhile, as our bus proceeded up and down the rural roads, we took to hollering out “Oh ! Is that a mound?” ” Look ! There’s a cow on that mound !” ” Look ! They’re building a house and there’s a big mound in the front yard !” Luckily he Professor was good-natured about it. Of course in Virginia, probably any woodlot or overground field IS a battle site.

    • Thank you for your great comment. Boredom is an accurate word. I think my blog post probably reflects the fact that I started out capable of absorbing the information my husband was impating and then could not take any more in. I actually had to double check with him that the last site was called Malvern Hill as I had forgotten even that fact. Funny you should mention Petersburg and the crater as he had intended to take us there had we had more time. Too much of any one thing does get to be just plain too much, doesn’t it? Your story about the mounds made me think of being in a museum in Crete and deciding that if I ever saw another libation vessel it would be too soon.

  5. Hello, Laura. Since I’ve always liked the Civil War and have been to a number of Battlefield Parks in Virginia & Pennsylvania, I liked this Post. I have not as of yet, been to see Yorktown and a few others that I may get to soon. However, there is one statement you made that I am not in total agreement with. I quote ” with is when commemoration moves into the realm of celebration. That is why I support the removal of confederate statues from public spaces.”

    The removal of Confederate Statues does not stop what is part of US History. It should remain that way. It is part of our past, and what made our Country what it is today. I really don’t think that they were placed there for any kind of celebration, but only for rememberence of what happened and by whom. Allot of money has been spent to place these people of History where they are and should remain. In Philadelphia, there are a number of Monuments to Men/Woman from our Past. Should Ben Franklin be removed? I don’t think that will ever happen. I can only imagine that the Country you came from has Monuments of famous people from the past. Are they removing them? Somehow, I don’t think so.

    So, in closing, I’m sure that you have understood my position here. Monuments of the Civil War’s famous people should be left alone for all to see what happened in our past. I’m just voicing my opinion here, Laura. No pun intended. Be well and continue learning our History.

    • Thank you very much for sharing your perspective, Les. I always welcome alternative perspectives from my own. For me, it is all about context. Removing the statues and placing them in a museum type park where the wider context of their history can be explained is something I totally welcome. I think we need to learn from the past – the good, bad, and ugly – and don’t think it is right to eliminate the nasty parts of our past. So, for instance, I feel it is important that people know that George Washington can be celebrated while also being aware that he was a slave holder whose false teeth made from the teeth of those slaves. It’s about context. To my mind, however, the same statue that is acceptable in the proper historical context is not acceptable in front of a state house, for instance, because that sends a message about endorsing the agenda and ideologies of that individual – even more so if it contributes to friction and divisiveness in present day communities. I hope that makes sense. I am always aware too that if I feel even somewhat uncomfortable around these flags and statues then it has to be so much worse for people of colour. I am aware, of course, that I am looking at this whole issue as an outsider given that I am not American.

    • I realised that I did not respond to the part of your comment about similar things happening in the UK, which was a non-deliberate oversight on my part. There is a very similar debate occurring in the UK and – as there are here in the US – there are different perspectives on what is the right thing to do to handle the statues and other public things that commemorate people who we now view differently, perhaps more fully, than we did in the past. I am at least consistent in that I have the same stance with the debate in my home country as I do here in the US. The appropriate context is, for me, key. I, for example, support the removal of statues of the likes of Cecil Rhodes. It is absolutely not a black and white issue which is why open discussion and diversity of opinion is important. In the UK, for example, there is a debate about Edward Colston whose business empire was built upon slavery but who was also a generous philanthropist in Bristol. In that case, for instance, the recontextualisation might be possible in situ with a replacement plaque that explains the wider context of Colston’s wealth that permitted his philanthropy. Thanks again for your comment, Les.

  6. I think I agree with Les in some way. I don’t think we should rewrite history or delete it by removing military heroes from the cities where they were respected. But I can see your side, too. Living in Texas, it’s NOT part of “The Old South” so we don’t have that Confederate history or share that identity. I’ve seen my share of Confederate flags, but honestly associate that more with a Southern pride (like on the car in “The Dukes of Hazzard” and yes, that sounds silly) than with any sort of hatred or racism. However, not being a person of color, I can’t imagine how it might offend. I understand your side as well.

    I always love that John Tylor fact. It is such a mindblowing thing. That Monroe tomb is amazing! You do realize you’re going to know more American history than most Americans if you keep this traveling up? 😉

    • Thank you for sharing your perspective, Kerbey. As I stated in my second reply to Les, this is far from a black and white issue. Since my blog is a personal one and not one about history or politics, the view I shared is simply borne of my own visceral reaction to such things. Would I have a different perspective if I was a politician in one of the relevant towns or states and was hearing thoughtful but diverse arguments from various constituents? It’s possible. All I can do is honestly share my personal reaction to such things. I have friends who, like you, hold the flag to be a symbol of southern pride and heritage but – not being a southerner or even an American – the message it sends to me is a very different one and I cannot pretend otherwise. Again, context is key. If it is possible to recontextualise these statues by removing them to a more appropriate setting – such as a museum – or by placing more informative plaques on them then that may resolve the problem. As someone who loves history, I certainly don’t support its erasure but sometimes the veneration and commemoration is arguably erasing elements of history as it is. There are definite grey areas, however. How do we balance out Washington’s massively positive contribution to American history with the darkness of his history as a slave owner, for instance? I suspect these matters will have to be decided on a case by case basis.

      The Tyler grandson thing is incredible to me. It kind of blows my mind. I am a family history nerd and sometimes feel like I know more about dead relatives than I do some living relatives but to have the centuries telescope like that over just a couple of generations of family is just amazing.

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