Thursday, August 12, 2021

​Our “American” History - The Patriot's Tour

We started our “Patriot’s Tour” in Charlottesville, Virginia, originally planning on seeing James Madison’s estate at Montpelier first, but it was closed when we arrived, so we decided to drive the short distance to see Thomas Jefferson's Monticello instead. Monticello, the nationally revered plantation home of Thomas Jefferson, one of the creators of our Constitution, and third President of the United States was next on the list. We were following the American Revolution and the great thinkers who founded our country. I always had this trip in the back of my mind and we finally had the opportunity to wander through Virginia at our leisure. Unfortunately, Charlottesville is also the center of the American rebirth of blatant racism which blossomed under President Donald Trump just a few, short years ago. The irony wasn't lost on us.

Monticello isn’t a National Monument open to the public as is the Smithsonian in Washington. While it isn't Disney World prices, it certainly makes one wonder if there are musical rides and talking robots waiting in the corridors ahead. There is a sliding scale for entrance to help alleviate the financial cost depending on what you want to see. While we expected nominal entrance fees, my wife and I were surprised with the cost to see such a “National” treasure. The price of a forty-five minute guided tour of the main floor – and the basement of the homestead – was inconsistent with what we have experienced at other historic sites.

It appears to be an excursion into history reserved for the more affluent. According to their website, the attraction is run by “Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., which owns over 2,500 acres of Jefferson's 5,000-acre plantation. As a private, nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation, the Foundation receives no ongoing federal, state, or local funding in support of its dual mission of preservation and education.” There are extra costs to see the second and third floors, and additional costs to see the gardens. We simply felt like we were being taken advantage of using our patriotism and desire to immerse in our history to their financial profit.

In a moment of enlightenment, Ilse and I decided to visit the where General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Virginia to end the Civil War. We decided to head south to Appomattox, the symbolic location of the end of slavery in the United States. Slavery, the economic system that supplied most of the free labor that sustained the plantation style of the Confederacy, was defeated and the Union was saved just a little further south of our planned trip.
Our journey south started innocently enough by simply asking Waze how to get there from where we were, and had the pleasure of one of the nicest drives of our vacation as we headed down the four-lane divided highway toward Lynchburg. Highway US 29 was a pleasant, easy ride and I was minding my manners, toodling comfortably along in the right lane with a Virginia State trooper just behind us, when I was abruptly informed by our guidance system to turn left in three hundred feet. I waited until the trooper went around us and we made our turn into unknown territory. Why are we taking State Road 739 and where does it go?

When we came to the one-lane railroad underpass that had a sign that read “One way traffic - Blow your horn!” we knew we were in rural Virginia. I was glad we weren’t towing our travel trailer as we slowly proceeded under the old railroad bridge when my muse tapped me on the shoulder - she pops up whenever she wants me to pay attention and asked, "Is this the actual railroad that US Army General George Custer captured, the one the desperately needed Confederate supply train was on, that altered the course of the war?" 

The next thirty miles or so of twisty, backwoods, two lane road was a slow-motion thrill. The beauty of the area, and seeing the cleanliness and pride of the residents is worth a trip of its own. But, soon, I needed gas.

We pulled into the town of Appomattox and drove past the gas station I wanted. We doubled back to fill up the gas tank. It isn’t a busy place. We checked our road map – yes, I use one religiously - and compared the local road signs that seemed to point off somewhere in that direction over there somewhere… and decided to go that way.

After one stop at a memorial marker on the top of a hill, we saw the main park entrance a half-mile away.

That's where the U.S. Park service recreated the Appomattox Courthouse and the surrounding buildings in 1964. The original buildings were burned down some thirty-five years after the end of the Civil War, but by whom is still considered a mystery. It seems to fit the time frame of the pinnacle of power of the resurgent Klan which continued well into the twentieth century. Today it is called the Ku Klux Klan, but at its height of popularity forty years after the surrender at Appomattox it was simply called the Ku Klux. 

The location at Appomattox is authentic and the buildings have been rebuilt. The old stagecoach road has been isolated and maintained as it once was. I’m sure the buildings look better than they did in 1865, but they only symbolically portray the image of the four-year long war’s conclusion that was unexpectedly thrust upon them in a world-shaping event.

Missing from the Appomattox historic site is the soul. I had no feeling of wonder there. The buildings are freshly painted and properly maintained and the grounds are immaculate. The Crepe Myrtles flower beautifully along the parking lot, but there is no overpowering feeling of remorse or sorrow, joy or triumph. It is simply there. The heart was burned out by the white supremacists whose grandchildren marched four years ago in Charlottesville.

There is a gaping hole in our identity that we have yet to heal. It will take more than new buildings and fresh paint. We were awakened to the cruel reality that slavery slowly and methodically has morphed before our very eyes into a sadistic, vengeful retribution of defeat known today as white supremacy.

Perhaps Appomattox isn't really that far from Charlottesville after all.