Immediately upon our exit of the Van Gogh, Manet , Matisse Exhibit at VMFA, the fire alarm went off and the entire museum was evacuated. While standing outside in the sculpture garden waiting to get back into the museum on the chilly damp of the early April day, we noticed a sweet, little old chapel on the far end of the grounds. Upon closer inspection, we discovered this chapel was part of the old Confederate Soldier’s Home. Because the next part of our spring break road trip involved Civil War history, I thought this would be a fantastic segway between legs on our journey.
As it turns out, once upon a time, the land VMFA sits on was part of what was once referred to as the “Old Soldier’s Home”, which had been established in 1884 with private funds to house needy, wounded and infirm Confederate veterans after the war. Over the years, it housed hundreds of civil war vets over its 36 acres. When the last vet passed away in 1941, the land was deeded to the Commonwealth of Virginia. There are two buildings that exist today from the original camp, with the chapel being one of them.
Upon entry into the museum, one cannot help but notice that at the front of the church are two portraits – one of Stonewall Jackson and one of Robert E. Lee. The stained glass windows, which are original to the structure, are also dedicated to the soldiers of the glorious cause. A brief tour was offered, but after speaking with the guide for a few moments, I quickly realized I was not particularly interested in having the ‘official’ tour.
You’ve heard of those who have never stopped fighting the civil war? Well, I can tell you at least some of those are working at the Confederate Memorial Chapel in Richmond. Among some of the literature I was handed there was a piece written by H.L. Mencken on the subject of the Gettysburg Address, in which he wrote the only soldiers who died fighting for their freedom at Gettysburg were the Confederate soldiers. There were a few other gems on Yankees that celebrate the Fourth of July do so as “bold hypocrisy of a people who represent themselves as the philanthropists of the world while they are engaged in a crusade of the extermination against another.” Of course, there was not a word that this glorious cause the South was fighting for, the right to govern themselves was also for the continued right to own other human beings and keep them enslaved. Rather, it was said the ‘current political climate’ allows this misrepresentation of the true cause of the war and for the memories of the soldiers who fought for it to be disrespected.
I chose to not engage, because when you are staring that particular flavor of reality in the face, you realize there is no way they are going to have a sane view of the situation – anyone that hands you a copy of a flier written in 1864 and holds it up as something being denied because of a ‘current’ political environment, is clearly not living in the same present that I am. And it’s not as if Richmond has forgotten it’s past – there are plenty of war memorials everywhere you look – the city is known as having the most Civil War memorials of anywhere in this country. You can’t throw a stone in Richmond and NOT hit a Civil War monument it seems.
However, it is one of the beautiful, glorious things about this country that we are allowed to openly share these opinions and I think we can all agree, that is something all those soldiers, on both sides, sacrificed their lives for all those years ago. And the windows in the chapel were quite beautiful, so there’s that.