One family, and one institution, humble before history.
Mar 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 27 • By CHARLOTTE HAYS
The White House of the Confederacy, 1865
The other day, with time to kill here in Virginia’s capital city, I stopped by the Museum of the Confederacy, home to a collection of paintings and artifacts that show how ordinary people, especially soldiers, lived in those trying times. A fellow Southerner had recommended visiting the museum, but blanched on being thanked for the suggestion in front of our Yankee friends. This year is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the late hostilities, and I for one have been dreading it: The disheartening comparison of the Confederacy to Nazi Germany is bound to get a good workout. A “secession ball” in Charleston, South Carolina, has already been ridiculed by newspapers and condemned by the NAACP.
I submit that this harsh attitude is fairly recent, and stems not from genuine moral superiority over these ragtag rebels and benighted slaveholders but from our love of moral preening. A sign proclaims, “Torture is wrong”—to which the only proper response is, You don’t say. “War is not the answer” is another popular slogan; apparently, the question doesn’t matter. These catchwords reveal a desire to lecture others more than anything else.
The singular virtue of the Museum of the Confederacy is that it doesn’t lecture. It is humble before history. The tattered flags, uniforms (my, these men were small!), and Varina Davis’s butterfly quilt with silk flags and shields—sewn by the first lady of the Confederacy long after the war ended—are allowed to speak for themselves. The White House of the Confederacy, a few steps away from the museum, confirmed me in my elegiac mood. One of Jefferson and Varina Davis’s rowdy children died in the nursery. Here, amid the rococo furniture popular at the time, the First Family held “poverty balls” to raise money for the soldiers. There was no food and the only libation was “Jeff Davis Punch” (better known as water) and no ice, of course. It was in the small office, adjacent to the bedroom, that a spy carefully observed Davis’s communications.
I was fortunate to visit the museum because for years it has been on the brink of closing. Opened in 1896 and always supported entirely by private donations, the Museum of the Confederacy has not only faced financial woes, but Virginia Commonwealth University’s expanding Medical Center threatened to surround it more effectively than any band of Union soldiers. But the museum appears safe for the time being.
“We’ve spent years saying the rumors that we’re closing aren’t true,” spokesman Sam Craighead told me. Indeed the museum will open three additional branches, the first at Appomattox, to display artifacts in storage. Craighead said that $6.5 million has been raised for the Appomattox installation. Meanwhile, the current location in Richmond is not without its advantages: Two Civil War-era dolls were taken next door to VCU’s hospital for x-rays which determined that, far from being empty-headed belles, they had used their noggins to smuggle morphine from the North to ease the sufferings of wounded Confederate soldiers.
As it happens, my afternoon’s browsing at the museum inspired me to look again for something I had long wanted to find: a reminiscence of the last days of the Confederate Treasury, left behind by one Robert Gilliam. I’d seen a number of oblique references to the manuscript, apparently typewritten, and even tried to buy it from an Amazon listing. The product description was so vague I could not tell whether the Robert in question was my great-great-grandfather or an uncle with the same number of greats. I did have a little photo album, composed of cartes de visite—small calling card-sized, albumen prints—that belonged to my great-great-grandmother. (These pictures were all the rage, as might be expected in a time when you might never see a husband or fiancé again.) Under a picture of the house in Richmond, somebody has written “Castle Dangerous,” the title of Sir Walter Scott’s last novel.
A lot of us blame Sir Walter for starting the damned war in the first place: He instilled notions of chivalry in the hotheaded Scotch-Irish.
Would the Museum of the Confederacy possibly know how to find a copy of the elusive reminiscences? Thanks to Teresa Roane, the fine and courteous librarian at the museum, I am writing with the manuscript on my desk. Copying and postage cost me three dollars (the Internet offering, for $200, is thankfully no longer available!), and reading it has revealed to me a famous incident in Civil War history of which I was ignorant. It is an episode that left behind a legend of buried treasure and which started, at least for Robert Gilliam, my 18-year-old great-great-uncle, when he was sitting in Richmond’s St. Paul’s Church on April 2, 1865.
When a messenger entered St. Paul’s and quietly handed Jefferson Davis a note, Robert, realizing something was up, walked over to the offices of the Treasury, where he was a clerk and messenger. Other clerks were already engaged in packing the contents to be removed from soon-to-burn Richmond. At midnight, Robert left Richmond for Danville, Virginia, accompanying the Confederacy’s money, a journey that took the young man, by foot, steamer, and train, through Virginia and the Carolinas and into Georgia. One thing I noticed: These are the reminiscences of a man who knew hunger. He did go crabbing in Hilton Head and buy the first canned goods he had ever seen from an Army sutler.
“These were luxuries to us who had passed through years of semi-starvation,” he remembered.
I believe Robert, who wrote his account many years later, probably did so as part of an effort to clear up certain nagging questions about the end of the Confederate Treasury and, indeed, of the Confederacy itself. He asserted that the last Confederate cabinet meeting was in Abbeville, South Carolina (claims are made for other locations), and recalls that the money was turned over to General Basil W. Duke, commander of Davis’s final escort. In Washington, Georgia, Robert and his traveling companions first heard of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox from a Confederate congressman, probably Henry Stuart Foote of Tennessee.
“Someone suggested a coat of tar and feathers for Foote for circulating what we believed to be a false report,” wrote Robert. After the Civil War, he went on to become a successful lawyer in Petersburg, Virginia, and the bulk of the Confederate Treasury was lost, though treasure hunters continue to search for it.
I love having Robert Gilliam’s reminiscences: My grandfather grew up in his house, and I grew up in my grandfather’s house. If you come from a family that really did try to save Confederate money, you probably won’t be too judgmental. I am hoping that in this year of remembering, more people will try, as the Museum of the Confederacy does, to be humble in the face of history.
Charlotte Hays is the coauthor, most recently, of Some Day You’ll Thank Me for This: The Official Southern Ladies’ Guide to Being the ‘Perfect’ Mother.
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