My Belated Intro to Richmond’s Civil War Past

July 14, 2015

By Karen

Until recently, most of my Civil War knowledge came from Gone With the Wind.

Since moving to Richmond, Virginia, in 1972 and watching this city nurse a chip on its shoulder over the “Lost Cause,” I just assumed Richmond somehow suffered similarly to Atlanta during Sherman’s march to the sea, although I knew Sherman never laid a paw on Richmond.

As it turned out, no Northern army ever invaded Richmond, although it was the capital of the Confederacy and a prime target. However, battles were fought all around it.

My ignorance in this seems incredible, I know, but I went to school up North, and the Civil War was a chapter in American history. Down here, I’m told it’s a whole high school year’s curriculum.

Since 2015 marks 150 years since war’s end, Richmond has reveled in it yet again — until the Charleston massacre and its aftermath brought everybody up short.

The daily Richmond Times-Dispatch, which was in overdrive publishing Civil War dispatches and articles to avoid the real work of covering current events, opened my eyes on Richmond’s past, and it was jaw-dropping in light of the decades of pouty “Yankee Go Home!” attitude I’ve seen.

Picture this

Early April 1865 and the Union Army was attacking Petersburg, south of Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, when the Confederate Army faced the fact that it couldn’t defend Richmond.

President Jefferson Davis lammed off to Danville, deserting his mansion for U.S. Major General Godfrey Weitzel to use as HQ when he arrived. During his stay, Weitzel found in a desk a letter to Davis from General Robert E. Lee dated October 1864, containing the news flash that the cause was lost and they should make the best terms they could. But Davis sat on that intel and let the killing continue.

Before abandoning Richmond, Confederate soldiers broke open all the liquor and either poured it into the streets or drank it, then they set fire to warehouses holding munitions and tobacco so the Yankees couldn’t have them, and looting broke out.

The fires quickly raged beyond control and began consuming most of the downtown business district while the rebel soldiers marched away, leaving the civilians defenseless and in utter chaos and confusion.

When Gen. Weitzel and his men rode into Richmond, which no Yankee army had yet laid a finger on, it was being rocked by explosions, burning to the ground, and ransacked — by its own inhabitants.

The Union Army quickly distinguished the blazes, restored order, and began distributing food and tending to those in need.

And here’s the most ironic twist: Robert E. Lee had a brick residence downtown, near the fire zone, where he’d left his daughter and invalid wife. Unable to evacuate, they introduced themselves to the Union soldiers, who posted guards and kept an ambulance on standby for Mrs. Lee. General Lee was able to return to his unburned home after his surrender at Appomattox a week later, thanks to the Yankees.

Gen. Weitzel later wrote his memories of all this, stating that the people of Richmond (especially the blacks) were so thrilled by his army’s arrival that they kissed his soldiers and their horses.

Two days later, Abraham Lincoln himself came to assess the damage. Lincoln showed great compassion and mercy, and the future looked promising. That lasted less than two weeks, when an actor and Southern sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth, who’d spent some time performing in Richmond, assassinated Lincoln.

Resentment, spite, and racism have been allowed to flourish in the South ever since, and statues of defeated Civil War players are everywhere. It took the killing of nine innocent black people by an ignorant little white bigot wrapped in a Confederate flag to get the rest of the country to finally do a double-take at the South’s festering obsession and the latent racism that usually goes with it.

By all reports, many Southerners seem to be accepting that the Cause was wrong, the South lost, it’s part of the United States again, and it’s time to move on. And a good first step is to pull down that divisive flag that has become America’s Swastika.

In Virginia, we’re getting the Confederate flag off a few license plates, but a huge one still proudly waves beside Interstate 95, on private property, to signal that not everyone is welcome here yet.

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Speaking of the Arthur Ashe Statue…

July 4, 2015

By Cole

Karen’s probably somewhere shooting off fireworks for the 4th, so I’ll fill you in on the latest with Arthur Ashe.

On Thursday as Karen was typing her previous post, somewhere in Richmond, Doug Wilder, a former Richmond mayor and Virginia governor (the first black man ever to be elected a governor in the U.S., no less), was tweeting about the weeds growing around the weird Arthur Ashe statue.

