The day dawned suffocatingly hot and humid again. The intent had been to wander round Belle Isle and the James River Park Pipeline Walkway, but after wandering round Belle Isle for a bit I was already undone and had to take a break and sit on the rocks not far from a solitary Great Blue Heron patiently waiting for a fish to become separated from the shoal. It made up a bit for missing the heron rookery along the pipeline walk. Because it was the 4th of July and hotter than Hades, half the population of Richmond was out sunbathing on the rocks by the rapids and the other half were kayaking the rapids or paddle boarding in calmer waters downstream.
The rapids opposite what is now the city of Richmond have considerably shaped the region; they prevented John Smith from navigating further up the James River in 1607 as part of his efforts to both map the Chesapeake and find a passage to the Pacific. They powered many mills along the river, including the Tredegar Iron Works which was the largest employer in the city, and which during the Civil War was the largest Confederate arsenal. And long before that, Belle Isle was a Native American settlement where local Indians set up seasonal villages along the rapids to trap, net and spear migrating herring and shad.
Unfortunately Belle Isle is more known as a notorious confederate prisoner of war camp where thousands of Union soldiers died during the Civil War. In July 1862 after a prisoner exchange agreement was signed by both sides, the camp was set up to hold 5000 prisoners until they could be exchanged. When this took place a few months later, the camp closed down. However with the suspension of the agreement in 1863 due to the confederate refusal to treat black Union soldiers equally, the prison re-opened and conditions were so dire that soldiers froze to death that winter.
Left of the pedestrian bridge on Belle Isle are the remains of two Old Dominion Iron & Steel Company buildings known as the ‘Chrysler Building’, after Chrysler began making hatches for tanks here in WWI. A map of the island promised the remains of the civil war camp (which we did not come across), the civil war cemetery (which we did not see), and gun pits, which I could not summon the energy to walk to. There is also the shell of an old nail factory that is apparently hard to miss, but we managed to miss it. All of this was because I cannot bear humid heat, which is a problem since we are all going to have to get used to it.
Back in downtown Richmond, which was eerily deserted, we walked to The Egyptian Building. In the early 19th century, Egyptian style buildings and design became fashionable due to interest ignited by Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. With the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, an architectural and design movement called Egyptian Revival became more widespread, and one of the best examples in the United States is The Egyptian Building. Built in 1846 by Philadelphia architect Thomas Stewart to house part of the Medical College of Virginia, the building is still used by the School of Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University. The original design of monumental tapered columns, pylon-shaped insets, obelisks, reeds and palm fronds was restricted to the exterior – a whimsical exterior detail is the cast iron fencing that incorporates Art Deco-ish mummies – but extensive renovations in 1939 carried the Egyptian theme inside with mosaic tiling, bas reliefs and hieroglyphs.
One reason I was interested in seeing it is because when J and I took our mammoth trip through the US in 2016, we stopped in Dubuque, Iowa, where the old jail – now a museum – is also an Egyptian revival Building. I read then, and several times since, that it is one of only three such structures left in the US. But is this one of those things you read on the internet that is incorrect and just keeps getting perpetuated? It seems there are considerably more than three still around, especially if you count masonic temples and theaters. What is the defining criteria? Perhaps someone can enlighten me.
Popular lore says Richmond got its name because the view from Libby Hill reminded plantation owner and city founder William Byrd II, of Richmond-upon-Thames in Surrey, just outside London. As I used to live near that esteemed English borough, I went to the exact spot overlooking the James river to see if I concurred and I can attest that both have a river and both are green. I didn’t really go to see the view, I went because Church Hill is one of the oldest parts of the city with some elegant Italianate, Federal, Greek Revival and Queen Anne houses. Also because we wanted to taste the famous pastries at Sub Rosa, an outstanding bakery that stone-grinds its own wheat and rye. When we showed up for breakfast the place was packed and half the pastries were already sold out, but fortunately there was a pain au chocolat left which J said was one of the best he’d ever eaten and he is a connoisseur.
By this time my whole itinerary was out of whack because of the heat. We had intended to visit cemeteries – truly – to see the graves of the Allan family who took the young Edgar Poe in when he was orphaned and Elizabeth Van Lew, who lived in Richmond during the Civl War and was one of the Union’s most daring spies. And we had planned to visit Hollywood cemetery where two US presidents are buried and where one fellow in the National Park told me he hopes to end up when his time comes. It certainly has a lovely location overlooking the river – so important don’t you think?
We did none of this and instead walked the streets of Carytown, 8 blocks of individual shops, cafes, bars, restaurants, day spas and hairdressers. It wasn’t any cooler than the cemetery would have been but there were watering holes, including the CanCan Brasserie. After a cold beer we set off for Chop Suey secondhand bookstore, so-called because it used to be a Chinese restaurant. We did not spend as long as we might have because en route I saw a chocolate brown raffia sunhat in a boutique called Ruby. As it is exactly what I have been looking for since forever I went in and bought it. And then I saw some other things, as you do. In the evening we stayed in the area and had dinner at Spoonbread Bistro a cool spot with Frank Lloyd Wright-like stained glass windows, where over cocktails and southern-inspired food we sat upstairs and half-watched the end of Ninotchka and The Wizard of Oz – a movie I had never seen – on a TV behind the bar. It was perfect, because quite aside from movies being a huge improvement over sports (to my mind), I was not obliged to bellow at J across the table in order to be heard. In most DC restaurants such a courtesy belongs in the past and it is now mandatory to shriek at your dining partner sitting less than two feet away because of the infernal din.
We took a detour on the way home and went to Appomattox. J had never been and to better get a feel for the whole site we downloaded the Appomattox Battle App which outlines the story of the last days of the war and the events leading up to Lee’s surrender to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. This more or less ended the war but as a formal peace treaty was never signed, it arguably allowed for the cult of veneration that later grew up around Lee and other confederate generals. In 1868, the Union general George Thomas said, “the crime of treason might be covered with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism so that precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand in hand with the defenders of the government.”
As we walked from the car park, a plaque pointing out the location of the Isbell House explained, “A bachelor, Isbell had four sons with his housekeeper, an enslaved woman, Louisa “Kitty” (Patterson) Isbell.” Lewis Isbell was the Commonwealth’s attorney from 1847-67 and represented Appomattox at both secession conventions in 1861 where he voted for secession. Isbell moved to Missouri in 1872 and although the plaque does not explain why, a tiny bit sleuthing revealed that he was censured and suspended by his local church in 1870, for “conduct unbecoming a Christian and an officer” and he was more or less forced to leave Virginia. It might have been because, unusually for the time, Isbell acknowledged paternity of his black children. Whatever the reason, all four sons went with him but Kitty Patterson stayed in Virginia and seems later to have married an Isbell relative, with whom she had another family.
On April 12, 1865, Union troops were forbidden by Grant to openly celebrate as Lee’s army surrendered their weapons and flags, stacking their guns along the stretch of the Richmond-Lynchburg stage road which ran through Appomattox. By the end of the day approximately 22,000 confederate troops had done so and were allowed to return to their homes. However, that hundreds of confederate soldiers refused to formally surrender their weapons despite the extraordinarily lenient terms, and simply left them where they were, was perhaps indicative of how difficult it was going to be to achieve reconciliation, let alone equality. There is still a long way to go.