The memory of history

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October 14th 2008
Published: December 21st 2011
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Patrick Henry MemorialPatrick Henry MemorialPatrick Henry Memorial

Memorial to Patrick Henry's famous speech, across from St. John's church
The next part of my trip dived deep into history, how its presented, and what is says about us.

The destination was Richmond, a city heavy with historic symbolism.

For someone who grew up in New England, with its own ever-present links to the past, visiting Richmond is a peculiar experience.

Most of it feels like any modern city.

The remainder feels like the capitol of a country that no longer exists.

This is, in fact, the case;

Richmond was the capitol of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death

My first destination was St. John's Church.

This church has become famous for one single speech by one man, Patrick Henry.

Patrick Henry was a successful lawyer, legislator, and fiery speaker.

By modern standards, he would probably be considered a demagogue (the British considered him things far worse).

After the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed a law closing the port of Boston, and basically turned the city into an armed camp.

This alarmed leaders of other colonies, especially Virginia, the wealthiest.

The Royal Governor dismissed the colonial legislature, the House of Burgesses.

The members responded by continuing to meet, ostensibly as private citizens.

They called these meetings the Virginia Conventions.

There were five in all.

The first one was held in a Williamsburg tavern

The members decided to hold the second one in Richmond, so they would have warning if the Royal Governor sent troops to arrest them.

St. John's Church was chosen for the meeting because it was the only building large enough to hold everyone (Richmond only had 300 residents at the time).

During the meeting, Patrick Henry introduced a series of resolutions condemning the British Government.

The most controversial one authorized the creation and training of a colonial militia.

It was controversial because everyone there knew the Royal Governor would treat it as just short of a formal act of rebellion.

Patrick Henry promoted his resolution with the speech that made him immortal.

In it, he declared that the events in Boston showed that war with Britain was inevitable, and the colonists only real decision was how prepared they would be when it finally came.

He ended it stating that he would rather
St. John's ChurchSt. John's ChurchSt. John's Church

Interior of the church, looking toward the altar
die a free man on the battlefield than live out his life as a virtual slave of Britain: "Give me Liberty or Give me Death!"

The speech worked, and the resolution passed by just five votes,

Patrick Henry proved prescient, as the Battles of Lexington and Concord happened less than a year later.

One little known fact that is mentioned on the tour is that nobody kept minutes of the meeting, so Patrick Henry's actual words were not recorded.

The speech was reconstructed by Patrick Henry's biographer from the recollections of most of the delegates who were still alive at the time.

For Virginia residents, this speech is as sacred as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, so the church is a civic shrine.

The church itself is little changed since those momentous days, except for the expansion of the nave in the 1820's.

It’s still an active Episcopal Church.

The building is a plain wood-frame church, in keeping with the style of the times.

There is a plaque marking the spot where Patrick Henry supposedly stood when he spoke

Tours are given by guides in the colonial garb that
Patrick Henery's spotPatrick Henery's spotPatrick Henery's spot

The chair marks the supposed spot where Patrick Henry gave his "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech
is almost mandatory for such sites.

Church members are discouraged from becoming tour guides so the historical side of the site remains eligible for federal funding.

The church is surrounded by a graveyard.

Half of it officially belongs to the City of Richmond.

It contains the oldest graves in the area.

Many of the graves are no longer readable due to erosion.

The most famous belongs to George Wythe, the first Professor of Law in America, whose students included Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Marshal.

He also signed the Declaration of Independence.

Museum of the Confederacy

My next major stop was one of Richmond's most unique Civil War museums;

Experiencing Civil War history in Richmond (and the entire South) can’t be separated from the legacy of the Lost Cause Movement.

It started during Reconstruction, as a way of coping with the war's destruction and aftermath.

According to the Lost Cause, the war was not a referendum on Southern values or society.

The South lost because it had been overwhelmed by a numerically superior foe, nothing more.

According to this view, Confederate soldiers and
St. John's CemeterySt. John's CemeterySt. John's Cemetery

The oldest cemetery in Richmond
their leaders were heroes, valiantly fighting for self-determination, family, and their states, against overwhelming odds.

Equally important, the reasons behind secession were a just response to an intolerable situation.

The loss of the Civil War simply meant that Southerners would need to find other ways to reach their goals.

The Lost Cause movement had several practical outcomes.

