White House of the Confederacy

The last major thing we did as part of our Richmond extravaganza was visit the apocryphally-named “White House of the Confederacy.” This was of course the house that Jefferson Davis lived in while he was the President of the Confederacy. It was apparently a very prominent house back in its days with expansive views, but today it is awkwardly in the middle of a hospital. The above picture is actually the back of the house, which is the fancy-looking side because that’s where garden parties would have been held.

Look if I was nervous to visit the American Civil War Museum lest I be bombarded with lost cause narratives, I was even more worried about visiting this place, but I shouldn’t have been. The house is actually owned and operated by the Museum (though it requires separate admission) and so they are pretty invested in telling a true and useful story.

This part isn’t super important to the narrative, but the big metal thing in the picture above is a section of the propeller shaft of the CSS Virginia (aka Merrimac) and I like boats and boat history so that was interesting for me. Anyways!

Pictured above is our faithful guide. The tour groups were small and at the house it was currently a one-man operation. He greeted us at the gift shop, rang up people’s purchases, and when it was time for the tour led us all out and locked up the gift shop until the next group came along. He was a very nice man and very passionate about the house. The house actually contains a good amount of furniture actually used by the Davis family while they lived there, a result of careful cataloguing in the modern day of zealous Confederacy-collecting by the Daughters of the Confederacy as they went about establishing that Lost Cause. The tour didn’t discuss too much of the actual house details that I recall. Some interesting bits about built-in closets but that was it.

Before the tour my super amazing girlfriend had pondered why Jefferson Davis didn’t seem quite so famous as Lee when it comes to Confederate symbols. I think what we learned on the tour is that was because no one really liked him. Seemed like he got the job of Confederate President because no one trusted anyone who actually wanted it, so he wound up with it. According to the tour he put his entire self into it, for better or worse for both his health and the Confederacy. The single biggest impression from the tour, thanks again to our tour guide, was that the most interesting character in the house was Jefferson’s wife Varina, who clearly had her own passions, desires, and friends, which did not appear to include much in the way of support for the Confederate cause. Maybe this is its own form of hagiography but she seems interesting nonetheless.

Going through my pictures of the house it doesn’t seem like I took many at all. I walked away thinking that our guide did an excellent job and while he had a passion for the house that wasn’t out of a passion for the southern cause. I think he must have an interesting job because I would go out on a limb to assume the “White House of the Confederacy” appeals to a lot of types trying to promote or at least not hurt that Lost Cause narrative. I think the most forthright comment he got out of our group was someone who was pontificating on door-based house taxes (which our guide said didn’t exist and weren’t a factor), but I wonder about some of the groups that come through. But then again maybe I am stereotyping! At any rate, like I say at the end of most of these things, I think the house is worth a look around. History happened there. That’s worth knowing about, even if that history isn’t all that good.

American Civil War Museum

Reading this week:

  • Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James

Look, loyal reader(s), I feel kinda bad. I feel like whenever I talk about an art museum, as I did just last week, I leave on a total downer about the injustices of the world. There are many injustices, and none should be glossed over, but still, I feel bad about leaving you on a downer. This week I shall try to do better with a subject that will lift all of us up: civil war.

As previewed in my Richmond post, one of the things my super amazing girlfriend and I did was visit the American Civil War Museum. I was worried. I was wary. I didn’t know what kind of museum we would find. Back when I lived in Charleston I visited Fort Sumter and look the museum didn’t go out of its way to paint slavery as all that unpleasant nor did it point out while The Citadel is very proud of the fact they fired the first shots in the Civil War (on the wrong side, to be clear) they really shouldn’t be. Jeez I hate The Citadel (look at that “War Between the States” bs). So being a Civil War Museum in the capital of the Confederacy, I didn’t quite know what to expect.

Lee’s boots and sword belt.

All that to say the American Civil War Museum was really good! I have a few quibbles. They bother to go into the whole “Lee couldn’t decide which side to fight on” thing, which as I have discussed here I think is absolutely a ludicrous way to frame a betrayal of your country in order to uphold the institution of slavery. There was also a concerning placard mentioning that Black soldiers fought on both sides of the war, but pleasingly they have a much more nuanced blog post about the issue. Though honestly it seems like the bedrock and raison d’etre of the ACWM is to house some really old food:

Of all the things in the museum this is the thing that stuck out to me the most, just the astonishingly high amount of old food on display. In the above photo, clockwise from top left we have: a piece of hardtack provided to Pvt. Thomas Penn (CS) upon his release from Point Lookout prison camp in 1865, a piece of bread given to a Confederate soldier when discharged from Fort Delaware in 1865 (along with bread plate wielded by Emily H. Booton), coffee beans (and sack) exchanged for tobacco by Lt. Joseph R. Taylor (CS) in 1863, and biscuits left over from the siege of Vicksburg in 1863. I suppose at some point you can’t get rid of this stuff and it makes you wonder how many old chunks of food they have not on display. How much of the museum’s budget is spent on climate control to keep this stuff from disintegrating? I mean probably not a big part but makes you think.

