“Reunification by Bayonet”?
The Rise of (a Museum of) the Confederacy at Appomattox
“A reliable scout has informed me Generals Lee and Grant would like to join us.” These words, spoken aloud in a clear welcoming voice on an overcast morning, came from neither a soldier nor a politician of the Civil War era, but served as the first lines uttered by Site President S. Waite Rawls III at the grand opening of the Museum of the Confederacy’s new state-of-the-art satellite facility in Appomattox County, Virginia, on March 31, 2012.
Members of the audience cast their heads in every direction, albeit in vain. The legendary leaders Rawls announced did not appear directly nor, as a famous Civil War battle account once related, rise “like demons out of the earth.” No such luck. However, there did occur a ruckus of some sort off in the distance behind the couple hundred or so of us gathered on the comfortable grassy area outside the museum to witness its dedication. The noise grew louder—a shuffling of feet and a line of men, marching shoulder to shoulder, swung into view on the asphalt road leading up to the building. These were reenactors, the event brochure informed us, portraying the 23rd Regiment U.S. Colored Troops color guard. And indeed, the small, two-line-deep contingent was made up entirely of African American men. By instinct I appraised the group as soldiers and noted how most of them were on the far side of middle age and that many a coat’s brass button seemed ready to pop off on account of the undulating midsection bulk it precariously held in check. But, hey, they were all black men and that seemed to be the important thing. Our throng politely applauded them.
Next came General Ulysses S. Grant, or rather the guy portraying him, the first white man to appear in the parade: bearded, handsome, flat-bellied, sitting astride an immaculately manicured, beautiful roan stallion. In other words, the man bore absolutely no resemblance to the historical General Grant. We clapped anyway.
Puttering along behind Grant and his horse was a golf cart of indeterminate purpose, which hastily pulled off onto the road’s shoulder once the driver apparently realized a few dozen people with cameras had turned their attention upon him.
Grant and the U.S. Colored Troops color guard came to a halt to the left of the podium at which Rawls still stood, beaming, and again we applauded.
A brief silence ensued before there commenced a heavier sound of marching from the same direction as before, and on came the Confederate reenactors, proceeding single-file rather than shoulder to shoulder like their Federal counterparts. They dwarfed their opposing play-soldiers in number, perhaps by as much as ten to one, as well as in audience reception, which thundered its appreciation.
Among them rode the man meant to be General Robert E. Lee: thinner than the historical Lee, tired-looking, and slouching a bit in the saddle. Perhaps he was seeking to emulate the general’s fatigue and dejection in the wake of his 1865 surrender. In any event, the actor looked rougher and truer to his part than the slick, Hollywood-like Grant.
The Confederate reenactors largely resembled their Union counterparts in physical appearance—mostly late middle-aged and portly—though a few were very young, perhaps even high schoolers. The uninhabited age gap between these extraordinarily young men and the elder majority struck me as odd.
Trailing just behind the last of the soldiers followed six women dressed in period attire. No one seemed to know whom they were supposed to represent: Prostitutes following the army? Mourners in search of dead family members? It didn’t seem to matter. When all had assumed their places off to the right of Rawls, a generous round of applause ensued, exclamated by an anonymous “Yee-haw!” from somewhere in our midst.
This introductory procession having concluded, Rawls proceeded to introduce the notable politicians, educators, and benefactors in attendance, which included Virginia Lieutenant Governor William Bolling and renowned Civil War historian Dr. James “Bud” Robertson, both of whom were on the program to speak. Yet before he abdicated the podium, Rawls delivered his own thoughts on the war and the museum, ambiguously noting that “Virginia stands alone in its history.” He concluded by thanking the museum staff via a quote from the African American soul singer James Brown: “This is the hardest-working group in show business.” As Rawls beamed in the wake of the remark, no one around me laughed nor nodded. I concluded they either never had heard of James Brown or didn’t particularly care for the reference.
In any event, that was it for Rawls, and he was duly replaced at the podium by the museum’s chairman of the Board of Trustees, Matthew Thompson, whose primary chore was to thank a long list of money-givers. Our minds began to wander as a roll call of unfamiliar names washed over us. Even Grant’s horse grew impatient, stomping his hooves and firing off a loud nicker every few moments. His economic duties performed, Thompson proceeded to speak a bit regarding the planning of the museum. Of special note to me was the quality of the historians consulted: Edward Ayers, William Freehling, and Ervin Jordan among them. Whatever one’s political standing on the museum’s existence, the academic minds tapped for shaping its educational capacities were impeccable.
