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.

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Pepper, the 3ft 11in shiny box of circuits who can tell jokes and respond to human emotions
techDavid McNeill tests the mettle of one of the new generation of androids being developed in Tokyo
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice