Stirring up history, serving up stories

Fall Field Trip

Added on by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer.

Yesterday we visited Montpelier, the erstwhile home of James and Dolley Madison, in Orange County, Virginia. Well, we didn't visit the home itself, just the grounds, but we came close enough to the stately (though rather squat, if you ask me) brick manse. What we really wanted to see were the partially reconstructed slave dwellings. What's both fascinating and distressing is the proximity of the cabins to the big house. Enslaved house servants would have known little if any respite from their masters, who were literally right next door. It's clear here, in case there was any doubt, that slavery was both integral and indispensable to the Madisons' "way of life."

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The juxtaposition of the third and fourth photographs is meant to highlight two very distinct historical narratives. George Gilmore, born a slave at Montpelier circa 1810, came to own the small white cabin under the black walnut tree. He and his wife, Polly, lived in it for more than 30 years, from the 1870s until the early 1900s, and raised five children on the property. According to Montpelier's website, it is the only preserved freedman's home in Virginia. When we visited late yesterday afternoon, we were told it might be the only one in the country.

On our way back to Richmond from Montpelier, we drove through the small town of Louisa, where yet another monument to the Confederacy stands in front of the rather worn-looking court house. The inscription on the back reads: "In memory of the courage, patriotism and devotion of the Confederate soldiers of Louisa County, 1861–1865," and then, beneath the imprint of the Confederate battle flag, "Deo Vindice" ("With God as Our Champion"), the motto of the CSA. I don't dispute the courage and devotion of individual Confederate soldiers — though you must ask, devotion to what? — but "patriotism" is a little misleading, in my view. Especially with the American flag flapping in the background, as if these soldiers had, in fact, fought for America. —EHP