Thompson gave way to Bolling, who immediately lapsed into a sales pitch regarding the new museum’s potential economic benefits for both the immediate hardscrabble rural county and Virginia at large, noting that tourism was gauged to be a $20 billion industry in the state. As his talk continued, we slowly became aware of the background buzz of an approaching aircraft. I found this strange, especially given the strong showing at the event by Virginia State Police, and assumed the airspace above it likely had been cleared. Well, I was wrong. As the sound grew louder, we discerned a small plane approaching from the south. Behind it streamed a message none of us could read, though we could make out the pattern of the Confederate battle flag on the section of banner closest to the plane. Oblivious to the aerial arrival, Bolling droned on, despite the fact he was now more or less being altogether ignored in favor of the aircraft and its mysterious message. Cameras and phones clicked and buzzed as the plane dipped and drew closer. Then we could read what it said: “‘Reunion By Bayonet,’ Sons of Confederate Veterans.” Just as I was digesting these words for the first time, or trying to, a remark by Bolling cut through my reverie: “The Civil War made America stronger than she ever would have been.”
The arrival of the plane’s message in close proximity to Bolling’s declaration made for a strange mixture, both literal and symbolic. Perhaps the lieutenant governor sensed he had strayed too far into historical speculation, or maybe his political instincts detected the crowd’s waning interest as heads continued to rock back to watch the sky rather than remaining leveled in the direction of the podium. Whatever the reason, he finished up quickly and turned the microphone over to Robertson.
The plane still flew overhead, engine noise rivaling the PA system as it circled the museum, its flag and slogan fluttering behind it. Below, arguably the greatest living Civil War storyteller was about to hold forth. I should emphasize I do not employ the phrase “greatest living Civil War storyteller” lightly with regard to Bud Robertson: he regularly fills three-hundred-seat lecture halls at the institution where he teaches; has produced a one-man, low-budget PBS documentary (think poor man’s Ken Burns) on Stonewall Jackson in the Valley, which still airs periodically on Virginia public television stations; and, in his free time, leads diverse groups of people to various Civil War sites (everyone from Japanese military historians to schoolchildren to, yes, even chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans).
He does all this, no disrespect intended, with a noticeable speech impediment. Indeed, I believe a significant portion of his unique appeal and charisma, not to mention his academic celebrity status, stems from a combination of that lisping voice and a highly cultivated ability to weave words and stories in ways that inexplicably manage to satisfy and often captivate simultaneously both the most pessimistic professional historian and the barely interested eight-year-old child.
So there we all were for the showdown: Robertson versus the Rebel airplane in the battle for our attention spans at Appomattox. Who won? Hard to say. People kept looking up, but they listened to the man at the podium, too.
“Appomattox,” he said, making no allusion to the plane, not even seeming to notice it, “is more a birthplace than a cemetery.”
The remark earned him some attention. When he began quoting facts, he garnered more.
“One-fifth of all Confederate soldiers were Virginians,” he said and paused. “Three hundred thousand of them died.”
One old man standing in front of me removed his hat and held it over his heart. I wondered what he was thinking about.
Then Robertson said something aimed at the younger people in attendance, which seemed to perk their ears: “Turning one’s back on the past is suicide.”
The last words of his speech he attributed to Robert E. Lee: “It is history that teaches us to hope.”
This speech had sobered the crowd. It was not designed to be hyperbolic or uplifting, but carefully crafted and delivered in such a way as to make the listener contemplate her or his relation not only to the American Civil War and a new museum but to the very nature of human existence. Likely many did not fully grasp what they had just heard even as the crowd delivered the loudest applause any speaker that day received. My score card? I think Robertson’s speech beat the plane. It had for me, anyway.
The last event that morning, before the ribbon was cut and the reenactors were unleashed to shoot their guns and fire their cannon, was the one-by-one raising of the state flags. The appearance of the Virginia state flag predictably received the loudest applause followed closely by . . . Maryland, apparently on account of the fact a passel of the state’s Sons of Confederate Veterans had shown up in force. Tennessee received almost no applause at all: a few sporadic, half-hearted smacking palms at best. The flag ceremony, the event brochure informed us, was meant to “symbolize the states as they reunified with the United States.” I don’t think that’s how most folks interpreted it—at least not the ones standing around me.
• • •
I didn’t stick around much longer. After all, the farm where I live was only a few miles away, and I had been watching the museum gradually go up, literally emerge—demons out of the earth—for months as I drove past it to and from work.
Brick by brick, day by day, red clay streaking new white sidewalks, it ascended upward from the ground: a pillared structure of nearly twelve thousand square feet—the first of multiple planned satellite locations for the central Museum of the Confederacy located in Richmond.
The day after the grand opening, the local paper quoted Rawls reveling in what he characterized as “a great big honkin’ crowd” and described the event as having “went off without a hitch.”
“It couldn’t have been better,” crowed Rawls in the article. “Everything was great.”
I wish I could agree with him, especially in light of Robertson’s speech, but the last thing I saw and heard as I pulled out of there was that plane again, drifting right to left beyond the windshield, high above, the thing behind it darker to my mind than the blackest of clouds.