The Mist of History

Living in Rockbridge County, I’ve learned to accept the idea that there are three distinct kinds of “history.” First, there’s the history of historians, the gentle “arguments” of history professors in the three colleges rooted hereabouts and in the lectures you’ll hear Column footin Lee Chapel or Virginia Military Institute’s Jackson Memorial Hall reappraising the Civil War. Then there’s public history, the stories and monuments that give educated folks a sense of pride, or guilt, in the grand narratives. We have plenty of that history here too.

And then there’s what really happened. This is a realm of ghosts and coffins beyond our knowing. I look for that underneath the double-bullseye sidewalk bricks and granite pavers naming the “Righteous and Rascals of Rockbridge.” In a ditch dug by a work crew along East Washington Street, below the layers of red clay and limestone gravel, I see Progressive Era sewer pipes. But I wouldn’t expect to see deeper layers of real history. The early settlers of Lexington removed about six feet of street and earth to get down to this level. The original doors on the older houses are that far above the sidewalk.

Go to the cemeteries here for the buried kind of history, or see the sunless things buried in libraries, local historical societies, the two courthouses and a dozen or so proud little museums around Rockbridge County. You wouldn’t believe how many splendid little museums there are. In one Saturday afternoon, you can drive north to the once-bustling town of Brownsburg for its modest two-room museum, further north to the McCormick Farm exhibit on the county line, back to Lexington for the Miller’s House Museum at Jordan’s Point (where the Maury River, Wood’s Creek and the old canal come together) and up the bluff to VMI for the two polished museums of George C. Marshall and the Institute.

At Natural Bridge, now a well-managed state park 12 miles south of Lexington, you walk under “the most sublime of Nature’s work,” as Thomas Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia about his purchase from King George III.

Canal boat

Canal flatboat as would have carried goods on the old North River canal in the 19th century.

 Pass underneath the chilling power of the limestone arch, and down the path you come to the Monacan Indian Living History Exhibit. This native American tribe is said to have lived here for hundreds of years. The woodland Monacan tribe itself may be 10,000 years old, but only recently has it achieved federal recognition. History, as Gertrude Stein said, takes Time.

There’s something that is both rock and bridge about this area. It was a bridge to elsewhere, a passthrough place on the Great Wagon Road. That was the Appalachian dirt road to the southwest for the Scots-Irish migration, and the way Sam Houston went (his 1793 birthplace honored in two markers at Timber Ridge Wayside). Today, it’s a crossroads, the midway point between Atlanta and New York, the place where in the 1940s Hodding Carter Jr., the great Greenville, Mississippi, newspaper editor, would stop with his family on the way to their summer vacations in Maine to lecture the children on the Civil War (recalled Hodding III in a talk here at Washington and Lee University). But it’s also a rock, a sanctuary, a separate peace in the Valley where the Blue Ridge and Alleghanies squeeze a little closer together.

“It is a region with a different soil, a different climate, different scenery, and a population more distinctly sui generis than any,” wrote John Sergeant Wise, who spent Lex Carriagethe Civil War as a VMI cadet and whose father Governor Henry Wise (a Washington College graduate) helped bring on Virginia’s secession with his day-long interview with the mortally wounded abolitionist John Brown.

In Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, with its buried veterans of the American Revolution and Confederacy, the statue of Stonewall looms with mystic power (at twilight, the Haunting Tales-Lexington’s Ghost Tour makes you believe the head turns sadly toward the grave of his first wife, Eleanor Junkin, the grave plot where Jackson as VMI Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and Artillery Tactics came to pray daily).

So many graves in this cemetery (photographed by local super-star photographer Sally Mann) hide their own histories. General E.F. Paxton had died in the Battle of Chancellorsville with Jackson in 1863, at age 35. The simple headstone has only a single incised quotation: “It is well with thee.”

His father Elisha had hauled timber and crops down the North River (now the Maury) and built the Paxton House (now restored in Buena Vista’s Glen Maury Park, where old-timey festivals and rallies continue alongside the river).

“What we need is history,” said George C. Marshall. A quote from his 1953 Nobel Peace Prize address in the Marshall museum says the path to peace is to study with “almost scientific accuracy the circumstances which have marked the breakdown of peace.” That takes time, which is something we have here.

[This is the slightly edited version that ran in a magazine published recently by the Visitors Centers of Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County, 2020 Inspiration Guide.]

Marshall poster

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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