Out of the West: Rebels with a Lost Cause cherish their haunting past

RICHMOND, Virginia - When you cross the Potomac and at last escape the 24-hour traffic jam fleeing Washington on south-bound Interstate 95, the world imperceptibly changes.

The richly wooded landscapes seem the same, but somehow they are not. Beneath the veneer of homogenous instant America, the pace slows and the countryside acquires a lusher, misty texture. Unmistakably, you have entered the South. And at every turn there is a historical marker, reminding you of the four terrible years between 1861 and 1865, when Virginia was a permanent battlefield, and when this city was capital not just of the state, but of another country.

For that short period, the Confederacy was run from here, just 100 taunting miles south of Washington itself. When those years were over, Richmond was a ruin. But defeat creates its own omnipotent mythology. For decades afterwards, stronger even perhaps than during the conflict, the soul of the vanquished South lived. They called it the Lost Cause, a blend of nostalgia for what was and might have been, a sense of otherness, of bitterness at the devastation wrought by the Yankee invaders from the North. Nowhere was the feeling greater than here. Slaves might have been freed; but not Virginia from its past.

Outwardly, everything today is different. The old Virginia of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, on whose ideas the infant United States was built, brought with it the prestige essential if the Confederacy was to be credible at all. Now the Old Dominion is just another state, richer than most of its one-time allies, but long since overtaken by New York, New England and California. Its demographic centre has shifted from Richmond to the periphery of Norfolk and its great naval base, the nearby resort city of Virginia Beach, and above all to the Washington suburbs in the north, with its ever expanding middle class of employees of federal government.

Politically, too, the old Virginia has been turned on its head. In two months' time, barring an astounding upset, George Bush and the Republicans will again carry it, along with virtually all the rest of the South, in a presidential election. But at state level, the Democrats dominate. No longer is Jefferson's splendid neo-classical statehouse on Capitol Square the preserve of a clutch of old landowning families and their descendants. A fifth of the population is black; and in 1989 Virginia of all places, where segregation died especially hard, chose a grandson of slaves called Douglas Wilder to be the first black state governor in America. The 'cloak of racism' had been lifted and, it seemed, history's ghosts exorcised at last. But strolling through modern Richmond, you start to wonder.

The stumpy high-rises of the downtown business district already look seedy and shopworn, alien 20th-century moorings of a city still adrift in time. And if Richmond's streets are haunted, it is not by Douglas Wilder, but by Jefferson Davis, the West Point graduate of short temper, ill-health but dogged integrity who was the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. The shortlived 'Southern White House' at 12th and Clay Streets, where he lived those four years, has been restored as a museum. 'Victory in Defeat' is the title of the permanent exhibition in its basement.

Then there is Richmond's greatest jewel: Monument Avenue, the handsome boulevard which runs straight as an arrow out of the city to the north-west, past mansions surrounded by plane trees and magnolias. At regular intervals stand statues to the historical giants of the Confederacy: Davis himself, the dashing cavalry general J E B Stuart, and of course Robert E Lee and 'Stonewall' Jackson, who reluctantly put state ahead of their country and became the most brilliant commanders of the Civil War.

A year or two ago there was a campaign to add prominent black leaders, including Wilder himself, to their number. Predictably, nothing came of it. Like the old Soviet Union, an unapologetic Richmond takes its symbols with deadly seriousness.

But the greatest of the city's time-warps is to be found just 10 blocks from the centre. There, on the hills overlooking the James river, in Hollywood Cemetery, the Lost Cause is most poignant and tangible. On its shaded rolling lawns, 18,000 Confederate soldiers are buried. So too, almost as a footnote, are the fifth and tenth US Presidents, James Monroe and John Tyler. But the real attraction is another grave.

A steady trickle of visitors from Virginia and beyond makes its unerring way to the spot, on a wooded bluff above the river itself. A bronze statue of Jefferson Davis stands on a circle of grass, surrounded by the tiny white marble graves, half overgrown with ivy, of children and grandchildren who never lived to adulthood. 'A martyr to principle,' reads the inscription on the statue's plinth, paying tribute to 'the most consistent of American soldiers and statesmen'. These days few would agree. But if Old Virginia is dead, it will not betray its heroes.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peopleNational cycling charity CTC said he 'should have known better'
News
i100
Life and Style
The fashion retailers have said they will now not place any further orders for the slim mannequin
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Ugne, 32, is a Lithuanian bodybuilder
tvThey include a Lithuanian bodybuilder who believes 'cake is a sin' and the Dalai Lama's personal photographer
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Project Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an est...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Representative - OTE £55,000

£30000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Why not be in charge of your ow...

Recruitment Genius: Business Operations Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organisation based in Peac...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £43,000

£20000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful and rapidly gro...

Day In a Page

Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food