Richmond Is A Glorious Place To Understand America’s Darkest Hours

Monday, April 24, 2017 - by Scott S. Smith

I need to start this travel article about the very charming city of Richmond, with some historic context about the nation’s darkest memories, which are about the American Civil War. Richmond was the capitol of the Confederate States of America.

Few Americans are aware that 761,000 died in that war 1861-65 (this new conservative estimate raises the total from the previous 620,000; see the first Note under References, before the Citations  Since the combined population of the North and the South was only 31 million, compared with 320 million today, that would be equal to the impact of 7.3 million deaths in four years now (the equivalent loss from World War II would be 1 million). With only 7.3% Americans living now having served in the military, it’s no wonder most of us have no memory of past sacrifices and find shockingly unsustainable the 230 who have died on average each year in Afghanistan.

The legacy of the Civil War still haunts us, as indicated by the controversies over police shootings in African American communities, the “New Jim Crow” voter ID laws, the debate over Confederate flags and statues in public places, and the continuing struggle between state and federal power. Richmond is by far the best place to go to understand what happened and why it remains relevant (the same function that Colonial Williamsburg serves for the American Revolution, as I wrote previously).

The city is today a vibrant cultural capital with plenty to see and do for everyone, from buffs of historic architecture and formal gardens to foodies and fans of mystery fiction. The starting point for planning is the region’s visitor website You can supplement that with the ranking of tourist favorites on Trip Advisor In April 2017, my wife, Sandra Wells, and I stayed at two of the best downtown hotels, the first two nights at the historic Jefferson Hotel and the last two at the boutique Berkeley Hotel (both are surprisingly affordable, beautiful places with excellent service and popular restaurants).

Art, Architecture, History

Recovering from a difficult trip (we’ll never try to make a flight connection through Atlanta airport again), we decided on a light schedule the first day. We started with RVA Historic Tours’ two-hour “trolley” ride (and be sure you go with them, since online reviews say other similar tours don’t offer the same quality experience). Our guide was E.L. Butterworth, who brought history alive with anecdotes about the city’s most colorful residents. We cruised by St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Patrick Henry gave his famous call to arms (reprised by actors seasonally) and we saw many of the allegorical murals that have been painted all over town by international artists. He gave us background on the various architectural styles of restored homes, the history of important buildings, like the first Masonic Lodge in the U.S., where the 2012 movie “Lincoln” was filmed, and identified the statues of Confederate heroes on Monument Blvd. It was an entertaining, educational, and essential introduction everyone should have.

We took the next step in understanding not only the city, but the state’s place in American history, at the Virginia Historical Society, which has often overlooked interactive exhibits and artifacts on the region, starting in prehistory. The first English colony, Jamestown, was established in 1607 and the romance between John Smith and Pocahontas is recounted. Virginia’s most prominent citizens, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, played leading roles in the Revolution. The exhibits make clear that Richmond played the starring role in the Civil War (those who grew up outside the South might have the impression from the movie “Gone with the Wind” that it was Atlanta).  

We then spent a couple of delightful hours at the nearby Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It is ranked on Tripadvisor as No. 1 on the list of “Things to Do” and is renowned for its impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, but also has excellent examples of all types of art, ancient to contemporary, from around the world. We were especially impressed with the Faberge collection, which had long been on loan to other museums, with its priceless examples of intricate metalwork for the Russian court and other nobility at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

On the walk back to the hotel, we ducked into The Valentine, a museum which a notable collection of decorative arts, as well as displays on the people of Richmond.

You won’t read anything here about our dining or shopping: we’re baffled by the typical travel article that lovingly describes such activities in detail, while begrudging an hour at a museum or historic site in a city to which the writer will never return, missing what most makes it a unique destination.

The Uncivil War

The next morning we took a walk along the James River to the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. This is by far the most important place in America to learn about the war and one needs about two hours to absorb what it presents, told from the perspectives of those who supported the CSA, the Union, and African Americans.

