A Brighter Land

In Mt. Jackson (named for Andrew, not Stonewall) is Our Soldiers’ Cemetery, across U.S. 11 (a.k.a. Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway) from what had been a Confederate military hospital. In those days, 2/3 of military deaths were from disease, not battle, so both the hospital and the cemetery were kept busy.

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On the cemetery site is a statue erected in 1903 by the Daughters of the Confederacy.

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On one side is inscribed a fragment from Abram Joseph Ryan’s 1879 poem, The Sword of Robert Lee:

Nor braver bled for a brighter land,
Nor brighter land had a Cause so grand

Students of history know that Rutherford Hayes was anointed President in a dirty deal that involved the end of Reconstruction in 1877. In effect, the Confederacy was handed a victory. Slavery was abolished, but Southern institutions otherwise were allowed to revert to the old ways. A terrible war to defend the right to own slaves (which the slave states believed was threatened because Abraham Lincoln opposed the spread of slavery to other states and territories – they did not accept his assurance that slavery would remain Constitutional and protected where it already existed) had become a noble Cause. This myth would be taught to succeeding generations.

We thought about this as we headed south through occasional light rain and headwinds of up to 30 mph. We entered Rockingham County.

The turkey is bronze.

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The mountain is Blue Ridge.

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The show is for goats.

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Still pondering the meaning of Confederate hero-worship, we arrived in Harrisonburg and rode past James Madison University.

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You see just a bit of the beautiful campus. What a fine-looking arts center, hm?

Then it hit us. This place that so honored Robert Lee – a man known to be cruel to his slaves even by the brutal standards of the day – and “Stonewall” Jackson, also a bloody traitor – is now a place of culture, inclusion and safety. We saw exotic-looking people in some of the small towns we rode through – they looked like descendants of the Aztecs or Incas. We saw church billboards exhorting people to do good works. (And here’s a cool electronic church sign that didn’t photograph well; after notices of church activities, the time and temperature would be displayed, and the bright green frog’s hot pink tongue would snap out to drag them into its mouth.)

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We saw hospitals that, by law, provide emergency treatment without regard to origin or ability to pay. We saw arts institutions even in small towns, government offices for health, roads, public safety – not just for men, or U.S. citizens, or members of a particular religion – for everyone. We saw buildings owned by veterans’ groups (e.g., the VFW) and by organizations that want there to be no more veterans (several Mennonite churches and a Mennonite university). We used paved roads and bicycle lanes, open to all without fee. We saw Indian restaurants; a Mexican shop selling foods, music, movies, etc., where the signage is all in Spanish; and the manager of the hotel where we stopped for the night is from Fiji. Immigrants, foreigners, maybe refugees, doing their thing openly and without fuss. The kind of country envisioned by Human Rights First – if we could just get the paperwork straightened out.

Yes, we saw a bumper sticker: “Let’s load our muskets, get behind a fence rail, and take our country back!” (Take how? Back from whom? To what end?) But there are nuts everywhere. Everyone whom Jeffrey has told about our ride, or who has asked us about it, has wished us well. This is not the Lee-Jackson Shenandoah Valley. Not anymore. And a good thing too.

Some local color around Staunton, VA:

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Isn’t old Staunton pretty? There are some modern treats, too. These sculptures next to an underpass are huge.

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South of Staunton, we stopped to watch some beeves. This is a beef cattle area; we saw a sign for a Cowboy Church.

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We ended the day at the south edge of Staunton City (a large area that extends far outside the city proper), at the edge of Greenville. We’re staying in a motel adjacent to a house built by Hessian POWs presumably shipped more than 400 miles from their capture at the Battle of Saratoga in northern NY.

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In the hotel office, Jeffrey met a fellow guest, a German woman. Jeffrey mentioned that his parents-in-law fled Germany in the 1930s. The woman immediately said that her father, a metallurgist, had been forced to work in Hitler’s defense industries. “In those days, you had no choice.” Well, of course he had a choice. There always is a choice. The question is the price to be paid.

You might think we were troubled by this encounter. Not at all! That an innocent German woman, 67 years after the end of the Nazi era, feels the need to excuse her father – who may have had to choose from a universe of bad choices – shows that she knows right from wrong. She did not glorify collaboration with evil. She sought only to explain it. Some Americans, 147 years after the Confederacy collapsed, are not yet ready to acknowledge its evil and change their road signs. (How many German roads are named for the man who had the Autobahn built?)

Still, liberalism has won in this Valley. A significant level of diversity and government activism is accepted here. Judging from what we have seen, the community now has, more or less, a place for everyone. Notwithstanding the homage paid to those who fought to preserve slavery, it is at last A Brighter Land.

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