Not wishing to be in the capital of the kakistocracy on the 4th of July, J and I repaired to the capital of the confederacy. I am not especially a fan of the 4th of July to begin with; as far as I’m concerned when you’ve seen one set of fireworks you’ve seen them all and as you can have barbecue whenever you like, what’s the big deal? Oh, independence you say? How very droll. Why should residents of DC celebrate when we still have taxation without representation?
But back to Richmond, where we stayed at the quirky Quirk hotel downtown which in a previous life was a department store. In the afternoon we walked to the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University, a striking zinc, concrete and glass structure, which seemed to be much closer to the hotel on the map than it really was. It was so hot that by the time we got there I was frazzled, which might explain why I was not overwhelmed by the art installations. It can’t be helped, you can’t be moved by everything although I did like Rashid Johnson’s stacked steel structure of houseplants, books and globs of shea butter, which looked like lard to me, titled ‘Monument’.
There is no link, but from there we walked to Monument Street, a broad tree-lined avenue of grassy central meridian and expensive – and expansive – homes. The street is intersected by roundabouts (or traffic circles if you insist), most of which have a mammoth statue of a confederate general – Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson, as well as confederacy president Jefferson Davis, all on horseback on equally mammoth plinths. Also Fontaine Maury – an astronomer and US naval commander who chose the confederate side – and Arthur Ashe, who was born in Richmond. It is odd to see him so honored alongside men who fought to keep his ancestors enslaved, but he is at least honored and progress is not a straight line, as black people in this country know more than anyone.
Has there ever been a war where the losing side is so revered? Where the symbols of defeat are so proudly fetishized? A war in which not a single general suffered any consequences for the hundreds of thousands of dead and hundreds of thousands more who were horribly maimed, fighting under their command? The trip to Richmond was a real learning experience for me, especially the following day when we visited the American Civil War Museum. This is my takeaway from that visit, as well as from the bit of reading I’ve begun on the subject. This post can be viewed as one written primarily for foreigners who are often mystified by the United States, because since my visit I have come to the conclusion that in order to understand anything about this country you have to go back to the Civil War.
Things might have been different had Lincoln not been assassinated, because for one thing Andrew Johnson would never have been president. But because the southerners were so unwilling to acknowledge that the cause for which they fought – to preserve slavery – was in any way unacceptable, Reconstruction would have been difficult in the best of circumstances. Defeat did nothing to change the mindset of the whites of the southern states who wanted to keep their way of life and who did not want to be told by the north that they could not. In what was virtually a counter-revolution, they went to extraordinary lengths to impose the ‘black codes’ which limited the rights and movement of black people and enforced racial segregation. They also embarked on a deliberate path of intimidation and violence to mitigate the passing of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which respectively, abolished slavery, granted citizenship to all people born in the United States giving them equal rights and protection under the law, and granted voting rights to all men.
In many ways the tactics of the southerners worked. Many in the north were as racist and supportive of the continuation of slavery as in the south and fought the confederacy only because they objected to the secession. And as the years of Reconstruction dragged on, northerners lost patience at the lack of progress and the cost, and the rights of black people were soon ceded to political expediency. And that was where things stood for almost a century until the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a landmark bit of legislation and yet the issue of white supremacy and slavery that lay at the heart of the Civil War was never properly addressed and laid to rest. Because it wasn’t, it doesn’t take much to bring it back to the surface and we are living through a period where the villainy of racism is not only tolerated, it is encouraged. It is always couched in the guise of patriotism but such chicanery was called out long ago; in 1775 Samuel Johnson described it thus, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”.
On a somewhat lighter note, a favorite part of the exhibit was a quote from Lincoln to his famously reluctant-to-engage general, McClellan. “My dear McClellan: If you don’t want to use the Army, I should like to borrow it for a while.” McClellan was a master tactician who was both loved by, and inspired, the men under his command, but he was reluctant to engage in actual warfare – by his own admission he loathed the carnage of the battlefield. He had no time for Lincoln whom he defied on many occasions, writing scathingly about him in letters home to his wife, and he so often refused to follow up when he had the advantage, that he possibly prolonged the war unnecessarily, and in so doing more of his men ended up dead than might have. (Not all historians have such a dismal opinion of him.)
