One writer discovers her small Virginia town’s underside of conspiracy, guns and anti-government belief
Tom, a tall 66-year-old retired Navy intelligence officer with a curved mustache, wore a Washington football cap and carried a large American flag. Sharon, a petite blonde, sported a crimson Trump pompom hat and a flag bandanna.
The Caldwells attended President Donald Trump’s rally outside the White House and moved with the crowd to the U.S. Capitol grounds around 12:45 p.m. What happened after that is contested. At least four of the people in their original party — including Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl from the Ohio Oath Keepers — appear in videos wearing a uniform of vests, helmets and goggles, striding up the east Capitol stairs in a line. Watkins and Crowl forcibly entered the building around 2:30 p.m., sharing a video on social media in which Watkins proclaims, “We’re in the f—ing Capitol, bro.”
The Caldwells remained outside but advanced up a set of stairs on the west side of the building to the terraces. “I said, ‘Well, if everybody’s doing it, since nobody’s saying don’t do it, maybe we should go,’ ” Tom told the podcast “The Political Prisoner,” which focuses on defending Jan. 6 rioters, this past April. According to court filings, after the building was breached, Tom sent text and social media messages such as “Us storming the castle. Please share… I am such an instigator” and “If we’d had guns I guarantee we would have killed 100 politicians. They ran off and were spirited away through their underground tunnels like the rats they were.” Afterward, Tom and Sharon drove some 90 miles west to their farm in the Shenandoah Valley, leaving the day’s chaos behind them.
On a chilly morning 13 days later, FBI officials and police banged on the door of the Caldwells’ house with an arrest warrant. They questioned Tom about his role in planning an insurrection to impede the presidential vote certification on behalf of the Oath Keepers, and arrested him. Later in January he was indicted on several counts. Then early this year, he was charged along with Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes with seditious conspiracy — the most serious accusation leveled against the Jan. 6 participants — for his role in allegedly organizing weapons to be stashed and possibly deployed from the same Comfort Inn where he and Sharon had stayed.
In September, Tom is scheduled to appear alongside four other Oath Keepers affiliates, including Rhodes, in one of the most anticipated trials in years. He faces five felony counts; in addition to sedition, they include conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding. The sedition charge carries a possible sentence of 20 years in prison.
From the beginning, Tom has pleaded not guilty. His defense argues that he is not an official member of the Oath Keepers, did not plan to storm the building or enter a restricted area and — although his language is admittedly bombastic — did not commit a crime. The Caldwells declined an in-person or phone interview, but in a statement relayed through his attorney, Tom said: “The DOJ [Department of Justice] has reviewed more than one million text, Facebook, Signal, and social media communications and has not found one iota of proof that myself, my co-defendants, or any human being had a pre-plan to breach the Capitol Building on January 6th or commit any specific act of violence.”
Initially reluctant to speak publicly in the weeks after his arrest, Tom and his wife have since talked to conservative news outlets and appeared on Fox News’s Tucker Carlson show, where Tom, dressed in a black suit, called the charges against him “total claptrap.” In the Caldwells’ media appearances as well as a website they launched to raise money for their hefty legal fees, Tom presents himself as a Christian, a disabled veteran and a lifelong resident of idyllic Clarke County, with strong ties to the community.
I am from that community, and after Caldwell’s arrest made headlines, my cellphone lit up with messages from home. “Ahhhhh of course we knew it could be anyone in Clarke county but did I expect it to be this organized and big?” wrote a member of our high school graduating class on a WhatsApp group. “No!!!!” Clarke County has only about 14,000 residents living along the north spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It did not take long to learn that Tom was an active member of the local Republican Party, that I had unknowingly driven by his property multiple times and that we attended the same high school.
How had Caldwell crossed a line from political activist to allegedly advocating for violence against the government and its elected representatives? And beyond the Caldwells, I wondered if extremism had grown in Clarke County since I’d left nearly 20 years ago, or if the presence of some Clarke residents at the Capitol was the natural culmination of decades of distorted history and long-simmering anti-government sentiment. I knew from my childhood that Clarke still honored Confederate history, that the militia movement had a presence, and that conspiracy theories had taken root in households. But I didn’t know how or if any of those threads fit together to possibly radicalize Tom Caldwell. I went home to find out.
In many ways, Clarke County is like any other rural region of Virginia. The county seat, Berryville, consists of a Main Street with two stoplights and a handful of restaurants and shops. Outside the county courthouse is a granite statue of an unnamed Confederate soldier, one of several Civil War relics spread across the area. Berryville was deemed so symbolic of rural America that in 2017, national Democrats launched their election campaign agenda from there, briefly descending into the “ruby-red” county, as a Washington Post headline about the event described it. The writers called Berryville a convenient drive but a “world away” from Washington.