But back to the museum being good (besides as a sort of historical larder). They had a range of interesting (again, non-food) artifacts on display, like the pocket telegraph unit and telegraph wire above. Given the carnage and senseless bloodshed of the Civil War it is easy to forget how modern the whole affair was (I don’t know why carnage and senseless bloodshed makes that easy, now that I type that out). They also had on display a chunk of a balloon used for spotting over enemy lines. They tell a really good overall narrative of the Civil War and make sure to highlight plenty of the horrors and depravations it entailed. The path they had you wind through the exhibits wasn’t miles long so there was only so much of the story they could tell, but still it was pretty good. I appreciated that at the very end of the narrative portion of the museum they close out with the sign that reads “Did slavery end?” just to make sure you don’t walk out of there with the Civil War tied in a pretty little bow.

However, I thought the best part of the museum was actually upstairs. I think they’re temporary exhibits, but they had two very interesting sections on the war’s effect on U.S. money and monetary policy, and another section on the Confederacy’s foreign policy. The stuff on money was interesting because it is another avenue to explain how the Civil War impacts us even today (besides, like, the obvious). The section on the Confederacy’s foreign policy was even more important I think because it really puts a light on their ideology. For all the talk of them more or less just wanting to be left alone to treat Black people as something other than human, turns out they also wanted other people to betray the natural rights of those of African descent as well. It details how they searched for allies in Brazil and Spain and wanted to expand slavery back into Mexico and other Caribbean countries, and actively too. Tell you what man, good thing the right side one. And too bad we haven’t been more forceful in remembering that.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

As I coyly mentioned last week in my post on Richmond, we did some big things in and amongst the little things we did. One of those big things was visiting the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which was quite an experience!

Having alighted from the train and had our fill of Chinese food, my super amazing girlfriend and I proceeded directly to the museum. She has the habit of looking things up beforehand, so maybe she wasn’t impressed, but I was extremely impressed by the size of the museum and the breadth of the museum’s collection. Not that the state of Virginia, of which we are both at this point proud(ish) citizens, isn’t impressive or anything, but who woulda thunk that Virginia would have put together such a gigantic art museum? The art ranged from contemporary to ancient, and from lifelike portraits to impressionist to beyond. For dedicated art lovers I recommend several trips; much like my experience at the Yale University Art Gallery the collection is so wide-ranging that it becomes overwhelming to one’s aesthetic sense.

One thing I especially liked about the museum is that it very much felt like a community space. Admission is free for everyone (though there are certain exhibits that have a separate admission) and there is wifi, so there were people clearly just hanging out and doing work or whatever while absorbing all the culture. The picture above is of the courtyard/sculpture garden space they have right outside the museum, and the photo fails to portray how many people there were just milling about enjoying the space. There were families with little kids, skateboarders practicing their tricks, and at least one man eating out of a bucket of fried chicken while his girlfriend looked a little bored (not me, to be clear, with the chicken).

Having wandered in without plan or indeed a map, the first wing we perused was some more contemporary art. The one contemporary piece of artwork I am going to show you as a representative sample is the above Horseman by Cynthia Carlson from 1974 (maybe half a century ago isn’t so contemporary). My photo doesn’t do it justice but the paint in this piece of artwork is thick like frosting, literally applied with cake-decorating tools as a comment on “women’s work.”

Other notable artworks were some modern-day masters, such Sisters (Susan and Toni) by Barkley Hendricks (VMFA frustratingly doesn’t appear to have an online catalog of their collections) and a sculpture of Paul Mellon’s head that looked like I imagine it would if place on a spike; he got this treatment due to donating a lot of money, it appears. Besides these galleries we also saw a collection of works by the FabergĂ© workshop, including several eggs, works on paper that meant, in this case, gorgeous Japanese woodblock paintings, and a huge hall of Egyptian art, including the obligatory dead guy the morals of which we won’t go into because we got other things to talk about.

Again, since I don’t read things, it was my girlfriend that informed me that the VFMA is known for its very large collection of African art. The picture above captures one small portion of a very large gallery arranged largely by geographic location of the arts’ origin. The gallery is kind of hidden in the back of the museum and it took us a bit to find it, but it is certainly worth a look. I won’t discuss the artificial distinction between “Egyptian” and “African” art, but within the African art section they had a range of religious and ceremonial objects and even things like iron currency.

