A Richmond vignette

A quick conversation with Civil War enthusiasts at A.P. Hill’s monument reveals more about Richmond than you’d think… and highlights what makes this town so damn complicated.

In any other city, heavy gray woolen coats aren’t presumed practical wear for a warm spring day. But, this is Richmond — the former capital of the Confederacy and the very heart of vaguely uncomfortable anachronisms.

So, the recent sighting of a dozen grown men — unkempt beards adding to the overall impression of itchy discomfort — lining up in loose parade formation at the busy intersection of Laburnum Avenue and Hermitage Road provoked nearly no reaction from the busy flow of passing mid-morning traffic.

That three of the men, with ceremonial officers’ sabers belted at their sides, bear uncanny resemblance to the daily stationary parade of bronze and marble statuary along nearby Monument Avenue proved equally unremarkable.

Their objective? They’ve come to place a wreath on the monument to honor A.P. Hill. Perhaps it is because so many lives have been hurt or lost, drivers instinctively know they must pay attention while in this often-dangerous intersection. Just ask any Richmond motorists who has struggled to circumnavigate the signalized four-way stop guarded by Hill’s central bronze effigy, stubbornly refusing to yield right-of-way to oncoming traffic.

This day (April 2) is General Hill’s day. The day 145 years ago that “Little Powell” lost his life while inspecting Confederate defenses at besieged Petersburg.

“It was a bad day for the general, but it’s a good day to honor the general,” says Patrick Falci, a similarly diminutive New York City native who has the distinct honor of portraying the deceased at today’s commemoration. Falci, who bears a marked resemblance to Hill both in height and profile, adjusts his nearly-elbow length calf-skin gloves and sword as a palm-frond memorial wreath is lifted from his nearby well-traveled minivan.

“We want to make sure he’s not forgotten today,” says Falci, who also played Hill on the Silver Screen in the 1993 film Gettysburg.

Forgetting Hill seems highly unlikely under circumstances that find his mortal remains entombed forever at ground zero of nearly-daily commuter traffic snarl. Directly behind Hill’s monument, sits A. Linwood Holton Elementary, a monument of a different sort, this one named after Virginia Governor A. Linwood Holton, a champion of Civil Rights whose children attended Richmond Public Schools during the heyday of forced busing.

As Falci talks, a car hesitates too long before a planned left turn — despite the lack of oncoming traffic — in defiance of the growing line of cars stacking up behind. That this intersection is just that, an intersection, and not a traffic circle or some hybrid is perpetually perplexing to just enough Richmond drivers that it was the center of a swirling City Council face off with the Virginia Department of Transportation just a few months back.

Like the conclusion to the Civil War fought here 150 years ago, the resolution of this most recent face-off involving General Hill answered little in the minds of those with opposing opinions on the matter.

“I don’t like any of these French circles,” acknowledges another of the wool-clad men, Gregory Randall, whose resemblance to General “Stonewall” Jackson is both intentional – it’s the character he plays at Civil War reenactments – and striking. “They’re all over the place at Gettysburg – I’m a nervous wreck when we go up there.”

Randall, along with his twin brother, George Randall, and most of the other men and women gathered for the commemoration, is a member of the Rev. Beverly Tucker Lacy Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization of descendants who’ve taken it upon themselves to ensure dates like this one are properly and perpetually marked.

As the group makes its way across two busy lanes to the westbound median, a gold-trimmed Stars and Bars flag flits gently. Honks and friendly waves from passing cars are occasionally punctuated by angry shouts of “Aryan nation!” and rude hand gestures.

A head pokes out of a passing Richmond Public Schools bus. A young black man of high school age, with little patience for such commemorations or defenses of a past where his ancestors were bought and sold as property, shouts a few vulgar remarks. The bus driver tries to take the edge off by tossing a friendly wave.

The men in gray ignore it all.

“It’s just the way people act,” says George Randall. “We’re the true patriots.”

“Well, descendants of true patriots,” corrects Joe Wright, color sergeant for this Sons of Confederate Veterans unit. “The North fought to prevent a people from establishing a government of their own choosing.”

It’s a fine point of history long disputed — and of increased relevance today with a resurgence of states-rights activism during this year’s General Assembly session and ongoing by the anti-federal health care bill fight of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. And it’s one held fast by most members of this assemblage.

Most, that is.

“Being a New York liberal, it’s hard to keep my mouth shut sometimes,” says Falci’s wife, Joan, her slightly nasal Northern accent standing out among the mostly rural Virginia voices she converses with. She frets as her husband and another man, Frank Earnest, make their way across the dangerous intersection bearing the commemorative wreath. The two bravely avoid sharing Gen. Hill’s unlucky fate.

Despite clearly differing political views from the others in the group, she says, Richmond traffic is far harder to negotiate than the mostly friendly political ribs she gets from her husband’s comrades. “Frank [Earnest] calls me his favorite liberal,” she says.

The men make it back from their brave charge across opposing lanes of traffic and safely curbside, gathering not far from another statue, a tiny cast of the peace-loving St. Francis of Assisi that graces the vacant triangle park to the northwest of Hill’s resting place.

Even having braved such mortal danger, these men and women are resolute about one point of honor: General A.P. Hill should stand tall where he’s stood for more than 100 years.

“His remains should stay there, under that monument,” says Falci, during a brief closing eulogy for the brave general. “Here in Richmond was where he trained the 13th Virginia Infantry Regiment, it was here that he trained that division.”

And as quickly as they arrived, Generals Lee, Hill, Jackson, and their entourage pile into a waiting caravan of trucks, minivans and SUVs all covered liberally in Confederacy-commemorating bumper stickers. Turning south on Hermitage, they’re off to Petersburg, the next leg in their daylong commemoration of Hill’s death.

Assuming they sort out who has right of way on the way through that pesky traffic circle.

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Chris Dovi

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