Most in the South who fought didn’t own slaves, but felt their states had the right to secede because their legislatures had voted to join the United States and there was nothing in the Constitution to prevent this. Many believed slavery should be phased out, but on their own timetable, since their economy was largely based on cotton and required a long transition, in their view. But Northerners were racist as well, and they wanted cotton for their mills and weren’t willing to die to abolish slavery, which is why President Lincoln didn’t make that a war goal in war goal in the first two years. Northerners were motivated to force the southern states to stay in the Union because of fear that the long border with the South would enable Britain, France, Mexico, Russia and other powers to potentially become the CSA’s preferred trading partners and military allies. Unionists also believe that the exit of Dixie would provide the excuse for other regions to break away, leaving a rump USA that would be vulnerable.

The brilliant displays of text, artifacts, and audiovisuals take the visitor gradually along the timeline as the first two years of the war seemed to leave the CSA an independent nation, despite the much larger Union Army and its vastly greater capacity to turn out weapons, ammunition, and gun powder, as well having a fleet to blockade the long Southern coast. Then a grinding and costly war slowly strangled the Confederacy for the next two years, yet Richmond could not be captured until the very end, despite its location just 109 miles south of Washington, D.C., and dozens of attempts.

These are detailed at the National Park Service museum next door in the former Tredegar Iron Works, which was the primary manufacturer of the CSA’s weapons and munitions. A short film provides an important overview of the events in the nearby battlefields managed by the NPS (which, if we’d had time, we would have toured). The war was finally won by the Union not only because of its much greater resources, but because Lincoln came to view ending slavery as his divine mission and he used antipathy towards this institution by the people of France and Britain to keep their governments from formal recognition of the Confederacy. If you go through these two museums, you will know more about the Civil War than most Americans.

For those interested in a more thorough exploration of the state’s battlefields and museums, check out “The Guide to Virginia’s Civil War”

The same day we also went through the Museum of the Confederacy, which provides a good sense of what the war-time South was like for civilians (such as how they cleverly devised substitutes to make up for shortages of everything). We also took a guided tour of President Jefferson Davis’ White House of the Confederacy next door, which was a surprisingly fascinating glimpse into the lifestyle of the South’s elite.

African American History

On our last morning, a Saturday, we took a short walk to the Virginia Capitol (the General Assembly is the oldest continuously operating legislature in the hemisphere). As it turned out, there were no guided tours that early, so we wandered around to look at the statues of the state’s great leaders, then went to the street to catch a taxi. Heretofore, we’d either walked places, had hotel transport, or had a cab called. After many blocks, we stopped a couple to ask where we could hail a taxi and they told us they didn’t cruise the streets. We didn’t have a number to call for one, so they offered to take us to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia ’s new location, but didn’t know exactly where it was. We had heard it moved near to the Maggie L. Walker Historic Site, the home of a one-time African American community leader, so we were dropped off there and went inside to ask directions.

Sandra and I often experience what psychologist Carl Jung called synchronicities when we travel, magical moments that don’t seem to be coincidental, but are related to our sense of mission to inspire our fellow citizens to learn more about history. As we talked with the NPS ranger inside, he agreed to show us the new Black History location, but wanted us to first see the new film about Walker and to guide us through her home. We had zero interest, but he was doing us a favor, so we sat down to watch and figured we’d just tell him we were too rushed for the tour afterwards. The video turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

Walker was a larger-than-life African American woman who was born in 1864 and died in 1934. Her mother was a former slave who worked as a servant to Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union spy living in Richmond who became the postmaster after the war. Maggie’s father was a journalist and Confederate soldier and in 1868, her mother married William Mitchell and they moved into their own home in a black neighborhood, where the daughter helped her mother with her laundry business. At 14, Maggie became active in local humanitarian work and promoted a self-help philosophy. Her first profession was teaching, she married a brick contractor, and in 1902, established a newspaper and the following year became the first black woman to charter a U.S. bank.  She eventually achieved wealth and was a national civil rights leader, but faced health problems and family tragedies with inspirational strength. The tour of her home reminded us of all the conveniences we take for granted.

The Black History Museum had an eye-opening timeline of African American African from pre-history to the election of Barack Obama as president. We highly recommend this for everyone.

There were many other things we didn’t have time for, notably the Maymont mansion and gardens, ranked as the No. 2 favorite on Tripadvisor, and the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, third on that list.

We flew out in the wee hours of April 9, exactly 152 years after the surrender of Lee, a synchronicity I was not even conscious of until I began to write this.

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