There are two ways I could justify combining lunch and a lecture.
When eating to supplement a history lesson, be certain that the food is regionally appropriate. When someone else has made gumbo on a frigid day, enjoy the fruits of their labor. We'll ignore the obvious: it was late and I was famished.
The Library of Virginia's new exhibit, Union or Secession: Virginians Decide, occasioned today's lecture, "Reaping the Whirlwind: Virginians on the Eve of War" by Elizabeth Varon.
The talk, like the exhibition, focuses on the difficulty the Commonwealth had in deciding with whom they would align themselves as the country was fracturing apart.
Given Virginia's border location, its emphasis on state allegiance and its history as the birthplace of so many history-makers, it became clear what a difficult decision it must have been for its residents to make. But the arrogance of the South is difficult to grasp.
Since I'm not a Southerner by birth, my interest in the subject is purely academic. Not so with many in the audience. One woman asked, "Did Lee have a death wish? How did he ever think he could beat the North, given the population and economic advantage they had?"
Another woman questioned whether the South wouldn't have won if Stonewall Jackson had lived. As if one man could have made a difference given all the factors involved. As Richmond spy Elizabeth van Lew put it, "Southerners are drunk on the odor of our own sanctity." Well said.
I was pleased to hear that after the lecture, a tour of the exhibit would be offered. While the Library of VA is the repository of so many official documents, it also collects personal documents and this exhibit combined both for a look at the period from all sides.
Because Virginia was so active in the slave trade, printed bills of receipt for enslaved persons were actually made at the time. Just fill in the particulars and you've sold a person. Chilling to see. I also learned that height determined price, so at 5'5", I would have been cheap. Karen, the bargain, so to speak.
A large poster soliciting men to fight began with "To Arms! To Arms! To Arms!" and ended with "Your state is in danger. Rally to her standard!" Hard to imagine wo/men being stirred to action by such a plea today.
I was fascinated to learn that in the run-up to secession, Virginia was quite busy laying claim to the Founding Fathers...just in case they should need the connections.
In 1858, the equestrienne statue of George Washington was erected in Capital Square to provide a visual reminder of the home boy. Shortly thereafter, James Monroe's remains were re-interred at Hollywood Cemetery (how could we let a Virginia President's bones rot in New York?).
The whole exhibit, part of the upcoming Sesquicentennial Observance of the Civil War, is definitely worth a visit, as much for the personal correspondence as for the enlarged official documents that set events in motion.
I came away with a new appreciation for what a difficult decision Virginia had to make. We had little in common with the rest of the south, having an extensive railroad system, far more industry and an economy where cotton was not king (wheat was). And yet...
By the time the tour ended, it was nearly 3:00 and I was starving. Luckily, Positive Vibe Express was still open (but just barely; the girl was sweeping the floor when I came in looking pitiful and asking if I could still eat) and I was delighted to hear that today's soup was chicken and sausage gumbo.
My steaming bowl of gumbo was full of okra, rice, sausage and chicken and couldn't have been any more perfect for this weather. It also brought home the point that Virginia's culture differed from other parts of the south, like Louisiana, where the West African influence was strong.
After licking my gumbo bowl clean, I walked back out through the exhibit one last time, past pictures of slave auction houses and maps of slave holding counties in Virginia.
It's all a lesson and I'm all about learning. And eating.