I always found that separation begins as you drive across the mountain from the increasingly suburban Loudoun County. Cellphone reception cuts out, and as you pull over the crest into Clarke, the highway bisecting the Appalachian Trail, blue-gray ridges materialize across the horizon. To someone driving through, there is probably nothing remarkable about the place, a stopover on the way to the more bustling Winchester or historic Harpers Ferry.
But those of us who grew up there know differently. There is something almost mystical about the land, a presence better felt than described. In late July, I sat on a porch on the mountain on a sweltering morning and stared at a locust tree so large it seemed to obliterate the sky. The withered trunks and branches of oak, beech, tulip and walnut trees cover the foothills, concealing black bears, deer and owls. The Shenandoah River flows north through the area, and to the west of its muddy banks lie the tiny communities of Boyce, Millwood and White Post, situated amid farms and meadows. For decades, the county has attracted people who want to live off the grid, whether they are artists, farmers or simply people who prefer not to be found.
Tom and Sharon Caldwell reside in a one-story house on 19 acres of his family’s land in the remote northwestern part of the county, near the West Virginia border. Tom’s fundraising website explains that he works diligently to care for the farm, weeding out invasive plants and replacing them with native ones.
I knew from my childhood that Clarke County still honored Confederate history, that the militia movement had a presence, and that conspiracy theories had taken root in households.
At the time of his arrest, a “Trump Country” sign was posted on Tom’s barn, according to a photo in the Winchester Star. When I visited, it was no longer visible, but plenty of other Trump signs were still on nearby plots. In 2020, Tom’s district voted overwhelmingly for Trump, at 82 percent, more than any of the county’s other four districts.
Downtown at the Berryville Grille, a popular breakfast spot on Main Street, I met Jesse Russell, 73, a local historian whose family has lived in Clarke since the 1700s. For years, Russell has volunteered to work the Clarke County Democrats booth at the weekend farmers market. Over coffee, he told me that for a long time, there was friendly banter between the Democratic and Republican booth volunteers, some of whom had gone to school together. Then a few years ago, things changed. People he didn’t know started manning the other booth. “The guy who was in charge was giving you these dirty looks,” he recalled. “It was bizarre. Because I was a Democrat, I was the enemy.”
In 2020 both Tom and Sharon were delegates of their district to the local Republican convention in Berryville. I was eager to meet with the Clarke County Republican Party, and I reached out to its former head Greg Valker, as well as the current chairman, Mark Tate, but both declined my request. Dave LaRock, a Republican from the area who represents District 33 in the Virginia House of Delegates, including part of Clarke, told the Winchester Star that he thought “very highly” of Tom and Sharon. LaRock was also at Trump’s Stop the Steal rally on Jan. 6 and followed the crowd afterward to the Capitol. He did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
I asked Bev McKay, a Republican on the Clarke County Board of Supervisors, how local government could best work to counter extremism. “We don’t have concerns about political extremism or possible violence,” he replied in an email. “This is a very peaceful community.”
But Russell felt that the growing tensions in the county had predated Trump and that things were getting worse, not better. “It was coming since Fox News and [Rush] Limbaugh,” he said. “With Trump, it intensified.”
About a mile from the Berryville Grille is the Josephine School Community Museum, whose building was constructed in 1882 by the area’s African American community so their children could receive an education. Today it documents the history of Clarke’s Black population. As I walked through the museum’s archive, I learned that 200 years ago White elites enslaved an estimated 3,439 people on plantations across the county. After the Civil War, political leaders embarked on a concerted effort to consolidate the White vote through portraying Black people as criminals. Much of Clarke’s Black population eventually moved on, many traveling north in line with the Great Migration. Those who stayed founded some 20 Black communities across Clarke, including Josephine City. Today, based on the most recent Census, Clarke County’s population is 14,881, and 90.6 percent identify as White, 6.4 as Latino, 4.7 as Black and 1.4 as Asian.
The Caldwell family moved to Clarke from D.C. sometime in the 1960s, when it was full of apple orchards that later thinned. Tom’s father, Robert Caldwell, had a managerial position with the Interstate Commerce Commission that covered the Shenandoah Valley, according to his obituary. When the Caldwells arrived with their two children, the county was still segregated, integrating its schools a year before Tom entered Clarke County High School in 1967. In 1972, the Ku Klux Klan paraded down Main Street, and then again in the 1980s. “When I graduated,” recalled Dee-Dee Liggins, now 67 and on the Josephine Museum board, “you could count the White kids on one hand who were friendly.”