However man this museum seems like, five years behind the curve when it comes to restitution and deep thinking about African art. If they didn’t seem like such sincere and nice people I would think they were courting controversy. For example, the sign they have by the door of the African art wing proudly proclaims that they are actively trying to acquire “rare works from antiquity,” which, I know what they mean, but man maybe read the room guys. In the above photo on the left is a statue of Maximilien Balot, who was killed in response to the cruel treatment perpetrated by the Belgian colonial administration. The statue was likely created as a way to immobilize his spirit. I don’t know if the controversy had erupted at the time, and I took the picture just because I hadn’t run into anything exactly like it before, but man it is a whole thing. And then, of course, they proudly display their de rigueur Benin bronze, even at a time when we are firmly on the side of restitution. After I visited the National Museum of African Art and wrote about it, next thing you know the Smithsonian is working to return their Benin bronzes, so maybe I can make some changes here too. The plaque next to the VFMA’s doesn’t even mention why this bronze no longer decorates the royal court in Benin City.

Overall the VFMA is a very nice museum and well worth a visit. It is a wonderful community space and I am very glad people are able to access all the culture and history it collects. I know I like to complain about these things but you gather enough of another people’s culture under a roof and you are going to run into problems of equity and historical wrongs that require contemporary solutions. But man you should make sure you are making an effort towards righting those historical wrongs before saying you want to buy more of them.

Richmond

Last weekend, both as I write this and per the inaccurate time of publication, my super amazing girlfriend and I went to Richmond. There were several reasons we went to Richmond. I think first and foremost because my super amazing girlfriend read an article about going there by train from DC. The second is that we are both a fan of train travel, so having read about the train thing we of course had to give it a try. The third is the fact that we are both now proud Virginians, so it made sense to see the seat of our government and contemplate yelling at the anti-mask brigade there.

It was a lovely train ride! The most harrowing part was getting to the train via DC’s other train system, the metro, which I love but is suffering from a lack of preventative maintenance right now, the poor thing. But we made it and I read while Krista read and then also knit. Unfortunately the train to Richmond doesn’t deposit you in Richmond but outside of Richmond, and it being lunchtime we hunted for nourishment in the cold and wind-swept plains of the Staples Mills strip malls. We found a Chinese place with quick and reasonably priced fare and, having prepared ourselves both body and soul, caught a ride into the beating heart of Richmond.

Small-W wontons.

During our time in Richmond we did several big things, which I shall detail in the coming weeks as part of my ongoing efforts to milk my life experiences for content. Truly I am the first person to ever do this so please be patient on this journey of discovery together. In this blog post I shall detail some of the smaller things we did in and amongst the big things.

Big-W Wonton

Perhaps the best of these small things was visiting Chop Suey books. Having really hit it out of the park in Charlottesville it is now Our Thing to go to book stores and yarn stores when we go travelling. Unfortunately Richmond has a dearth of yarn stores, which might honestly be the root cause of some of this state’s political troubles, and only a slightly more accessible selection of used book stores. Chop Suey was the only one we wound up at, but quality made up for numbers. The most significant discovery here was made when my super amazing girlfriend reported to me that there was a fake cat on the chair in the children’s section. I went to investigate and marveled at the realistic paws on the fake cat, and then was even more impressed with the realistic simulated breathing, and then utterly floored when the cat moved its head and turned out to be real. The cat was named Wonton and from all accounts completes his myriad duties as a bookstore cat, i.e. napping in various locations, with aplomb.

From the bookstore we proceeded to our hotel, which was fancy enough that the wifi was not free but had a fairly expansive view of the river. Inspired, we got a closer view of the river by proceeding to walk eastbound down the canal along the aptly named canal walk. Richmond has made the walk along the canal very nice, and although it was a bit chilly as we explored (not Richmond’s fault) that meant we had it largely to ourselves. We walked along it for several locks and we both enjoyed spotting various pieces of infrastructure along the way. If you’re a fan of infrastructure they have plenty to see, from flood control walls to train trestles to draw bridges, not including of course the canal itself. A lovely dinner capped off the night and we returned to our hotel to be energized for the following day.

Infrastructurrrrrrrrrrre

We used that energy the following day to once again explore the canal. This time we proceeded westbound, on our way to (not the ruin the surprise) the American Civil War Museum. As picturesque as the eastern portion of the canal is, the western portion tops it for sure. This is not least because there are a lot more pictures, painted on the walls of various former structures. It also deposits you at a bridge you can take across the river, which is a wonderful thing in and of itself but also provides impressive and informative views of the whole area. Once a historian friend of mine told himself off for saying that one location had any more history than another, but in this case you can see a lot of the history in this location via various old bits of (you guessed it) infrastructure. Plus it was sunny and just generally a nice place to be. There were also monuments.

After doing a few more big things, and also there were elaborate waffles at one point, and secret sandwiches at another, we head back out from town, caught our train in the nick of time, and deposited ourselves at the food of the mysterious temple to George Washington that is perhaps Alexandria’s most famous landmark, we walked home to our cat who we assured ourselves missed us very much. We had certainly missed her but it is sometimes nice to get away from the kids and see a new little corner of the world. I suspect we’ll be back to Richmond at some point; there were bookstores we didn’t get to see.