Image via Arnold Gatilao (CC BY 2.0)
George Washington is always depicted as a solemn individual. From the dollar bill to the National Portrait Gallery, Washington is consistently precisely dressed, masculinely posed, and practically frowning. He was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”1 He was our first president and arguably most famous American. He secured a place in American folklore, like the Cherry Tree myth where a six-year-old Washington, wiser than his years, proclaims “I cannot tell a lie.”2
But his place in American legend fogs the fact that Washington was a person like us, one with flaws, imperfections, and sometimes questionable tastes. Through his quirky sense of humor, we can strip away the glossy veneer of Washington: the historical figure and get better acquainted with Washington: the man. For, like many of us, he had at times a slapstick, situational, lowbrow, and deadpan sense of humor, sometimes coarse, cutting, and sometimes cringe-worthy.
He didn’t refrain from laughing at lewd jokes or the physical pain of others. Sometimes he was the center of a comedic situation simply because of his good nature, the brawny Washington an awkward if not comical sight when performing acts of genuine kindness to others unexpectedly, appearing, if only for a few moments, a mere mortal instead of a living legend.
Heirloom portrait of Robert E. Lee sitting in my closet.
One fond memory of a trip to Gettysburg National Park consisted of my siblings, my cousins, and myself participating in a juvenile reenactment of the battle, complete with replica hats, jackets, and a discussion of soldierly life.
The instillment of the Civil War era in my life made it so the very idea of the conflict edged unassumingly along the spectrum of familiarity to complacency; to me Lee was always more of a character in a dramatic historical play, more protagonist than antagonist.
Consequently, I never considered the differing perspectives various people might have of the portrait of Robert E. Lee that hung in my childhood home, stoically placed as if the general himself were keeping watch over us.
I never thought twice about asking my parents for the portrait when they moved out of their house and downsized to a condo lacking abundant of wall space for Lee to reside.
Robert E. Lee/ Image via Public Domain
In today’s United States, racial and socioeconomic tensions are amplified by the rapidity of Internet sharing. The senseless death of a young minority by the member of an historically oppressive race can ignite the emotions of Americans from one corner of the country to the other in a matter of minutes, like a spark in a tinderbox on a bed of kindling.
Cities are attempting to revise the mindsets of those who harbor racist sympathies and to promote race equality by taking aim at the tangible symbols that evoke sentiments of inequality.
In New Orleans, for example, “adversaries marched in a second-line parade to the traffic circle where [Confederate General Robert E.] Lee’s statue stands — centurion-like, stationed above the treeline atop a white stone pedestal — to protest the monument’s place in the circle and to bury Lee’s place in history, which some revere and others revile.”
The basic argument against monuments like Lee’s in New Orleans is that Lee was the leader of the Confederate Army which fought and killed on behalf of a loose band of belligerent, secessionist states that advocated for the institution of slavery — i.e., Lee is one of the de facto faces of slavery in America and is undeserving of celebratory recognition.
Conversely, there are those who think preserving the legacy of Confederate soldiers who laid down their lives for a certain belief is something of a civic and moral obligation. Individually those rebels are ancestors; collectively they comprise a regional heritage.
I happen to think that when it comes to contentious memorials such as those of notorious Confederates, they should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
When it comes to Lee, I happen to think he should be lauded. Jefferson Davis, no thank you.
Broadway, VA/ Image via the author
The valley in which we rode was once a fiery battleground.
The rolling fields, like grassy ocean swells, which give way to imposing mountains on both the left and the right were just as scenic and stoic as in the mid-1800s. Men fought and killed each other on that very same ground over slavery and the preservation of the union.
It was upsetting to think such a beautiful landscape was formerly demeaned by the horrors of war. I couldn’t fathom what residents thought in the midst of it; the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Appalachian Plateau to the west illuminated with cannon and mortar fire, droves of ragged military men charging and hollering and killing, patches of farmland saturated with blood.
It sounds sensationalized but indeed the Shenandoah Valley was the crux of the Eastern Theater of the Civil War. At the mouth of the valley to the north, the town of Winchester, Virginia is said to have changed hands more than 70 times throughout the conflict.
Aside from the complete lack of 19th century militarization, though with the presence of modern technologies like telephone lines, paved roads, and automobiles, much of what could be seen from our roving vantage struck me with the feeling that most of it remains exactly the same as it was for generations past.