Along the 2,100 miles I drove from Austin to upstate New York, passing through six red states and four blue states, I saw no Trump signs, decals, stickers or banners. In East Texas, looming over an outdoor yard sale on a fringe of green, a Confederate flag flashed by, but that was it. But then, on the last leg of the trip, I came to Lexington, Virginia.
This was two weeks after Charlottesville (the city now a metonym for its riots) and days after Harvey made its vicious landfall over Houston; but I wasn’t escaping the hurricane. It had simply blessed Austin with balmy weather and delicate rain, reinforcing that city’s inverse relationship with the rest of Texas. Rather, I was moving across the country, with my friend Chris as my co-passenger and co-driver. When we arrived in Lexington on Monday, Labor Day, the sky was covered with flat, white, molten clouds that seemed made of light themselves. We were stopping for lunch; a helpful visitor-center employee back in Roanoke, Virginia, had suggested it as a breaking spot en route to the mountainous Shenandoah National Park, familiar to me from the John Denver standard ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. She somehow failed to mention that the little town was a center of the Confederacy.
Since my trip, I’ve buttonholed a number of Americans, and I’ve been surprised by how few know about the non-Kentucky Lexington – surprised because this is the home of the (Robert E.) Lee Chapel, the Lee family mausoleum, the Stonewall Jackson House, the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, the Virginia Military Institute, and Washington and Lee University, which is where Lee came in defeat after the Civil War to become college president. The ‘and Lee’ was pressed into the original title of the university, Washington College, after Lee’s death in 1870.
In Lexington, we were entranced by the low brick colonial buildings of the town, and parked by the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Thirty-odd cadets were drilling in a field that abutted an olive-colored fortress-like structure. A statue of a bearded Stonewall Jackson rose over them with a sword held smartly to his side. Four ancient cannons with large red wheels guarded the martyred Confederate general, who, before the war, had been a professor at the VMI, sometimes called the ‘West Point of the South’. Naval officers in all-white uniforms, with white caps, wandered the pleasant path that ran along the open field. ‘Good morning Sergeant Major sir,’ they said, smiling, their small white teeth showing, their pale skin glowing, to a heavyset sixty-something man – a tiger of a man, in blue pants with a yellow stripe slashing down the side – who sauntered ahead of us. One of the officers accidentally called him ‘sir’ and then corrected himself. ‘Sergeant Major Sir!’ he said, smartening up. He had the abashed smile of a boy.
It surprised me that there was no security; that anyone could walk up to the shouting cadets with their tiny trooper backpacks and dust-colored boots and sex-canceling fatigue caps. Then again, each of them had rifles. Old white tourists with white hair, in shorts, took pictures from the periphery. My friend Chris – who is Chinese-American – and I – an Indian – were the only Asians.
The soldiers, who didn’t seem to notice their audience, marched the field and then lined up near the mouth of the fortress – their barracks. Their trainer, who was in a T-shirt, stood very close to the face of a small blonde female cadet and scolded her. Then the troops vanished into the maw of the building. The sky was still light-filled – though there was a blue density of clouds massing over the many-ridged black mountains to the north of the field.
The VMI was established to produce ‘fair specimens of citizen-soldiers’, according to a plaque. It borders Washington and Lee University, though it bears no official connection to it – just geographical solidarity. We dutifully walked over to the Lee Chapel at the university.
The chapel was a Victorian brick building. Inside, it was hushed and almost blindingly, serenely white – like a photoshoot from the hipster-minimalist Kinfolk magazine. The pews were white with wooden borders; the walls were white; even the carpet on the floor was off-white. I felt a sudden empathy and sadness for the defeated side in the Civil War as we took our seats in a pew in the front. Why not let them have their brittle pride? But that flair of feeling was quickly extinguished.
A guide stood on the stage – a white woman in her fifties with straw-colored hair in a stylish boy-cut. She wore black pants, with a dark grey shawl wrapped elegantly over her front and shoulders, as if she were at a soirée in a James Salter novel. With graceful American politeness, she told us the history of the chapel – how Lee ordered its construction in 1867, locating his office underneath; how he’d busied himself with administrative activities at the university; and how he had a seat marked out for him at the front in a pew on the far left. Behind her glistened the black bars of a gate enclosing a colossal statue of Lee laid on a block of marble, half-covered with a blanket: the uniformed general resting during the Civil War.
As she finished her story – which didn’t delve into slavery – three men entered the chapel and came up the aisle. One wore a black T-shirt and loose jeans. He had a simple green tattoo inked on his veined inner-right arm; I couldn’t make it out. His hair was reddish and receding. He was probably in his early thirties. ‘Oh man, it’s closed off?’ he said, pointing at the bars in front of the statue. ‘It’s never closed off. Is it because of what’s happening now?’