All the other Monument Avenue statues of Confederate generals are pristine. How quintessentially Richmond.

The Ashe statue was erected before my time in 1996, but I can just hear its staunch opponents when they finally gave in to letting a black man, a mere tennis player, stand among their Confederate generals.

“OK, fine. You can put your silly old statue on Monument Avenue. Just don’t be expecting us to keep it dusted and polished!”

Wilder’s tweets hit the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch Friday morning, and by day’s end, the city had cleaned up around Arthur Ashe.

Without Confederate flag kerfuffle putting the spotlight on the South right now, I have no doubt Wilder’s tweets would have been dismissed as sour grapes. Those weeds didn’t grow overnight. If the powers that be had any respect for the Ashe statue, it would have been maintained along with all the others. But better late than never.

Meanwhile, in another part of town…

I learned there’s yet another big Confederate monument. It honors Soldiers and Sailors and stands in Libby Hill Park. Thursday or early Friday, some fool scrawled in red spray paint what might be the word “cracker” and the initials “RBGz” with an up-arrow beside it.

Let’s not get into what this illegible, wit-free gibberish says about the quality of a Richmond education.

“Cracker” may be a reference to Southern white racists but, according to the Times-Dispatch, “RBG” could refer to a rap album, a Pan-African flag, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I’m going with “Rebel Billy Goats” or “Really Bad Grafitti.”

So far, this bit of vandalism has no suspects, so at least they got their getaway right.


Lose the Confederate Flag, Keep the Statues

July 2, 2015

By Karen

I moved to Richmond, Virginia, from the North 43 years ago this month, and it only recently hit me that I’ve been here nearly one-third of the time the Civil War has been over, and I’ve been reminded of it nearly every blessed day and resented it every time.

After the Charleston shootings, words can’t describe how thrilled I was to see some Southern states begin rethinking the preservation of their blockheaded “heritage” and getting with the 21st century.

In Alabama, without asking anybody’s permission, the Republican governor ordered four Confederate flags removed from the statehouse grounds. Amazing!

In VIRGINIA, our Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, ordered Confederate flag license plate issued only to the Sons of Confederate Veterans discontinued and all such plates in use (1,600) replaced. Hallelujah!

The plates were a small gesture, yet the SCV have vowed to fight it — even after the exact case in Texas recently went to the Supreme Court and LOST. (That old, “The South shall rise again!” mentality.)

OK, the flag once stood for the Glorious Cause, but the SCV refuse to acknowledge it’s been hijacked by racists, and racism is what it stands squarely for today.

Some Southerners are wringing their hands over the flag, saying it’s a slippery slope, and what comes down next?

Richmond has a big statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, on Monument Avenue (more on that in a sec) that just got defaced twice. One guy spray-painted an “L” on it to signify “Loser” (which was pretty “Lame”). Someone else painted “Black Lives Matter.”

Monument Avenue is a beautiful tree-lined boulevard with a wide green median, lined with lavish, historic homes and dotted with impressive statues of prominent Civil War figures like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on horseback.

It also has one odd, puny statue of black Richmond native and tennis great, Arthur Ashe, who’s posed as if lobbing a book to a bunch of sawed-off kids. Trust me, getting him on Monument Avenue caused everyone no end of angst.

Anyway, people are worried these statues will get torn down à la Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

If that happens, are statues of slave owners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson safe?

I’d say the distinction is that the statues haven’t been embraced as racist symbols. They’re of people who played key roles in significant events in our past.

Let’s leave the statues of major historical figures alone. They don’t bother anybody, and in most cases they’re works of art that attract tourists and may be a comfort to some.

But statues and busts of relatively minor figures, like Nathan Bedford Forrest who helped start the KKK, belong in museums as curiosities.

Even though all the funerals in Charleston are over, I hope the South keeps progressing toward accepting that the United States is one country again, founded on the principle that all men are created equal — in spite our many, many lapses and some people’s lingering refusal to face it.


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