My name is Savannah Lane and I am the current reigning Miss Virginia 2015 in the Miss America Organization (an organization known for scholarship and service). I am a student at the University of Virginia studying Foreign Affairs and Middle Eastern studies with a concentration in the Arabic language.
Heading toward competition as Miss Virginia in the 95th annual Miss America program this past fall, it occurred to me that my experiences and acquaintances would allow me to meet women from around the country, including those from some particularly vacation–friendly states and territories, like Hawaii and Puerto Rico. As I daydreamed about the potential for post-competition visits, a sudden thought intruded upon my reverie: would these women be similarly dreaming of visiting the Commonwealth of Virginia?
In fact, in Atlantic City, contestants and visitors that I encountered rhapsodized about class trips to Williamsburg and Jamestown, to Virginia Beach and Monticello. Virginia’s official and unofficial public relations campaigns had clearly done their job to positively promote the eclectic appeal of the Commonwealth. Few would consciously connect 21st century attractions in Virginia, however, to sobering statistics that weigh heavy on the Commonwealth, such as its sorrowful distinction as the state that hosted more major Civil War battles than any other. As 2015 comes to a close, a little over 150 years after the last battles of the Civil War, it is important not only to recognize the enormity of the losses, but to acknowledge that challenges that have been met in those 150 years since Appomattox and its aftermath, as well as to reflect on those that still face us today.
My father’s office is housed in a building whose driveway begins near the suspended foot bridge under the Robert E. Lee Bridge that connects the Richmond of cobblestone streets with Belle Isle. Belle Isle is emblematic of eras with its legacy of being explored by Captain John Smith in 1607, its use as a colonial racetrack, and its status as a Civil War prisoner of war camp for captured Union soldiers. Heading East from my father’s workplace, away from the rock studded foam of the James River, stands the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar Ironworks perched atop a steep hillside in what once housed the Tredegar Iron Works, which clinched Richmond’s place as the center for oil and coal in the South by the onset of the 1860’s. Considering the museum’s proximity to the occasional lunches with my father—to celebrate good report cards and college acceptances, or to commiserate about one of my three sisters or the devilish antics of a much younger brother, I have spent educational afternoons in the Tredegar museum with its soaring ceilings and dim lighting that renders it simultaneously impressive and surprisingly intimate. An amateur history buff, pressed for time, could navigate a portion of its artifacts in the site now run by the National Park Service as well as that of its sister, the American Civil War Center within an hour or two, and take notice of objects like a Civil War surgeon’s crude medical kit, a musician’s drum that beat a tattoo as soldier’s marched toward their destiny, or the horror of shackles and other implements of the slave trade. Of course, serious scholars will find much food for thought at the Historic Tredegar/American Civil War Center because of the unique approach to providing historical testament from Confederate, Union and African-American perspectives. I continue to find myself fascinated by the evidence of people living in a surreal crucible of a time, lingering before exhibits revealing impossibly small dresses or jewelry fashioned from jet, the special coal designated for mourning, seemingly indestructible souvenirs of a time when all of America was self destructing. While the immediacy of the Civil War has at times been more removed from my life, my interest in the era took a decidedly personal turn in recent years when a great uncle’s genealogy research coalesced with my growing captivation with history as my teen years wore on, all as the sesquicentennial anniversary of the close of the American Civil War drew near.
I grew up hearing stories about my Great Grandfather Arthur Major’s hard scrabble life in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. My Grandma McCafferty takes little prodding to tell a good tale about the simpler, and yes, economically deprived times growing up as the daughter of a coal miner. What I had not realized, though, was that the legacy of mining, black lung and a living scratched from cold Pennsylvania soil stretched far back in my family’s history, and included the story of one young man who avoided the hardships of a life centered on coal by enlisting as a soldier during the Civil War.
Like many of his generation, my great uncle, W. Anthony (“Tony”) Major became intrigued with researching family history as his own children grew up, moved out, and began raising their own families. Suddenly, to him, the knowledge of where he came from became as important as where he was headed. Examining original sources on his own and with the help of Historical Societies and representatives of the National Park Services, Uncle Tony rediscovered the story of an ancestor, John Major, a teenager who was 16 years old in July of 1862 when he enrolled in Company K of the 129th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers. He completed this enlistment stint, in 1863.
On February 24, 1864 at the age of 18, John Major was again mustered into the service of a Pennsylvania brigade, this time in Company E of the 48th, Pennsylvania, headed for a 3 year term. There is no record to reveal whether or not this reenlistment was an action taken out of firm conviction or economic hardship. The 48th Pennsylvania saw action at the Siege of Petersburg in 1864 a few months later. A diary entry that Uncle Tony uncovered as an original source in researching the fate of this Civil War enlisted soldier and which Uncle Tony shared with my family reveals a few sparse words establishing the fate of the teen that traveled far from the mountains of coal to the rolling hills of Virginia. At the time of his death on June 17, 1864 in an early morning Petersburg battle, my relative, John Major, was 19 years old – younger than my 20 years today.
In addition to examining the Civil War era through research, Uncle Tony routinely visits the great Civil War battle sites and became intrigued, even obsessed, with paying respects at the grave of John Major. To his disappointment, the grave could not immediately be located, and this is not surprising considering the more than 600,000 casualties of the Civil War- more than the combined toll of the Revolutionary War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, according to the website nps.gov. Moreover, according to that National Park Service website, at one point, more than half of the Civil War dead remained unidentified. My uncle recites statistics that one third of the graves of the Union dead were lost to history, with even worse odds of locating “lost” Confederate soldiers’ graves. Nevertheless, through persistence and personal visits, through Park Rangers who patiently worked with Uncle Tony and undoubtedly countless others looking backward into the mists of the Civil War past to clear up the country of the future, the grave of Private John Major was located. Originally interred in a cemetery at Meade Station, Virginia, when that military graveyard was closed, the remains of John Major were reinterred near the center of the quiet, unassuming City Point Cemetery underneath a shady, sturdy tree. Uncle Tony first pinpointed the grounds where John Major met his fate, and the photograph of this finding reflects my great uncle standing solemnly in a clearing that bears no outward sign of the bloodshed of long-ago battle. Uncle Tony reports that it was a very moving experience after scouring registries and following so many genealogical red herrings to finally additionally fulfill his dream of paying respects to this long ago Pennsylvania relative when he located, at last, Grave No. 2368 in that City Point Cemetery in Hopewell, Virginia.
Last month, I traveled to Hopewell on a quest to follow my great uncle’s trail to view the gravesite of that Civil War era ancestor who died alone in battle and whose final resting place lies in a county adjacent to the place that I have called home for more than a dozen years. In the surreal setting of a small but well-tended cemetery surrounded incongruously by 21st century housing, I viewed, firsthand, a headstone marking the dates of a life cut short by a tragic war.
As Miss Virginia, I promote the four points of the Miss America system crown: service, scholarship, style and success, with a heavy emphasis on service. The region that I proudly represent includes Monticello, Mount Vernon, St. John’s Church of Patrick Henry oratory fame, Belle Isle and the American Civil War Center, and many other historical landmarks of wide recognition. It includes that territory encompassing the former Tredegar Ironworks and its bronze Lincoln statue bearing words that are an entreaty: “To Bind Up the Nation’s Wounds” in a country where a century and half later a people still struggle bitterly with fractured race relations that helped ignite the American war that pitted brother against brother. It includes the area containing the final resting place of a teenager who put himself in the crossfire of a country at a crossroads a little more than 150 years ago, a country that has not moved far enough from racial divisiveness today but continues to hope for healing for the future. Rest in peace John Major.