Requiem for a Culture
Part 1: The Sentinel
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
— William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, Act I, Scene III (page 80 in the Vintage paperback edition)
I first read the above quote more than four decades ago, and in the years since then I have always associated it with the Civil War. However, upon looking it up while preparing this post, I noticed that the context is the personal history of one of the main characters, and refers to events in the early to mid-20th century. Nevertheless, the Recent Unpleasantness is woven into the fabric of the novel, so that relating it to the war seems appropriate.
For a Virginian whose family was caught up in the struggle, the 157 years since the surrender at Appomattox is a short time indeed. Generations in my mother’s family were long, so that I heard family stories about 1865 from a relative who heard them from an aunt who was alive at the time and witnessed the events herself. So that’s not really far back at all.
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
Back in the 1990s I wrote a poem entitled “Mason Dixon” that concludes with these lines:
How can one forget? Millennia hence,
when English is just the language of the scholiasts
or the key to ancient software, Gettysburg
will mean no more than Thermopylae does to us,
and Jackson’s tactics, like Hannibal’s,
will be studied by commanders
training for the galactic wars.
Then Appomattox will no longer appear on any map,
with Bull Run just a vague rumor,
a place somewhere off to the east
of the Blue Ridge Islands.
The War Between the States is something that one never quite comes to terms with. It is the wound that will not heal.
When you cross into Appomattox County, Virginia from one of the adjacent counties, you are greeted with a sign that reads: “Welcome to Appomattox County, Where Our Nation Reunited”.
To an unreconstructed Southerner, this upbeat sentiment seems inaccurate. A more apposite greeting would be: “Welcome to Appomattox County, Where Sovereignty Was Destroyed, and the Southern States Became Vassals of the Federal Behemoth”.
But I guess that’s too long and wordy to be euphonious.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I’ve been trying to write this post for almost three months. I kept thinking of new things I wanted to say, and amassed more material than would readily fit into a single essay. I’ve decided to break it up into bite-sized chunks to make it easier to write, and easier for the reader to digest.
This introduction to the topic concerns the proximate cause of my decision to finally become an official member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans: the removal of the Confederate rifleman who had stood sentinel for almost 120 years in a little park on High Street in Farmville, Virginia. There was never a referendum on whether the town’s inhabitants wanted the statue taken down, and the city council’s decision to do so was taken behind closed doors, with no public input.
I asked one of the members of the local SCV camp what prompted the council’s action, and he said, “Some a**hole at Longwood [University] complained about it.”
The removal of the statue occurred during the height of the George Floyd craze, when monuments, Confederate and otherwise, were being taken down all over the country. Farmville’s Confederate fared better than many others, which were broken up and/or melted down (presumably so that George Floyd statues could be cast from the metal).
Last year the Sentinel was relocated to the Confederate cemetery just across the Appomattox River, where he is safely out of sight of everyone except those who choose to visit the site to pay their respects to the 300-400 Confederate fallen who are buried there in unmarked graves.
Back in May I posted about the Memorial Day observance organized by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans in that same cemetery. Last year the Sentinel was relocated there, and stands on his reconstructed plinth behind the honor guard in the photo below:
Those who attended the ceremony came to honor the soldiers who died defending Virginia in the Civil War, and their ancestors who fought in the conflict.
I say “defending Virginia”, because Virginia was understood to be a sovereign state until 1865, when state sovereignty was overthrown, and modernity began. And also because Virginia was invaded. In 1861 a hostile foreign force invaded the Commonwealth from the north and the east, intending to capture Richmond and put an end to the nascent Confederacy. Thanks to the skill, determination, and courage of the forces commanded by Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, inter alia, that final reckoning was put off for four years, after which the former Confederate states were reduced to poverty and vassalage under the federal government of the United States.
The photo below shows Appomattox Courthouse being guarded by Union soldiers: