- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Richmond, Virginia, but 90 miles from Washington, D.C., was once the capital of the nascent Confederacy. From this city on the James River, perhaps it isn’t difficult to imagine Jefferson Davis — the one and only leader of the Confederate States of America — glaring through a spyglass across the Virginia miles up north to perhaps where Abraham Lincoln stood on the White House lawn, mulling how to direct his Union forces into the swiftest possible victory over the rebels.

While history was ultimately with Lincoln and the Union, the remnants of that difficult conflict remain in and around Virginia’s capital, which in the 21st century also boasts a thriving culinary scene, museums, colleges and memorials to both the Blue and Gray warriors who fought and died here.

Richmond is many things: history and contemporary, scarred and renewed, close and far (thanks to I-95 traffic). But of all of these, this city of 200,000 can be best described in a single word: fascinating.

***

Friday:

I’ll skip the part about the traffic on 95. Suffice to say, the later on a Friday you leave the nation’s capital, the more likely you are to be stuck in a 100-mile-long parking lot.

Accordingly, by the time Victoria and I make it to Rappahannock Oyster Co. (320 E Grace St., Richmond, Virginia, 23219, 804/545-0565) we’re more than ready to dine. This place, which feels simultaneously homely yet exciting, is a farm-to-table establishment that prides itself on its selection of mollusks from around the Old Dominion. The atmosphere is vibrant yet intimate, with rock music pumping in over the speakers at just the correct volume to stir up the blood but without harboring conversation. And I’m definitely digging on the wooden motif of the decor.

While sipping on a Midnight Brewery Oktoberfest Marzen from Rockville, Virginia, Vicky and I enjoy the outstanding ceviche and tuna tartare appetizers, followed by some delectable Rochambeau oysters from the Commonwealth’s many oyster farms.

We select a lovely Muscadet French wine to accompany the main course, which for me is the scallop entree, prepped to perfection. Vicky selects the wahu, which is just this side of too spicy.

Dessert entails pot de creme for the chocoholic that I am and, thankfully, my lady wisely selects the apple cobbler, which is positively out of sight.

Completely full up, Vicky and I check in at The Graduate Hotel (301 West Franklin Street, Richmond, Virginia, 23220, 804/644-9871). The lobby is rather happening, with business and pleasure travelers coming and going well into this Friday evening. Staff are extraordinarily friendly and knowledgeable of the area and offer up some tips on places to walk to in the morning.

Our room is spacious and open, with a separate desk and office area for me to work on some of my writing if relaxing simply proves too much (as it sometimes does for this workaholic). The room’s decoration is modern but welcoming — a great place to spend a weekend.

Vicky and I saunter up to the rooftop level, where there is a lovely pool that, due to the seasonal changes, is now too chilly, however the view of central Richmond up here is outstanding — as is the rooftop cabana bar area. We’ll have to come back in the warmer months.

 

Saturday:

Chances are if locals are lined up outside, the food inside must be great.

At Early Bird Biscuit Co. (119 N Robinson St., Richmond, Virginia, 23228, 804/335-4570), Vicky and I kick off our morning with biscuits that are baked freshly each morning. It’s a cozy spot with little seating, and they’ve got the assembly line of food prep down to a science, so make sure you know what you want by the time it’s your turn at the counter.

The ham biscuit entails locally sourced Virginia-cured ham on a buttermilk biscuit. I’m loving the salty taste and the buttery flavor.

We head then to a rather signature structure in town, one that housed the only president of a nation that existed for but four years. For the home that became the White House of the Confederacy (1201 East Clay Street Richmond, Virginia, 23219, 804/649-1861) was initially built as a private residence in the neoclassical style in 1818, but it wasn’t until Jefferson Davis moved in to lead the Southern states in their war against the North that the structure’s place in history was assured.

The Davises moved here from Montgomery, Alabama, in 1861, with Davis selected to lead the Confederacy. Richmond, but 100 miles from Washington, became the capital of the new nation, and here, in this mansion, the career soldier plotted on what he hoped would be a quick war against the Federals.

No photos are allowed inside the mansion, so just immerse yourself in 19th century Southern elegance. Explore the dining area, with contemporary maps set about to emphasize the time of war, and other rooms all decked out in period furnishings. In the main parlor, a great curtain barrier could be drawn to separate the cigar-smoking and war-discussing men from the circle of ladies being entertained by Davis’ wife, Varina. Upstairs are the first couple’s chambers, as well as those for their many children.

A docent regales us with stories of the time the Davis family spent here, with the president at first believing fortune was on his side, but ultimately fleeing the mansion on April 3, 1865, with Federals pecking at the outskirts of Richmond and Robert E. Lee’s surrender only days away. Davis served two years in prison, was released on bail and was then pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1868 in 1868 in the spirit of reconciliation.

