Amtraks Across America: Some Other Fine People in Charlottesville

This is the third part in a series about Amtrak travels during summer 2022.

My train to Charlottesville, Virginia, which took almost three hours from Washington at an average speed of 39 m.p.h., was crowded, although the coach thinned out after we stopped in Alexandria and commuters got off.

The train also made a stop in Manassas, now a distant Washington suburb (it’s thirty miles from the Capitol), although from the rails I wasn’t able to see much of Bull Run Creek or the Manassas battlefields. The train did cross over the stream that runs through so much of American and Civil War history but in an instant, and all I saw was something that looked like a drainage ditch.

Herman Melville at Manassas

First Manassas was fought in high summer 1861, and the expectation of the Union generals heading into battle was that the mere show of federal force in the northern Virginia farmland would break the will of the Confederacy and end the insurrection.

Such was Union overconfidence before the fighting that day trippers followed the army into the Virginia countryside and set up picnic tables overlooking the battlefield, expecting that the day would go according to the script of a July 4th oration.

Instead, the Confederates (including General Thomas Jackson, who stood “like a stonewall”) held their ground along the Warrenton Turnpike, and the broken Union army didn’t just retreat but fled back to Washington as a rabble.

Almost better than any war correspondent who witnessed the rout (although he dressed up the retreat with patriotic clichés), novelist Herman Melville captured the day of shame in his epic poem of the Civil War, in which he included this verse entitled “The March into Virginia Ending in the First Manassas”:

Who here forecasteth the event?

What heart but spurns at precedent

And warnings of the wise,

Contemned foreclosures of surprise?

The banners play, the bugles call,

The air is blue and prodigal.

No berrying party, pleasure-wooed,

No picnic party in the May,

Ever went less loth than they

Into that leafy neighborhood.

In Bacchic glee they file toward Fate,

Moloch’s uninitiate;

Expectancy, and glad surmise

Of battle’s unknown mysteries.

If Putin was less interested in his Soviet Self Republic (“In Bacchic glee…”) and more of a reader or student of history, he might delve into Melville to understand how nations rarely recover from civil wars.

The Statues of Limitation

I stayed a day and night in Charlottesville, and at nearly every meal the subject under discussion was the fate of the statuary republic of bronze horsemen and orators who cast shadows over Southern cities.

I usually brought up the subject, as it was in Charlottesville that white supremacists at a Klan rally (to Donald Trump, all those “very fine people, on both sides…”) gathered to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from Market Street Park near the center of town.

Later Trump tried to big lie away from his inciteful words, saying that what he meant was that the crowd of protesting white nationalists (including the Klan’s own David Duke, once a grand wizard) included some who wanted simply to say that Lee deserved to remain on his pedestal. Trump said defensively: “I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general.”

Charlottesville isn’t the only Southern town that had more than its fair share of Confederate statuary; nearby Richmond, for example, had an entire boulevard, Monument Avenue, devoted to the bronzification of the Lost Cause of Confederacy. But is the Great Purification of American cities and campuses the only way to be done with the looming presence of slave drivers and Confederate generals?

Rewriting History

At the end of the day, it is up to each city and college campus to decide who it wants on its pedestals. At the same time, I would have no problem if, instead of leveling every public monument in America, more effort went into rewriting the plaques that are at the base of these statues.

For example, in the case of Robert E. Lee, the following inscription could be mounted near his bronze horse, Traveller, and his spurs:

General Robert E. Lee was a traitor against the United States who took up arms against the federal government and who killed thousands of young Confederate soldiers in battles that were fought to enslave African-Americans in the South.

Or simply add the quotation from the civil rights educator W.E.B. Du Bois, who in 1931 said:

The most terrible thing about War, I am convinced, is its monuments,—the awful things we are compelled to build in order to remember the victims. In the South, particularly, human ingenuity has been put to it to explain on its war monuments, the Confederacy. Of course, the plain truth of the matter would be an inscription something like this: “Sacred to the memory of those

who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.” But that reads with increasing difficulty as time goes on. It does, however, seem to be overdoing the matter to read on a North Carolina Confederate monument: “Died Fighting for Liberty!”

At least then visitors would have something to discuss on their outings to Market Street Park.

Now all anyone sees in Charlottesville is a decapitated plinth, as if maybe the Spanish Inquisition had rolled through town.

Civil War Generalship

Only at a very pleasant brunch with my friend Daniel Jordan, formerly president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and a board member of the Civil War Trust, was I able to indulge in speculation about the relative merits of certain Civil War generals, such as George McClellan, James Longstreet, William T. Sherman, and my personal favorite, George Thomas, who missed out on higher command in the Union army because he was born in Virginia and mistrusted in some quarters.

Dan thinks more highly of Ulysses S. Grant than I do (although no one in my experience knows more about Civil War war generals than Dan). I tend to side with Mary Todd Lincoln (Abe’s anxious wife) who said of Grant in one of her rages:

He is a butcher and is not fit to be at the head of an army. Yes, he generally manages to claim a victory, but such a victory! He loses two men to the enemy’s one. He has no management, no regard for life.

Grant won his battles through determination. After losing badly on the first day at Shiloh, which would have forced a lesser man to withdraw, he said: “Yes. Lick em tomorrow though.”

On the subject of Robert E. Lee, Dan and I found common ground in believing that his partnership with “Stonewall” Jackson is largely what accounted for his greatness in certain battles (notably Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville).

Otherwise, I read Trump’s quote about Lee being “a great general” and shake my head (both at Lee’s generalship and Trump’s CliffNotes ignorance of American history). As I see it, Lee lost more battles than he won, and he won nothing after Jackson died in the gloaming (accidentally shot by his own men) at Chancellorsville.

