General Peril 

A North Side controversy could be resolved by forgetting the roundabout and moving the man.

click to enlarge art33_arch_aphill_200.jpg

A controversy continues to brew in North Side at the busy and often treacherous intersection of Laburnum Avenue and Hermitage Road. Like many recurring Richmond conflicts, it involves a Confederate statue.

This is the crossroads where Confederate Gen. Ambrose Powell (A.P.) Hill is buried ignominiously in a small traffic circle around which vehicles careen at all hours. Nearby Interstate 64 ramps are part of the feeder system, and things really get dicey at rush hours and when NASCAR wheels into town.

While it's legal to make left turns here, it's only for the brave-hearted. The steep burial mound, the tall granite plinth and the bronze statue it supports of “Little Powell” (as Hill's soldiers affectionately called him) severely limit visibility. Accidents are frequent. Deaths have occurred. It's one of the city's five worst intersections.

Is it just my imagination, or has inch by precious inch of the grassy roundabout been nibbled away for road widenings through the years while traffic has increased? If that's the case, this is grave tampering. And if the gravesite's towering monument limits visibility and creates increasing hazards, then why not move Gen. Hill? What honor is there to being buried in a perpetual traffic jam? There's nothing historically significant about his burial site anyway: He's stranded out there like a bump on a pickle.

The city is moving ahead with plans to remove the traffic signals and install a roundabout here, reflecting a major design initiative from the Virginia Department of Transportation. VDOT cites a “tremendous crash reduction factor” in places where traffic circles have replaced “signalized intersections.” State officials have told the city to get with the program and pick up the pace on making this particular conversion — or risk jeopardizing funds for future safety improvements.

The Ginter Park Residents Association is against the change. Among its concerns are a lack of empirical evidence that roundabouts effectively reduce accidents; uneven traffic flow of Laburnum (greater) versus Hermitage (less); pedestrian issues; heavy traffic on race days; difficulty for bicyclists; and how neighboring residential driveways and traffic at A. Linwood Holton Elementary School would be affected.

I'm no fan of traffic circles, and certainly not at this location. Traffic loads here require traffic lights as referees. But if Gen. Hill's remains and statue were moved, the problem would be largely solved.

It's wrong to try to respect this disrespectful gravesite. Moving the remains and monument to a quieter spot in the vicinity would give the general some well-deserved rest from the rumble of traffic.

But don't move him too far — there's history here.

Hill was born in Culpeper in 1825. After graduation from West Point he served in the Mexican and Seminole wars. When Virginia seceded in 1861 Hill was appointed colonel of the 13th Virginia Infantry Regiment, and he went on to distinguish himself in the battles of Bull Run, Williamsburg, Seven Days, Second Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburg. In 1863 Hill was promoted to Lt. General and placed in command of the Third Corps of Robert E. Lee's army, which he led in Gettysburg, and later the siege of Petersburg. Hill was killed at Petersburg just 12 days before Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Historians maintain that both Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson uttered Hill's name on their deathbeds.

Hermitage and Laburnum isn't a sacred spot, and there's no particular significance to his burial site at this once-rural crossroads. His burial here was a promotional stunt. In 1892 the general's remains were exhumed from Hollywood Cemetery and moved to this intersection to give North Side real estate developers an icon around which to generate sales. This followed one of Richmond's grand traditions: In 1858 President James Monroe was moved from New York City to be reburied in then-fledging Hollywood Cemetery to add cachet to the place. And in 1890 the Otway Allen family, whose family farm was situated just west of Lombardy Street, persuaded another Confederate general, Gov. Fitzhugh Lee (the nephew of you-know-who), to give his gubernatorial and familial approval to placing the equestrian statute of Robert E. Lee on the Allen land as part of a real estate scheme.

Hill has once again done his duty. North Side is fully developed. So move him.

An obvious space is waiting. There's a half-acre park with mature shade trees at the intersection's northwest quadrant, just across from Christ Ascension Episcopal Church. Appropriately, the gravesite and monument could be aligned with residential Hill Monument Parkway.

Hill should remain on North Side, but let's move the general out of the intersection and give him some well-deserved rest. A traffic circle would be moot. S



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