From his post 67 feet above Libby Hill, the soldier overlooks all of Richmond. He can see its river and its railroads, its parks and its people, its graveyards and its ghosts. Since his unveiling 120 years ago today, he’s seen his surroundings change in ways we often, in a different sense, also overlook. What follows are my efforts to explore the elements, no matter how obscure, that have helped drive that transformation into the beautifully diverse and deeply complex city I’m proud to call home.
Which brings us back to that soldier.
It’s easy to forget how quickly his perch – the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument – was erected after the Civil War ended in 1865. As context: 29 years ago today, the #1 album in the country was Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required. Tens of thousands of Confederate veterans were still alive, and the intervening years had done little to temper the indignity of their defeat.
One such veteran was Wilfred Cutshaw, a former colonel who’d lost a leg in an 1865 skirmish but by 1894 had become Richmond’s principal city planner, already responsible for a comprehensive redesign of the city’s layout during the Reconstruction. As an impressionable engineering student at VMI in the 1850s, he’d learned about Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria, Egypt, and its grandeur – utterly imagined, of course – would retain a curious stranglehold on his vision for Richmond more than 30 years later.
Evidently prominent in that vision was a monument honoring veterans conspicuously like himself. The Monument to Confederate War Dead had already been built in Hollywood Cemetery, and a statue honoring Robert E. Lee was soon to be unveiled on what would become Monument Avenue, but in 1889 he put forth plans before a handpicked committee to add yet another local tribute to the Confederate cause.
As related in the program* from our soldier’s unveiling ceremony, the meticulous nature of Cutshaw’s pitch suggests he’d long anticipated this opportunity. He presented “complete drawings of the pillar, giving dimensions, construction, ornamental details, etc.” which presumably were met with a collective shrug of approval and discreet eye-rolling among the members present. How could they say no to a one-legged veteran, especially one as frighteningly intense as Cutshaw?
*My favorite of the numerous ads in this pamphlet, which give you a sense of the stupefying import of tobacco to the local economy, is an endearingly enthusiastic one for Kingan’s Pork & Beef Packers: “Reliable hams! Virginia hams! Choice! Sweet!! Delicious!! The best!!!”
Critical to Cutshaw’s pitch was his insistence that the pillar, atop which a bronze soldier would stand, be comprised of 13 segments – one stone block hewn and provided by each of the former Confederate states. This proved egregiously shortsighted. Two years would pass before Cutshaw’s committee – having heard nothing from anyone outside Virginia about the blocks they’d requested – began timid efforts to contact the requisite governors directly. This did not go well.
“Are you really making me spell this out for you?” one imagines the governor of, say, Alabama writing back. “I can barely afford the parchment this is written on. I’m writing this from inside a cardboard box. I ate your letter for sustenance but I remember it saying something about Egypt. You know that’s in Africa, right? Like, where our slaves came from? And you want that to commemorate the Confederacy? What’s wrong with you? Hahaha, GTFO.” The people of Richmond would have to fund their newest monument on their own.
So began a protracted fundraising effort that would culminate in the greatest bake sale in Richmond history. Cutshaw and the city’s elite scrambled in the fall of 1891 to organize profitable events, including a lecture by a Confederate agitator named A.M. Keiley, who had spent years in prisons in New York and Maryland. His experience gave him a platform on which he could espouse his hateful anti-Yankee doctrine through his undoubtedly embellished stories of the atrocities he saw while incarcerated, in much the same way Prison Mike would do more than a century later.
“The lecture was delivered to one of the largest lecture-audiences ever gathered in Richmond, and was pronounced by those who heard it a most intensely interesting lecture,” the program from the unveiling breathlessly reported, adding, “it was, moreover, a decided financial success.”
Another fundraising effort in early 1892 saw the city host three performances of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera H.M.S. Pinafore, which would’ve been the modern-day equivalent of booking Jay-Z and Adele for three straight nights at Snagajob Pavilion. Cutshaw’s effort received another unexpected boost when the state legislature donated $3200 to help build the monument. At this point, the pillar was essentially paid for. But the fiscal viability of the statue – for which Cutshaw would ultimately contract local artist William Ludwell Sheppard to build – remained in doubt.
Thankfully, one of Cutshaw’s committee members alerted him to the time-proven fact that women are inherently more effective salespeople than men. Cutshaw saw the man’s logic, and immediately met with the women of the Hollywood and Oakwood Memorial associations to organize a “grand bazaar” for the benefit of the monument fund. It proved, by far, to be the single most profitable event in the three years of fundraising he oversaw; he now had the money to pay for his statue. The lesson, as always, is that Southern women can BAKE.
All that was left at this point was the statue itself – and Sheppard did not disappoint. He delivered a Southern Man not in the guilt-wracked, hypocritical mold described by Neil Young but instead one exhibiting the unbowed, unbent and unbroken countenance of a member of House Martell. Equal parts jaunty and defiant, relaxed and triumphant, the soldier shares the same attributes – not to mention an uncannily similar posture – as another underdog sculpted centuries before:
The most eagerly anticipated day of the year in Richmond these days is, quite justifiably, the day each winter when Hardywood releases its Gingerbread Stout. But even that can’t compare with the kind of excitement that attended May 30, 1894, as city officials planned a 2-mile parade ending at Libby Hill for the dramatic unveiling.
The morning broke raw and rainy, but it didn’t matter. An estimated 100,000 brought their umbrellas to witness the ceremony, which of course is nearly unimaginable to reckon today – but even moreso when you realize that the city’s population in 1894 was scarcely above 80,000. In other words, the vast majority of Richmond residents were crammed around Libby Hill this morning 120 years ago, along with thousands of people who had journeyed from elsewhere just to be a small part of something that must have felt incredibly important to them.
The monument’s backstory is also merely a small and mostly-forgotten part of this city’s broad history. Its fundamental themes of passion and collaboration, however, echo throughout that history in ways as overlooked as they are inspiring. I’m looking forward to unveiling those stories.