THE South’s White House in Richmond, Virginia, is nothing like the one in Washington.
Along with the Museum of the Confederacy, it’s squeezed in between two blocks of a hospital in the historic centre of the city. There’s only space for two cars to park: any more, and they’d be blocking the ambulances rushing into A&E.
So when the hospital’s black security guard sees me trying to park, he’s quite right to wander over. It’s OK, I tell him. I don’t want the hospital, I’m here for the Museum of the Confederacy. “Oh,” he says, “so you’re visiting with those folks, huh?”
Look, I want to tell him, I’m not a racist. It’s just that I love history. Everything I’ve seen in Virginia has all been about that. And there’s tons of it here too. The first British settlement in Jamestown (1605, the first African-American slaves arrived in 1619): I’ve already been there, and it’s one of the most thought-provoking museums I’ve ever visited. The state’s old capitol of Williamsburg, its colonial buildings rebuilt in the 1920s: I’ve been there too and seen the historical re-enactments. They, too, make you think. What would I have done, I wonder, if I’d been a slave at the time of the War of Independence and the British had promised to free me but my colonialist masters hadn’t? You guys picked the wrong side, I feel like telling the security guard. Except he’d probably wonder about me even more, think I meant the Confederacy.
So I park in front of the museum and walk on in. There are a group of bikers with Confederate flag bandanas and ZZ Top beards sitting on the steps outside. Bloody rednecks, I think to myself. “Hey,” one of them says. “Your car. The hood’s loose.” I turn round. They’re right. One bump on the interstate and the bonnet would fly up in front of the windscreen. “Oh yeah. Right. Thanks, very much,” I say. As I walk into the Museum of the Confederacy, they smile back at me. Must be one of us, they’re probably thinking.
No I bloody well am not, I say to myself. I’m talking to myself an awful lot these days, I realise.
It’s September last year, there’s an election in a couple of months, and I’m touring alone around Virginia, which is one of those battleground states a black president must win if he’s to remain in the Northern White House, and no-one knows which way it’s going to go. Historically, Virginia has been Republican as solidly as Glasgow has been Labour, but in the last election Obama won it by bringing out the African-American vote in DC’s southern suburbs, and if he can repeat the trick he might win again. But can he?
I’ve just been around the Museum of the Civil War a couple of miles away in Richmond at the old Tredegar Ironworks that made the bulk of the armaments the South used to fight the North. It is, it boasts, the only museum in the country to tell the story of the conflict giving equal weight to all three sides in it: North, South, and African-Americans. At the end, there’s a wall where visitors are asked to put Post-it notes in answer to a series of questions. How might America be different if the Union had not won the Civil War? asks one. “It would be a better place,” someone replied in angry capitals. No vote for Obama there.
But I’m also in Richmond to follow in the footsteps of another president. Next week sees the UK release of the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis and shot entirely on location in Richmond and Virginia. It’s a great film, nominated for 12 Oscars including best film, about the passage of the 13th Amendment freeing the slaves – but I can’t help thinking they missed a trick. If it had been me directing, we would have had a scene in which Lincoln, finally victorious, enters Richmond and walks up to the Southern White House.
He’s got just a week of his life left. Already, on board the Union warship River Queen, at anchor on the Appomattox moored to the south-west of the city, he has had a dream in which he was assassinated.
But with his son Tod, early one morning, he comes ashore at and walks through the defeated enemy capital. The fires the retreating Confederates set have burnt out, and the riverfront streets are ruined and still smouldering.
He walks up towards the Southern White House, where Confederate president Jefferson Davies brought up his tearaway sons and where General Lee used to come to discuss strategy. Former slaves realise who he is and throng admiringly around him. He has just four soldiers to guard him. As the man showing me around the Museum of the Confederacy points out, it’s amazing that none of the defeated rebels tries to kill him. And he walks up to the Southern White House, right past where the black security guard had talked to me, up the stairs to Davies’ surprisingly small office. He sits in his chair and drinks a glass of water.
Because I’ve been travelling around Virginia’s past, I find it easy to imagine any number of scenes like that. The Virginia Company’s ships (Shakespeare might have imagined these too: The Tempest is based on one of them being shipwrecked en route to Virginia) sailing up Hampton Roads past what is now the world’s largest naval base at Norfolk (six aircraft carriers, five cruisers, 24 guided missile destroyers). Thomas Jefferson retiring from the presidency and building his house at Monticello (an obvious must-see, one of America’s few World Heritage sites). Eleanor Roosevelt touring the beautiful Shenandoah Valley in the 1930s (an easy one, this: at the wonderful Mimslyn Inn, near Luray, they put me in her suite). And of course, Williamsburg itself, where actors bring history back to life with far more sophistication than I had been prepared for.
But just suppose you’re not interested in history, in how America became the country it is, in Civil War battlefields (more in Virginia than anywhere else) or a succession of world-class museums. Should you still go to Virginia?
Of course you should. There are 35 state parks, from the Blue Ridge mountains to the Eastern Shore. There are vineyards that centuries after the British colonists failed to produce decent crops, are matching the finest Californian wines. There are resorts like Virginia Beach that offer everything from Broadway shows and a hectic nightlife to spa escapes and wildlife safaris.
The Brits come to Virginia, apparently, for the history and the nightlife; the Germans (who are the state’s next most important European market) come for the eco-tourism. In Virginia, there’s plenty for both.
The furthest I got from history was about a mile off the coast learning how to sea-kayak while surrounded – and I mean surrounded, there were about 40 of them – by curious bottlenose dolphins. They swam alongside, in front and behind me, twisting and sliding into the waves only half a dozen feet beyond my paddle. Watching them, as the warm sun played on the water and caught their glistening flanks, I learnt nothing about the past but a fair bit about enjoying the present. In Virginia, it’s easy to do both.
British Airways offers return flights including taxes from Edinburgh to Washington DC airports from £502 per person, visit www.ba.com For information on the Capital Region USA, visit www.capitalregionusa.co.uk