Visiting the seat of the second revolutionary government in North America — the Confederate States of America — is a surreal experience today. Although we U.S. citizens have many differences, sometimes bitterly debated, seldom do we resort to violence in pursuit of a settlement.
And yet a little more than 150 years ago, 11 states, including Arkansas, declared their independence from the United States of America by passing resolutions of secession. The action was certainly not unanimous; in fact, the resolutions were rejected in parts of Virginia and Tennessee, and two slave-holding states did not secede.
Nevertheless, the two sides fought a costly and deadly war. An estimated 250,000 Americans were killed in combat — by other Americans. To put that into perspective, about 30 percent of all white men aged 18 to 40 in the United States of 1860 never came home.
I was raised in the South and studied the Civil War but never felt the emotions that must have fueled the divisions of America in the 1850s and ‘60s. I can’t imagine going to war over the right to own a slave. Of course, some die-hard Southerners claim the war wasn’t so much about slavery as Northern aggression, but that’s a hard argument to win.
Last week wife Pat and I visited the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Va., and took in some of the sites of note in that awful conflict. That really wasn’t why we went: Our daughter Lori moved there a year ago to become a domestic violence program specialist for the State of Virginia, and granddaughter Olivia is taking a year off from college for an AmeriCorps assignment there.
Our first excursion was a short cruise on the Richmond canal, which runs between the James River and the old downtown section. Originally a vision of George Washington, the canal system was designed to carry tobacco, wheat and passengers. The railroad made the system obsolete in the 1880s, and the canals were abandoned. But they’ve been restored and now serve as a must-see attraction.
Our riverboat captain provided plenty of history, much of it linked to the war days, when the canal was critical to the CSA. He pointed to the city skyline, urging us to visualize much of it in flames. As the capital was about to fall in 1865, the fleeing Confederates set fire to the many warehouses and businesses along the waterfront so they wouldn’t fall into Yankee hands. They must not have foreseen the need to return later.
We paused at the spot where, about 36 hours after the city was taken by U.S. troops, a boat carrying President Abraham Lincoln tied up. No one came to greet him, which might have been a good thing, as he walked through the downtown streets. However, some Richmond residents burned American flags to show their disgust.
Lincoln visited the “White House of the Confederacy” — President Jefferson Davis’ executive mansion — and held some meetings there with military leaders and local officials.
Intrigued by that story, we decided to visit the CSA White House, which is still standing and has been restored to its 1865 state two blocks from the Virginia Capitol. Olivia, a fellow history buff, joined Pat and me while Lori attended a meeting.
The White House is part of a complex that also includes the Museum of the Confederacy, which maintains a treasure trove of artifacts, manuscripts and photographs related to the war and the Confederacy. Because of time constraints, we skipped the museum this time in favor of a White House tour.
While the CSA White House hardly compares to the U.S. White House in nearby Washington, D.C., it must have been a fine place by 1860s Richmond standards. Owned by the City of Richmond then, the 3-story gray stucco building was rented by the Confederate government for the Davis family.
There they lived for about four years, Varina Davis giving birth to two children in the house, bringing the presidential brood to five. But 5-year-old Joseph died in 1864 after falling 15 feet from the east portico.
Our tour guide described the confusion of April 2, 1865, when the Davis family was forced to abandon the house hurriedly, taking only what they could carry, as federal troops approached Richmond.
Another fascinating part of the history we learned was the role of Elizabeth Van Lew, a member of a prominent Richmond family. During the war she acted as if she were mentally ill — “Crazy Bet” some called her — and as a “harmless local” was able to move freely among military camps and buildings. She openly cared for federal prisoners, but with the help of others she gathered information surreptitiously about Confederate plans and movements, feeding it to Union commanders.
After the war Van Lew was appointed as postmaster of Richmond by President U.S. Grant.
Later she revealed that among her network of spies was a CSA White House servant, Mary Bowser, who had once been a slave of the Van Lew family but had been freed and educated in Philadelphia before returning to Richmond.
While in Richmond, we also found time for dinner with Larry O’Dell, a student of mine at Arkansas State University and later my assistant editor at the Batesville Guard. A native of Little Rock, Larry has been an Associated Press reporter stationed in Richmond for more than 25 years.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.