‘Whatever’s happening right now,’ the guide said with a sigh.
‘That’s too bad because this is history.’ This was a middle-aged man in shorts who had been sitting next to us with his wife. He had kept his dark wraparound glasses on as if to protect himself from the dazzling whiteness. He had a sunburnt face and a hooked nose.
‘You might not agree with it but there’s a lot to be learned,’ the guide said.
We climbed onto the stage; it was the way down to Lee’s grave and office. But the men’s comments had opened the floodgates of grievance. The tattooed man put his hands through the bars to take photos of the statue. ‘It’s a shame, there’s so much detail on this that you can see up close,’ he said. Chris went down to the basement. I lingered nearby, jotting notes on my iPhone.
The middle-aged man continued to talk. ‘Why are they giving in?’ he asked the guide. ‘You got to respect everyone’s religion in this country – why can’t they respect this?’ This was a comment directed subtly at me. By this time on the trip, I had sprouted a healthy amount of Muslim-making stubble. The man went on, ‘I tell you if they take the statue down, I’ll get arrested. I’ll slap someone. And I’m Hispanic, I’m Cuban American. But this is history. What am I gonna tell me kids – it didn’t happen? – when they want to know about the North versus the South?’
‘A lot of terrible things happened, but they happened,’ the guide said. She kept shooting glances at me. She either thought I was disrespectfully texting or, even more frighteningly, taking notes.
I headed to the lower level. Everyone was friendly in the gift shop and bookshop. But it pained me to look at the titles on display. There were about eighty books on Lee and the Civil War but none that I saw bore the word ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’ in the title. The closest one came was the ironic title – easily misread by a bigot – ‘Jim Crow Wisdom.’
The bookshop in the Stonewall Jackson House, where we went next, was a little better – ‘American Slaves Tell Their Stories’ and ‘Women’s Slave Narratives’ were shelved prominently along with the geeky Civil War volumes.
A short and bald, courtly man with blue eyes, wearing a powder blue suit and a Confederate pin on his lapel, gave us a tour of the two-storied brick house, which, in the first half of the twentieth century, was turned into a hospital by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Now it had been restored using details from the late Mrs Jackson’s autobiography. The guide brought up the subject of slavery – but this was done with the usual Southern footnoting. ‘There was only one law that Stonewall Jackson broke his entire life,’ he told us, ‘and that was teaching slaves to read so they could read the Bible themselves.’ Jackson bought a slave from another man on the request of the slave and let him purchase his freedom in installments. The predominantly African-American Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Roanoke apparently had a stained-glass window paying tribute to Jackson the teacher of slaves. Jackson gifted his wife a four-year-old slave girl upon their wedding but he taught the girl to read the Bible. The whole narrative was one of a hard-working, righteous professor whose life was sidetracked when he was called to duty as a general in the Civil War.
On tour with us were a young colonel in plain clothes, his wife, and their three little curious, boisterous, fidgety boys. They looked so American they were almost alien, the way the perfection of an object can separate it from the very thing it seeks to represent. At the end the guide apologized to the colonel. He needn’t have paid for the tour; local officers could get in for free.
Chris and I spoke to the guide after. I had enjoyed his enthusiastic retelling of this history and told him so. He said he was originally from Los Angeles and had driven through Virginia when he was fourteen and had fallen in love with the state. Later, as an adult, he moved to Ohio for work, but Ohio had ‘contracted 12 percent of its workforce’ and he came here. He now gave tours as a volunteer. He was touched, he said, by the honor and the dignity by which Lee and Jackson lived their lives.
Had anything changed after Charlottesville? I asked him.
‘It’s a shame, because outsiders came to Charlottesville and the whole town gets branded.’ He and others at local tourist spots in Lexington had been asked to refer all Charlottesville-related questions to a communications office at the VMI. But, apart from tourism slowing down for a couple of days – ‘because people didn’t know what they were getting into’ – nothing had happened. He was sad about Charlottesville, but tried again to stress the complexity of slavery. ‘It’s what was happening. And you’re going to eat at Macado’s’ – a restaurant he had recommended – ‘it was run by an African American gentleman who owned slaves.’
We left the town after a large, late lunch and continued our journey north and east. The next – and last – time politics burst into my trip was when I passed the hallucination of the donald j. trump state park in upstate New York – a state that didn’t vote for him but produced him. Then, a week after our visit, under pressure, the VMI Board of Visitors issued a statement saying it would not take down their statue of Stonewall Jackson, but would continue ‘to acknowledge all those who are part of the history of the Institute.’ It went on: ‘We choose not to honor their weaknesses, but to recognize their strengths. We will continue to learn and not repeat divisions.” It did not mention that the statue had been only put up in 1912, years after the Civil War ended.
Image © Mark Goebel