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.

Comments