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