I also enjoyed reading about confederate generals – not at the museum – most of whom were so disobedient and undisciplined that if they didn’t like the orders they were given by their superiors, they simply refused to obey them. Not only that, they slandered the issuers in the process, albeit with such graciously withering turn of phrase, it sounded like an ode. Naturally, as soon as the superiors realized the ode was in fact a flowery piece of libel, this led to duels left, right and center to the point where Lincoln could surely just have continued to let McClellan faff around on his boat in the middle of the river and wait until the southern officers and generals had all shot each other though the heart. As for the poor enlisted plebs, while libel was being bandied around with great flourish among the elite, they were half-starved and reduced to eating their boots. After that there was nothing left to do but desert which, towards the end of the war, they did in droves.
And now on to something definitely not Civil War. We were hugely fortunate in scoring a last minute reservation at L’Opposum which is considered one of the finest restaurants in the south. We had tried several times to reserve in advance but it was always fully booked. The receptionist at our hotel suggested I call to see if there might be a last-minute cancellation and lo, there was – at 5:30pm which is several hours earlier than we normally eat dinner but we did not quibble. Quite aside from the divine southern accented French food, it’s worth a visit for the menus which are witty and naughty, the playlist – which our server told us customers often request – and the eclectic decor, a cosy, dimly-lit, speakeasy/artsy bistro vibe with a clientele that ranges from white picket fence wholesome to outrageously high camp. It all adds to the sense of the whole place being liberally sprinkled with a delirious and delicious element of the faintly subversive. An example of their cocktails is A Dark and Stormy Daniels – which adds bourbon to the traditional rum base….. very waggish. And a sample entree is A SEARING PARADOX OF PORK BELLY & SEA SCALLOPS Reveling in a Key Party of Blood Orange Drenched Radicchio, Cranberry Beans, Garlic Sausage, Citrus Mostarda & A Heady Charred Onion Jus. AKA: “Butch Queen, First Time In Drags At A Ball” – PARIS IS BURNING.
The following afternoon we switched it up a bit and went to The Jefferson, a grand Italianate pile a couple of blocks from our hotel. We had planned to have tea in the Palm Court under the eye of a large marble statue of Thomas Jefferson and an enormous shallow dome of Tiffany-style stained glass, but there was no tea to be had (Fri-Sun only) and we went to the bar for a cocktail instead. The hotel which opened in 1895, cost millions of dollars to build, incorporated the most up-to-date technological innovations of the day and practically burned to the ground in 1901. Re-opened in 1902, it was one of the grandest hotels in the south until the onset of WWII after which decline set in until in 1980 the hotel closed its doors. It re-opened to great fanfare six years later and two multi-million dollar renovations later, the palazzo is once again a destination hotel in the south. Because there was a temporary monsoon going on outside, J and I strolled down a magnificent staircase to the Rotunda which is all marble columns, Corinthian capitals and gilded cornices – splendid, if a tad overwrought for my taste. In a corner is a mini museum of the hotel’s history; it has hosted 13 presidents from Harrison to Obama, world leaders including Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev and a slew of celebrities including Elvis Presley, Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra, Tom Hanks, Jerry Seinfeld, Diane Keaton and Sally Fields. And then there’s the alligators.
Alligators used to live in a pool in the Palm Court, although there are no photographs of this eccentricity and the hotel has a call out to anyone who can provide any. My favorite story about them is the myopic grande dame who enjoyed a tipple or two of an afternoon and who one day settled down in the library for a quiet read. Earlier an alligator had left the pool unnoticed and set off towards the library. He was resting there unmolested until milady mistook him for a footstool and rested her feet on his back. The alligator took umbrage at this indignity and moved, leading the offender to let out a yell and take to her heels. She related the tale to a hotel employee who gingerly approached the library for a look-see, but there was no evidence of an alligator and the correct number of reptiles was to be seen safely splashing around in the pool. Given her reputation for pre and post prandial libations, the general opinion was that she had imagined the whole thing. They would not have presumed any such thing if it had been a man of course, though I quite like the thought of a crafty gator having a quiet laugh. Alas, we live in far less colorful times and as OHSA takes a dim view of snapping critters in hotel lobbies, it won’t happen again to anyone.