Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s wartime home still stands in downtown Richmond, Virginia’s Court End neighborhood. Dubbed the “White House of the Confederacy,” the austere, strangely bulky Federal-style mansion feels dwarfed by the towering hospitals and medical facilities that have grown up around it. On dreary days, when one is prone to metaphor, you could consider the mansion a tumor and the hospitals surrounding it as a robust autoimmune response. The White House of the Confederacy is part of a three-site Virginian empire commemorating the southern side of the Civil War. Since 2014 the enterprise has been known as the American Civil War Museum, but that part always appears before the colon—the real story is told in the subtitle. As in, the American Civil War Museum: the Museum and the White House of the Confederacy. Or the American Civil War Museum: Museum of the Confederacy, Appomattox.
For many non-Southerners, the name surely feels a bit redundant. At times the entirety of the American South feels like a Museum of the Confederacy, a living engagement with the history and enduring impact of the country’s as well as the consequences and failed attempts at redemption for this sins. The White House of the Confederacy was built in 1818 and served as the executive mansion of the Confederacy from 1861-1865. After serving as Jefferson Davis’s house, the building served briefly as a Richmond field office for occupying Union forces and as a school. In 1893, the Confederate Memorial Literary Society took ownership of the house and turned it into a sanctuary to the memory of Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. It opened as a museum in 1896. Docents lead several tours a day through the house, all of which start in a small, bare brick room in the basement.
The tour I took included 18 people, all of them white. When our guide, an accommodating young woman named Kathryn, asked if she was entertaining repeat visitors, five hands shot up.
After providing a brief historical overview of the home, our tour began. Historic house tours are basically all the same. It’s an easy, genial fetishism—people seeing where their lives connect or miss the lives of their worthy or mighty predecessors. I would be lying if I wrote that I expected any bold critique of Jeff Davis’s politics during the tour, but Kathryn was at pains to point out the slave labor that kept the house running—early in the tour, she enumerated the number of enslaved people who labored for the Davis’s pleasure, and she told a few stories about them.
Early in the tour, we entered a large, well-appointed room on the ground floor of the building, just off of the entrance foyer.
“What’s this room?” Kathryn asked.
“The dining room,” several of my tour mates announced proudly.
And indeed, it was a large, dark dining room, but lacking many of the artifacts you’d expect to see in the dining room of an historic house. Rather than flatware and serving trays, there were documents. The large concession to the original intention of the room were several wine glasses on the large table.
“Yes,” Kathryn said, “this is the formal dining room, but the Davis family rarely used it for that. Mostly they ate in the basement.”
She continued by saying that the dining room was most often used as a conference room for meetings between Jefferson Davis and his cabinet and military commanders. The Davis house, she said, having not been built expressly as an Executive Mansion, wasn’t as well appointed for the affairs of a state at war as the White House in D.C. The room had acquitted itself well, though, serving as a sort of stunt double role as one of Davis’s primary conference rooms.
The docent then relayed the story of a meeting when Davis met with General Robert E. Lee and some other confidantes to discuss elements of what came to be known as the Peninsula Campaign, a Union attempt to take the Confederate capitol. During the meeting the men discussed how best to impede Union progress.
“Like most slave owners, Davis thought of his slaves more as furniture than as slaves,” the docent said, showing us a meticulous woodcut portrait of a distinguished looking, middle aged African American man. The man in the woodcut was William Jackson, one of the enslaved Americans who attended to the Davis family during the war. Jackson, working both around the house and as Davis’s personal coachman, often found himself present during the Davis’s dining room strategy sessions. After overhearing details of the Peninsula campaign and also understanding that both soldier and executive morale was low at that point in the war—and ostensibly also understanding that the Union lines were as close to Richmond as they might get—Jackson fled Richmond. Jackson sought out Union troops at Fredericksburg and spilled his information and gossip to Union General Irvin McDowell.
I learned that this was common, enslaved men and women escaping across lines to provide intelligence to Union forces. In effect, these escaped people were spies embedded in the Confederacy and in the position to provide critical information to Union forces. Quite a bit of the actionable intelligence gathered during the war came from self-emancipated runaways such as Jackson, the docent told the politely attentive group. These reports came to be known as “black dispatches” before quickly fading from memory as notions of white valor and brotherly reconciliation eclipsed the African American contribution to the Civil War.
As the docent completed Jackson’s fascinating, if incomplete, story, she displayed the woodcut for us a final time and then asked if there were any questions.
“Why did they eat in the basement?”
The question was immediate and uttered with soft fascination by a middle aged woman who remained attentive throughout the tour, remarking on her appreciation of the furniture and how much she would love to be able to decorate her house in the same style as the Davis’s.