Lee was the architect of the two failed northern invasions (Antietam and Gettysburg), which bled the Confederacy dry, and as President Jefferson Davis’s chief military advisor he cared more for his own corps than for an overall coherent Confederate military strategy. Philosophically, Lee came to the conclusion that slavery and all of is related injustices were somehow a noble cause. Does that qualify for “greatness”?

I do wonder why Major André was hanged as a spy in the Revolutionary War for having the plans of West Point is his boots, while on the heels of his own sedition (like Trump he led armed attacks against the federal government), Lee was allowed to retire gracefully to the presidency of Washington University in Lexington, Virginia. (After he died, they added the “& Lee”.)

The Many Thomas Jeffersons

Before leaving Charlottesville, I walked around what are called the Grounds of the University of Virginia (the idea was to recreate on American soil something as inspiring as Plato’s Academy) and saw my friend Andrew O’Shaughnessy, who had just published The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind, a biography of Thomas Jefferson and his founding of the university.

The University of Virginia was the last great public work of Jefferson’s life, which ended seven years after it opened in 1819. In the time after it welcomed its first class, Jefferson had many college students up to Monticello for dinner and conversation, and he was heavily involved in the hiring of its faculty, just as he laid out the Grounds and decreed that the university would not have a chapel (as he didn’t want to mix religion with a state school).

If you are looking for a modern biography of Thomas Jefferson—to assess his legacy at a time when there are calls for his statues to be removed from public spaces—I would recommend O’Shaughnessy’s, as it captures Jefferson’s greatness (the Declaration of Independence, his love of science and the Enlightenment, his vision of public education, etc.) without whitewashing his indebtedness to English banks, his ownership of slaves, or his denial of his children with his slave Sally Hemings.

Clearly Jefferson was what Baudelaire would have called a “duplex man”. For all his great works (think of the Louisiana Purchase or his influence on the Constitution), there was on the other side his slave-owning and his failure to acknowledge any of his children with Sally Hemings. I suppose that there are some who would banish Jefferson from the revolutionary American pantheon for these failings, but as I made my walk around “his” university—there is a lot of red brick and white columns—I took the view that without Jefferson and his (often slave-owning) cohort there might never have been a United States.

The Flawed Founding Fathers

For better or worse, most, if not all, of the Foundation Fathers had un-saintly qualities. George Washington was also a slaveholder and, at many levels, a mediocre Revolutionary War general (more obsessed with his expense accounts than in giving battle), who as president bequeathed to the American republic the symbiosis of money and politics. Despite being a brilliant constitutional theorist, John Adams often thought more of himself and settling scores with his enemies (including many journalists and the womanizing Benjamin Franklin) than he did about the nascent republic.

Broadway’s Alexander Hamilton dreamed of a United States that was closer to Netflix’s The Crownthan Switzerland’s referendum democracy. Paine said of him: “…his head was as full of kings, queens and knaves, as a pack of cards.”

In his splendid history, Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Gore Vidal captures the infighting that accompanied the founding of the United States, writing:

Politically closer to Franklin, Jefferson described Adams as having “A degree of vanity . . . too attentive to ceremony . . . irritable and a bad calculator of the forces and probable effect of the motives which govern men.” Adams agreed with the political philosophy of Alexander Hamilton, but that did not stop him from calling the first Treasury secretary “the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler.”

In defending Jefferson, I would argue that his greatness was his belief that the United States was a work in progress, which needed books, students, professors, farmers, universities, newspapers, citizens, letters, shopkeepers, government, and political engagement to move ahead. He expected each successive generation to rewrite the Constitution, and he was so opposed to standing armies that he once proposed to consign the American navy to dry dock in Annapolis, lest it find ways to navigate the country into more wars.

Yes, Jefferson had flaws, but staring up at his statue at the entrance to the Grounds I preferred to dwell on his optimism and belief in enlightenment.

No Amtrak Trains South

In an ideal world—not something on the Amtrak schedule—I would have taken the Crescent from Charlottesville to New Orleans, but when I consulted the website and asked various ticket agents it became clear to me that Amtrak had cut back its service on that line to three days a week, and no trains were running on the days I wanted to travel.

I suppose I could have reconfigured my itinerary and gone to New Orleans by way of Chicago, but that would have meant about forty hours of train riding. Had I been able, with my Amtrak pass, to upgrade to a sleeper, I might not have minded. (In some of the web pages about the pass, there is AmSpeak of possible upgrades upon payment of an additional fee.)

When I asked at Washington’s Union Station whether it was possible to pay a supplement for a berth, I was told I needed to buy an entirely new ticket, which means that the ten-segment pass should be renamed as “Amtrak’s Day Coach Across America Fare.” (Possible ad: “All the discomforts of a Greyhound bus but at least there’s a café car selling Snickers bars…”) When I asked about the cost of a sleeper to New Orleans, the price quoted was $937, although breakfast would be “complimentary”. (Price gouging is one thing Amtrak does well.)

In the end, to my railroad regret, I flew on American Airlines from Charlottesville to New Orleans, which involved a change of planes in North Carolina. On a Tuesday in May, it looked as if Charlotte Douglas International Airport was holding a World Junk Food Jamboree. At the departure gates all around me were travelers toting happy-meal feed bags and carbonated Big Gulps with straws that were the size of aqua lungs, which probably explains why obesity (which afflicts almost fifty percent of the American population) is a bigger threat to national unity than the specter of another civil war.

Next: Post-Katrina New Orleans. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.