An­other coun­try

Carla Carlisle re­mem­bers a piv­otal fig­ure from her child­hood his­tory lessons in the Deep South

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

AL­THOUGH the roots of this English es­tate go back to Domes­day, the gar­den at Wyken has a South­ern ac­cent, as in Deep South. The iron gate lead­ing to the kitchen gar­den is made of corn­stalks en­twined with morn­ing glory, cast from the same mould­ings that cre­ated the fa­mous rail­ings sur­round­ing the Corn­stalk House in New Or­leans. I found the orig­i­nals here in Eng­land, bought six pan­els and welded them to­gether.

Then there’s the Red Hot Bor­der. My Mis­sis­sippi grand­mother be­lieved every gar­den needed some­thing ‘a lit­tle vul­gah’. She reck­oned that if you stick to pale pinks and creamy mag­no­lias, you end up with a gar­den for sleep­walk­ers. She shared Nancy Lan­caster’s be­lief that white fur­ni­ture looks like as­pirin in the gar­den, which is why the first thing you see when you ar­rive are five rock­ing chairs painted a dusky blue-grey. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it ‘Con­fed­er­ate Grey’, but Miss Lan­caster and her Vir­ginia-born aunt, Nancy As­tor, wouldn’t have flinched at call­ing it that.

I hardly no­tice what else is South­ern in this Suf­folk manor house, but as I watched the hell that un­folded in Char­lottesville three weeks ago, things be­gan to stick out. On the El­iz­a­bethan ta­ble in the hall is a leather-bound shoot­ing script of Gone With The Wind. It was left to me by Will Price, the voice coach who taught Vivien Leigh and Les­lie Howard their South­ern ac­cents. Most Amer­i­cans never knew that Scar­lett and Ash­ley were ac­tu­ally English. It’s in­scribed: ‘For Will Price who lit­er­ally shoved the South down our throats. With good wishes al­ways, David Selznick’.

Some­thing else that I found in a box of my grand­mother’s let­ters: a carved fig­ure no taller than my thumb that stands in the win­dow above the kitchen sink. He’s not hand­some or dig­ni­fied—his head is al­most as large as his body—but it cap­tures his fine pro­file. It’s Robert E. Lee and his aris­to­cratic nose was al­ways his best fea­ture.

I’ve of­ten thought about re­mov­ing Lee from my kitchen, but he got a re­prieve af­ter I saw the movie Lin­coln. In the last scene the war fi­nally ended, with 620,000 dead. As the de­feated gen­eral, his face old with sad­ness, ar­rives on his bony horse Trav­eller and, with the slight lifting of his hat, sur­ren­ders to Gen Grant at Ap­po­mat­tox, I be­gan to weep.

Days later, I re­mem­bered Lee’s most quoted words: ‘It is well that war is so ter­ri­ble, or we should grow too fond of it.’ And the words of Tac­i­tus that Shelby Foote bor­rowed for his fi­nal vol­ume of The Civil War: ‘They make a wilder­ness and call it peace.’

The for­lorn Lee was a cru­cial im­age in my early ed­u­ca­tion. We were brought up with the ‘Lost Cause’ ver­sion of a war that was al­ways called ‘The War Be­tween the States’. When I was a ‘yel­low-headed lap­baby’, my great-aunts told me that my belly but­ton was ‘where the Yan­kee shot you’. By the time I could read, I knew the Civil War was a tragedy, that Re­con­struc­tion was a cruel, un­just and pro­longed pun­ish­ment of the South and that Lee was an hon­ourable, brave gen­tle­man, a sol­dier so dis­tin­guished that Lin­coln asked him to lead the Union troops. His choos­ing the Con­fed­er­acy over the Union is one of the most fa­mous de­ci­sions in Amer­i­can his­tory.

We were never taught that the war was about the hu­man bondage of slav­ery. We were taught that the South fought it for a more worldly cause: to vindi­cate State Sovereignty, a war of North­ern ag­gres­sion against South­ern con­sti­tu­tional rights.

I ended up leav­ing the South in the 1960s, freed by my eman­ci­pated view of race and hu­man­ity. How­ever, the moral high ground is a slip­pery slope: I didn’t un­der­stand that the myths you learn in child­hood re­side in the blood like dor­mant viruses.

Old mem­o­ries re­turned as I watched the news from Vir­ginia and the civilised, beau­ti­ful city of Char­lottesville. I looked at the white faces il­lu­mi­nated by torches, chant­ing the vile anti-semitic rants of the 1930s, the neo-nazis and Klans­men. A cen­tury and a half later, af­ter the war that forms the most trau­matic scar in its young his­tory, Amer­ica is still a di­vided na­tion en­gaged in a bat­tle for its soul.

‘The moral high ground is a slip­pery slope ‘Tac­i­tus wrote: “They make a wilder­ness and call it peace”

Few his­to­ri­ans think Lee is a good sym­bol for white su­prem­a­cists. Yes, he was a slave­holder—so was Grant—but Lee was a com­plex man who called slav­ery ‘a moral and po­lit­i­cal evil’. He hated the idea of erect­ing mon­u­ments to Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers, writ­ing: ‘I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to fol­low the ex­am­ples of those na­tions who en­deav­oured to oblit­er­ate the marks of civil strife. To com­mit to obliv­ion the feel­ings en­gen­dered.’

My minia­ture Lee now rests in a shoe­box in the at­tic on a bed of 1,000 Con­fed­er­ate dol­lars that lost their value long be­fore that war ended. I think that Lee would also be re­lieved to va­cate the square in Char­lottesville and find peace in a mu­seum ded­i­cated to telling both sides of the sad­dest story in Amer­ica’s his­tory.

If you want to re­mem­ber the man, there is a mon­u­ment that will last as long as Amer­ica en­dures. Called Arlington Na­tional Ceme­tery, ‘the na­tion’s most hal­lowed ground’, it was Lee’s fam­ily es­tate. Seized by the US Gov­ern­ment early in the war, it be­came the burial ground for the Union dead. It is now the rest­ing place of Amer­i­can sol­diers of every race and creed, a piece of land where the furies of civil strife are fi­nally com­mit­ted to obliv­ion.

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