After waking up on the floor of Justin’s apartment to the bright sunlight, we made our way to Richmond proper for the Museum of the Confederacy, and the Confederate’s briefly inhabited White House. I admit that yours truly contracted a severe case of PCG (Pre-Caffeine Grumpiness), making finding a place to eat breakfast a bit difficult. Something Jay and I are discovering is how difficult it can be to make snap decisions together in a way that doesn’t involve raised voices or frustration. In general, I’m shockingly bad at making real-world decisions “in the moment”.
Like, as we’re driving, we pass a Starbucks. “Do you want to stop here?” Jay might say. In my head: “But what does he want for breakfast? But don’t we want to find a local place for a more authentic travel experience? But maybe I do just want coffee I know will be reliably okay, even if not great. But what if there’s a better place just around the corner? But what about food? Starbucks hardly has ‘real food.’ But they do have oatmeal! You like oatmeal for breakfast!” And then we’ve passed it. Ridiculous! Fucking exhausting.
I want to get better at this sort of thing, but I’m not sure how. I guess my training in college literature and psychology classes–even theater-related studies–has guided me to never stop asking questions, to never even desire black and white answers, because the Truth is never black and white. But hello! There are clearly some, nay, many occasions which do require you to simply make a decision and forget the ambiguity, at least temporarily. Just do it! I guess this is where you get the stereotype that academics can’t function in the real world. And yet, here we are–Jay a completed PhD and myself a mere hopeful, with the former much better at snap decisions than the latter. Something for me to think about and work on.
So, the Confederacy Museum! What we saw of Richmond was beautiful; the Capitol building was atop a green hill with beautiful little fountains and rose bushes, statues of and buildings devoted to past American presidents. A huge hospital and medical center–Virginia Commonwealth University’s–weaves in and out of the Civil War history buildings in the Capitol district, which is where we stayed. The tour of the Confederate White House was beautiful and fascinating; our tour guide Charles was very engaging. (And very friendly to us! Got a shorthand rundown of our New York-California trek and said, “Wow! How lucky of you guys, to have choices like that.” Of course, I thought, he didn’t have the whole story. But he’s right. We are lucky.) The house was beautifully upholstered and wallpapered, many different floral prints and crushed velvet patterns.
I also knew next to nothing about the rebellion’s one presidential family. Jefferson Davis, and his wife Verina, seemed to be very sharp, even wise. Seemed like Jefferson took his job very seriously, even though it was appointed to him–sounds like he maybe didn’t even want such a tall order on his shoulders. And Verina seemed a tour de force all her own. Fluent in four languages, a witty conversationalist who could hold her own with anybody, man or woman, and allegedly so much of a personality that Jefferson had to take a break from her for weeks at a time! When the war was over and after Jefferson died (rather destitute and ill, sadly enough), she was still spry and very much alive. In her mid-sixties and in need of money, she got herself a job as a columnist for a journal in New York City, lived in an apartment by herself, and became best friends with the wife of Ulysses S. Grant! I thought that was pretty amazing.
The Museum itself was less inspiring, but there was a section that focused less on the battles and generals, and more on individual stories of soldiers. Many were illiterate before the war, apparently, and indeed learned to write because of it. I guess the extraordinary amount of down time, combined with the breadth of economic classes represented in the army led to such exchanges of knowledge. Some of my favorite letter excerpts the museum displayed:
“When watermelon get ripe, send me one in a letter.” -B. F. Jackson
“I believe the biggest half of our study here is about something to eat and the other part is about wives and sweethearts.” -William J. Whetley
It talked about how food ration minimums were hardly ever met, and how so many were missing their ladies back home. A facet of many wars, to be sure, but the frequent misspellings in the love letters especially made them so endearing and real to me.
Verina was also apparently a talented letter writer herself, and it got me thinking about writing letters as an art form. When women were not permitted to publish novels but were learning to read and write more and more, I suppose they could journal, and/or write letters. Journaling certainly can be satisfying, but it lacks an audience. But a letter! That must have been a great means of expression for women in this time, especially when one received such a reciprocal response in the form of another letter. It makes me want to research correspondences from women to women throughout history.
After lunch in the hospital cafeteria in Richmond (Einstein Brothers’ Bagels! Reminds me of my time in Evanston), we found the highway once again and traversed Virginia and North Carolina, into Winston-Salem. Jay’s brother and sister in-law live there, and they took us to a Mexican restaurant (Los Estrellas) and a bar (Tate’s) downtown. A short visit, this one, but neat. The drive down was filled with biblical billboards, cigarette factories (Marlboro, Camel, &c), and kudzu weeds slowly choking the trees lining the road. Jay, i.e. the keeper of all trivia, says that apparently these guys grow so fast you measure their growth in feet per day. Whoa.
Some things just happen too fast.