The first was the Southern states, and Richmond in particular, became covered in statues and memorials to the Confederate cause and the men that promoted it, most done in the triumphant style usually used by the winners of a war.

The second was passing of laws throughout southern states that attempted to recreate the stratified society that had existed before the Civil War.

The most notorious of these were the Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised all Blacks and many poor whites, and the laws imposing discrimination throughout public life.

The third was establishment of museums that attempted to reframe Civil War history from a Southern point of view, if not rewrite it entirely.

It should go without saying that the negative parts of the war, and antebellum Southern society, were downplayed if
George Wythe gravesiteGeorge Wythe gravesiteGeorge Wythe gravesite

The gravesite of George Wythe, signer of the Declaration of Independence
not completely skipped over in these presentations.

These museums are unique among war museums because they interpret the history of the conflict from the losing side's point of view, instead of the winning one.

In the beginning, they were blatantly partisan.

In the century since then, most have strived to present a more objective overview of the war.

That being said, they still have a particular point of view (that the Southern states actions were justified) and not everyone will appreciate this.

Most museums are sensitive on this point, and they prohibit photographs of Confederate artifacts as a result.

The best and most comprehensive of Confederate war museums is the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.

It is based at the house that Jefferson Davis used as the executive mansion during the Confederacy's brief existence.

The mansion itself has been restored to the condition it was in when Davis lived and worked there, and it is open for tours.

The mansion is a colonial masterpiece, with fake marble wallpaper in the entrance foyer,

The original wife's bedroom became Davis's office.

The linen closet became Davis's secretary's office.

Most battle plans were debated in the formal dining room.

It was reconstructed based on the diary of one of the officers that attended these meetings.

Jefferson Davis had five children, none of whom lived to adulthood.

One fell to his death from the balcony of the house.

Even though the Civil War was raging, Lincoln sent a letter of sympathy to Davis when he heard the news.

The kids had a working toy cannon.

They loved to shoot it off, throughout the day and night.

Complaints from neighbors about the noise had little effect.

It seems that the CSA President's powers had their limits!

The toy cannon is in the mansion, and is the only artifact known to have belonged to the Davis children.

The actual Museum is next door to the mansion.

It contains the largest collection of Confederate Army and Navy artifacts in the world.

In it are many items belonging to major Confederate leaders, including Stonewall Jackson's sword and pistol, J.E.B. Stewart's saddle, and Robert E. Lee's entire field tent

The displays on the war are through, and entirely from the
Linden Row InnLinden Row InnLinden Row Inn

Interior of the historic Linden Row Inn
Confederate point of view.

One artifact that few have seen is the proclamation the South Carolina legislature passed to justify its act of secession.

The proclamation states, among other things, that South Carolina was forced to secede because the winning party in the last Federal election has openly stated it would not enforce Constitutional protections of property, meaning slaveholders rights to slaves.

One other little known fact is that Lee's surrender at Appotomax did not officially end the war.

There were still several other Confederate Armies fighting, and it took over a year for them all to surrender.

The last was the Trans-Mississippi army, which had operated mostly in what is now Texas and Oklahoma.

Jefferson Davis and some aids also tried to flee to the Caribbean, to establish a government in exile.

They were finally captured less than ten miles from the Florida coast, and the Confederacy officially ceased to exist.

I don't fully agree with the museum's sentiments, but I do believe it’s an essential stop to understanding the Civil War and its aftermath.

History is usually only written by the winners of conflicts.

This is one instance where the other side has its say too.

One of the many ironies of the New South is that what was a small hospital near the house in Jefferson Davis's time has grown into a rather large medical center.

As a result, the house and museum sit rather incongruously surrounded by medical buildings.

I stayed the night at the Linden Row Inn.

Linden Row is a set of Greek revival townhouses built in the early 1800s.

They were destined by be torn down for urban renewal in the mid-1960s, until they were restored and converted into the inn.

It is now on the Register of Historic Places, one of two hotels in Richmond to hold the designation.

In back of the inn is a garden that is only open to hotel guests.

The hotel Wi-Fi works out here, so I spent a few hours in the garden working on this blog.

The inn has an incredibly friendly staff, most of whom have Southern accents so thick you can spread it on waffles.

The inn has no off-street parking other than valet, but the staff is very good at finding street parking for the night.

For me, this was a lifesaver.


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