As I watched the statue of Stonewall Jackson unceremoniously removed as a crowd cheered, I wondered just how deep is Richmond’s relationship with the Lost Cause, and how engrained that legacy of defeat is woven in our heritage.
How many streets, buildings, parks, plaques and other landmarks in the city are associated with the Confederacy?
I realized how close to home that legacy can hit when I discovered that the street where I was raised, lived for decades, and where the home of my children is located was named for a Confederate hero.
I could have gone a lifetime, and almost did, not knowing that Cutshaw Avenue was indeed a tribute to one of Richmond’s Confederates, Wilfred Emory Cutshaw.
Cutshaw was an artillery officer and lost a leg in the Battle of Saylor’s Creek shortly before Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. That ended a four-year military career where Cutshaw fought with Stonewall Jackson in the Valley, and thwarted George B. McClellan on the Peninsula.
He returned to Richmond after the war and was named city engineer in 1873, tasked with rebuilding a demolished and financially challenged city. He landed the position after his former colleague, Lee, sent a letter of recommendation to city leaders urging them to hire the CSA veteran.
Cutshaw is responsible for the cityscape we now so closely associate with Richmond, including tree-lined streets with large urban parks. He is responsible for planting more than 50,000 trees throughout the city, designing the Pump House that receives high architectural marks today, and building a City Hall that still highlights a block on Broad Street in downtown Richmond. Numerous parks also were designed by Cutshaw.
For decades, Cutshaw transformed Richmond and established its European-influenced style cityscape complete with wide boulevards, statues and open space. A marker stands in Byrd Park, another of his creations, and recognized his years of service to the city.
And it all might have ended there with Cutshaw’s reputation intact and his four years of service for the South just a blip on a resume that most considered impressive.
But two years after officials began plans to construct a Confederate Sailors and Soldiers Monument in Libby Hill Park, the project was turned over to, you guessed it, Cutshaw. He oversaw the completion of the project and even suggested Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria, Egypt, be used as a model for the new statue.
Raising funds for the project required Cutshaw’s full attention, and, in 1894, the lone soldier atop the pillar was unveiled and has watched over downtown Richmond for more than a century.
My better judgment tells me that Cutshaw Avenue was not named for a military hero, but rather a talented engineer whose creative efforts produced results still enjoyed today as we ride along the Boulevard, or marvel at a Pump House that provided running water throughout the city.
It reminds me that context is important, and even our heroes should not be judged by their weakest or most insincere moments, but remembered for the entirety of their contributions.
And understanding that some associations are unforgivable and cannot be erased, I suspect many Confederate leaders whose image we now find uncomfortable accomplished much more than military prowess.
That doesn’t excuse their choices or their dedication to an abhorrent cause that enslaved and devalued many Americans, but it does remind us that four years does not a lifetime make.
I also understand my perspective is quite different from others, and some would argue that years of good deeds can never compensate for the damage done in those four short years, or the hopeless and inhumane cause they supported.
And no one should confuse their military expertise or leadership abilities with the reasoning that resulted in the construction of numerous Confederate monuments in the city.
Their construction was motivated by hate and a desire to leave a permanent message that the cause was noble, its leaders deserving of respect and memorialization and a continuing warning of non-inclusion.
Like many older Richmonders, I marveled at the beauty of Monument Avenue, and, yes, its monuments, as I drove past. And, maybe that’s part of the problem — the failure to recognize that symbols we considered appropriate were not, and for some who rode past those same monuments on that beautiful avenue, pride was not an emotion even in the mix. The statues were more of a reminder of past injustices than memorials to respected leaders.