After exiting the mansion, we saunter next door to the American Civil War Museum, which warehouses precious artifacts from the war, including letters from frightened young soldiers who nonetheless felt duty-bound. The slave narrative is also given prominence, and the standards of various Confederate units are preserved behind glass.

The museum will be relocating to a much larger waterfront facility in Historic Tredegar, with a projected opening of late 2018 or early 2019. Accordingly, Victoria and I head there, abutting the Richmond National Battlefield Park, and where a visitor center features yet more artifacts.

After a quick lunch of a tasty buffalo wrap and fried chicken club with bacon on a brioche bun at the homely Village Cafe (1001 W Grace St., Richmond, Virginia, 23220, 804/353-8204), Vicky and I take a drive to the Hollywood Cemetery (412 South Cherry St., Richmond, Virginia, 23220, 804/648-8501), whose famous residents include Davis himself, buried next to Varina beneath a statue of the former Confederate president. (Some visitors have seen fit to plant the Stars & Bars in tribute.) However, you feel about the conflict, today Hollywood Cemetery is a peaceful place, and nearby Davis’ final resting place, you can take in a delightful view of the James and downtown Richmond — symbolically looking toward the future.

If you have time, you can also visit the Monument to the Confederate War Dead as well as the tomb of John Tyler, the 10th president of the U.S. — and the fifth Virginian — who died in 1862.

A bit of a further drive takes us to another part of the Richmond Battlefield called Fort Harrison. Here earthworks were piled high by the Confederate Army in an attempt to repel Yankees who were marching toward the capital in late 1864. Exhibits show vintage photographs of how there were once no trees here, allowing Blue and Gray to stare across the field at one another, hoping snipers were not staking out enemy positions.

Union forces took the fort, renaming it Fort Burnham after the general killed in a Confederate attempt to take the fortress back on Sept. 29.

Make sure to walk the grounds and drive to more of the old trenches and defenses that have managed to withstand the ongoing effects of time and entropy.

After taking in quite a bit of history, Vicky and I are in need of a cocktail, and we were told there’s no better place to experience Richmond mixology than at the Rogue Gentleman (618 N 1st St., Richmond, Virginia, 23219, 804/477-3456). I immediately feel myself at home beholding the rather cheekily designed cocktail menu, whose theme, I am told rotates every 90 days — including one that tells the “true story” of the bar’s founding. The names of the drinks are as humorous, such as the “Vampire Kit to Ward Off Vampires” (as if there’s any other kind).

I keep it simple today, with myself ordering up an old fashioned made from Dickel’s Rye and an orange rind that gives the drink just the right amount of citrus flavor.

Suitably lubed up, we walk to the nearby Saison (23 W Marshall St., Richmond, Virginia, 23220, 804/269-3689) for dinner. This is a hip and warm spot, with a vibrancy evident from the moment we step in. I immediately order up a Long John, a cocktail entailing peach bourbon, Bangkok tea syrup and mint. I toast my love, who has a hopped gin and tonic in hand.

For appetizers we try the pan-fried squash, which is positively amazing, followed by the sweetbreads, which are spiced to a delicious degree that is, perhaps, meant to make you forget you’re eating pancreas (but it’s delicious, I promise). After another round of cocktails, we enjoy the dessert donuts and retire.

 

Sunday:

There’s just one place we have to check out before we head back north, and that’s Capitol Square, wherein are located both the Virginia State Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion.

Surrounding the halls of government — and a stone’s throw from where Gov. Terry McAuliffe will reside for a few months more — is a bevy of statues that celebrate the history of the Old Dominion. It’s a history that is complicated and controversial, and remains so as some people say that certain statues should be taken down.

Accordingly, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is not far from Edgar Allan Poe. Nearby to both is a monument to civil rights pioneer Barbara Johns, whose actions against segregated schooling in Farmville, Virginia, would earn the notice of the NAACP. Johns’ efforts culminated in the case Davis v. Prince Edward County, which was one of the cases that became part of the consolidated Brown v. Board of Education, which forever struck down “separate but equal” schooling nationwide.

Johns and “Stonewall” face off on this square. Is it right that they should both be here? Whose history should be taught — and remembered? And whichever side of the monument divide you fall on, the important thing is to talk to your fellow citizens so that a balance between remembrance (history) and contemporary sensibilities (tolerance) can be struck.

It is the legacy of Richmond, the capital city on the James River, the onetime heart of the Confederacy and now one of the most cultured cities in Virginia. It is testament to that, in America, all things are yet possible.

To learn more about things to see and do in Richmond, go to VisitRichmondVA.com.

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