Why did they eat in the basement? This is not the question to ask at the end of Jackson’s story, a tale that invites so many avenues of inquiry. At the very least, what happened to William Jackson and how did he, a presumably impoverished black man recently self-delivered from bondage, have such a fine likeness made during the 19th century? He wasn’t Frederick Douglass. Nor did his absconding with Davis’s property (himself) change Davis’s attitude toward the people he kept enslaved. What actual impact did Jackson’s intelligence have on the war? Did Jackson have a family and, if so, what happened to them? Did the Davis family extend retribution to the slaves in the household?*
None of that. Just why did they eat in the basement.
Now, this story bugs the shit out of me, but I can’t stop thinking about it. I find something darkly illustrative about where we stand with regard to community, history, and empathy in the United States, all things that require thought to master in a nation as large as the U.S. To me, the “why did they eat in the kitchen?” question throws into stark, ugly fluorescence the self-centered, atomized nature of contemporary American white people. That kind of question can only be posed by someone who doesn’t understand what a national community should be.
But it’s possible that I don’t understand America.
I recently published a book about a pretty bad rock record, a record that sprang from the deep well of confusion sewn by Confederate apologists. At several of my book events, folks asked me, after I decried the record I wrote about as being beholden to the urges of the Confederacy, “what about ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’?” Folks asked me this question, I think, because they feel like they will easily pinion me between two positions. First, I either decry “Dixie Down,” showing my poor taste, and therefore rendering me unacceptable as someone writing about music. Second, if I don’t extend the same criticism to “Dixie Down”—which is surely a Confederate song—I reveal myself as a hypocrite, also rendering myself unfit for people’s attention.
I do not find this a hard question to answer. The obvious answer is in the first line: “Virgil Cane is my name.” The song is being told by a narrator, a narrative construction. More important to me, though, and this is cribbing a bit from something I think Greil Marcus once wrote about the Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is salvaged by the record within which it’s embedded. The context of that song is the Band’s brilliant 1969 second record, The Band, a record that is about and which manifests, the riotous confusion and beauty and fierceness of our sprawling nation. “Dixie Down” shares space with “King Harvest,” the best pro-union rock song ever written, and “Rocking Chair,” a wholly empathetic, aching look at old friendships and the ever-present confrontation between age and youth. The Band is nothing if not a twelve track, sympathetic exploration of the great and troubling America. As part of the exploration, “Dixie Down” reflects some tricky American deformations, but it is not truly fruit of that deformation.
Much like America, there’s not much that hasn’t been said about The Band. The irony that a bunch of Canadians and one Arkansan managed to nail something gnarled and beautiful and resolute about this country is one such notion. But it’s true. With the same truth as gravity. And in the same way that gravity will ride every newborn down off the couch or the tree or the bed; just because something is true and has always been true doesn’t mean you should overlook the fact that somebody has to learn it.
I find The Band spooky, preternatural. It feels old, drawn from a deep well of reckless American energy that isn’t itself menacing but that defiantly flirts with and invites menace onto the farm. “The hailstones beatin’ on the roof, the bourbon is a hundred proof,” Levon Helm wails toward the end of “Rag Mama Rag,” but the part of that story that isn’t told, at least how it feels to me when I listen to it, is that the family has holed up in the cabin, lit the fire, and started to play to comfort themselves as the demons of America whorl about in a frenzy on the other side of the door. The comforts of community and family are never as sweet as when destruction slams its delivering winds again the window and doors.
There are no solutions. If we look at our sad moment of civil and democratic fracture, there isn’t a single mechanism or balm for the healing. But that makes observation all that much more important. Remedies today can be observational as much as prescriptive. Diagnosis is the remedy. Maybe? Maybe not.
You’ll surely agree that I’ve gotten myself into a bit of a bind at this point. I’d like to lay blame for that at the feet of Greil Marcus who, when not bricking himself within some of the most opaque yet non-academic writing in the English language, can be rapturous about rock music, America, and history. “‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,’ for one…is not so much a song about the Civil War as it is about the way each American carries a version of that event within himself.” Now, this statement is itself a riff on Robert Penn Warren’s incredible observation that “the Civil War is our only ‘felt’ history—history lived in the national imagination.” This is true as anything any American has ever written. But it’s as forgotten as it is true. As of last year, the United State government was still paying on a pension earned during the Civil War. And this leaves aside the social, economic, and cultural ruin that people like Jeff Davis fought to defend and that William Jackson fought to escape.
“America is a dangerous place, and to find community demands as much as any of us can give,” Marcus writes toward the end of the Band chapter in his masterpiece Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘N Roll Music. This is as true now as it was when Marcus wrote it. The nature of the danger has changed, though, I think. Most of us don’t want to give. Most of us are just in it for the taking, gaining sustenance from the place where some old racist ate.
* I asked the docent for more information about William Jackson and his woodcut. Harper’s ran a piece about his escape and his contribution to the Union war effort. The magazine commissioned the image to run alongside the story.