Five minutes’ walk west is the pharaonic cenotaph to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. (Davis, who was from Mississippi, is actually buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, only a few feet from two presidents of an actual country, James Monroe and John Tyler.) Davis’s street monument, 67 feet tall, was unveiled in 1907. As a child I saw a picture of my grandmother, Lily Epps, and her sister, my Aunt Clara, at the ceremony—two tiny Southern white ladies in dainty gloves and great big hats.
A few blocks further west is the monument to Matthew Fontaine Maury, a renegade U.S. Navy officer whose “electric torpedo” killed hundreds of his former comrades during the war. (After the war, Maury fled to Mexico, where he convinced “Emperor” Maximilian, the short-lived leader of a never-recognized by the United States faction in the second Franco-Mexican War, to reinstate slavery and appoint him “Imperial Commissioner of Immigration,” creating a Mexican colony of former Confederates—who brought along their “slaves.”)
We’re doubling back down Monument Avenue now, past Davis, Jackson, and Lee, to Stuart Circle, where traffic flows around a dashing statue of General James Ewell Brown (“Jeb”) Stuart, Lee’s cavalry commander. Stuart’s horse faces north as well; he was mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern.
Reader, do you weary of this motionless parade of ghosts? Imagine growing up around its literal shadow. I once visited Gur Amir, the mausoleum and necropolis built to house the bones of Amir Timur, or Tamerlane, near Samarkand, Uzbekistan. It was the most exotic trip I have ever taken; but when I walked into that stark city of tombs, I felt right at home.
It was not just statuary that kept the Civil War before our eyes every day in those days of segregation. At the all-white school I attended, our school colors were drawn from Confederate uniforms—“Artillery Red” and “Infantry Grey.” Each student was assigned to one of two teams—the “Lees” or the “Jacksons.” (Not until the Obama years did the school, amid great uproar, drop these team names.) At school assemblies, students competed by reading or reciting literary works. A classmate read aloud James Thurber’s famous parody, If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox, which depicts Grant drunkenly surrendering to Lee. The middle-school principal stopped his reading, rebuked him for disrespect to Lee, and dismissed school for the day.
The reverence persists. When Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was made a federal holiday in 1983, the state of Virginia combined it with an established holiday on Lee’s birthday as (I am not making this up) “Lee-Jackson-King Day.” (That appalling hybrid was abandoned in 2000, but Lee’s birthday is still celebrated on the Friday before King day.)
This was—and to a remarkable extent still is—a society imbued with myth and propaganda. We were taught to believe that these marble men—who staked their lives and fortunes to fight for chattel slavery—were the equals of the nation’s founders, and far superior to any Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses Grant.