On Tom’s senior yearbook page, class of 1972, he’s clean-cut and smiling broadly. Tom was involved in a litany of activities: theater, football, chess club, recipient of a National Merit Scholarship, member of the homecoming court committee. Downtown at the Family Dollar store, Vickie Huff, also class of ’72, told me that Tom was respectful of teachers, interested in girls, and one of the smart kids. She was shocked when she heard he’d been arrested after Jan. 6, because “he was just an ordinary guy.”
After college, Tom followed his paternal line into the military, joining the Navy. Tom’s grandfather was in the Army, and his father enlisted in the Navy during World War II. (Sharon also comes from a military family; her father was in the Air Force.) The Navy’s records indicate Tom served for more than 19 years. According to Tom’s website, his spine was injured while he was on active duty, leaving him with chronic pain.
After Tom retired from the Navy in 1995, he moved back to Clarke and onto his family’s property. “I left the Navy to see the world. I saw it, I didn’t like and I came back here,” Tom told “The Political Prisoner,” noting he had met Sharon along the way. Clarke County’s population had grown by a few thousand since Tom was in high school, and its median income had risen. The area today has a poverty rate of 7.62 percent, lower than the national average.
In 2000, the Caldwells started Progressive Technologies Management, a software company that they ran from their home. An archived version of the company’s website from 2008 shows they marketed themselves as disabled-veteran-led and received a number of government contracts. At some point the company appears to have folded; by 2011 its website was inactive. But the Caldwells lived comfortably by Clarke standards: In Tom’s first court appearance, he told the judge that he had about $50,000 in his checking account and received $5,000 a month in disability and pension from the government.
After retiring and before Jan. 6, Tom appears to have become more politically engaged. Records from the Virginia Public Access Project show that in 2017 he gave a $300 donation to Virginia gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart, who had ties to white supremacist leaders and ran for the Republican nomination on a platform of restoring Confederate history. Tom’s was the only donation to Stewart in his Zip code, although plenty of other people voted for him. In 2020, VPAP records show Tom gave $700 to LaRock and $1,200 to the Chairman’s PAC, a local group formed to support Clarke resident and prominent Republican Matt Leeds for the chairmanship of the 10th Congressional District Republican Committee. The Caldwells also donated hundreds to Trump.
On a day thick with humidity that promised to storm, I drove out to the Caldwells’ road. A no-trespassing sign hung on the fence bordering Tom’s property, which was encircled by horse and cow pastures. Nearby, I met a neighbor who knew Tom and was willing to speak only on the condition of anonymity. The man recalled that Tom had attended one of Trump’s inaugural balls in uniform. “He was a prepper, yes,” said the neighbor, referring to those who are preparing to live self-sufficiently, as we sat drinking cold Cokes in the shelter of his shaded driveway, “but we’re all preppers.” The neighbor didn’t believe that people who had entered the Capitol had committed a crime; rather, he told me, it was a conspiracy: “Somebody was paid to break windows.”
After we finished speaking, I headed a few miles down the road back toward the highway, noticing a prominent Black Lives Matter sign on the shoulder. As I drove down the adjacent driveway, raindrops hit the windshield and a farmhouse appeared. There I found Lowell and Elyse Smith, a White couple who had moved to Clarke a few years before. The first time they erected the Black Lives Matter sign on the road, they had awoken to find it destroyed. The Smiths called the police and remade the sign, but a few days after, someone tore it down and spray-painted “white power” on the asphalt. Lowell, a retired environmental scientist, took to sleeping in a folding chair by the side of the road, concealed by a thicket of trees. He told me he narrowly missed another time the sign was destroyed, but a trail camera captured a man pulling up in a car and a boy jumping out with a baseball bat, then smashing the sign to pieces. The Smiths wrapped the next iteration with barbed wire.
On my drive home, the rain had rendered the land in saturated green and the sky was streaked with cotton-candy colors. Back on my laptop, I logged into a closed Facebook group for residents called Clarke County Land of the Free. Created on Feb. 15, 2018, it identifies as “A place between deleted posts and censorship and complete and utter chaos.” It was clear from comments that two years before Jan. 6, Tom joined in local efforts to decree Clarke a so-called Second Amendment sanctuary.
On Dec. 18, 2019, Tom strode to the podium at the Clarke Board of Supervisors meeting in Berryville. The room’s plastic blue seats were packed; not everyone could fit inside, so some stood in the hallway. The majority of people were there to support a measure to designate Clarke a Second Amendment sanctuary: They wore round orange stickers reading “Guns save lives” from the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), visible in a video posted on the public Clarke Second Amendment Sanctuary Facebook group.
Just over a month before, Democrats had taken control of the Virginia Senate and House in Richmond for the first time in over two decades. Some candidates had run on proposals to enact gun-control measures such as banning assault weapons (since dropped), universal background checks on private gun sales and limiting hand gun purchases to one a month; the latter measures went into effect on July 1, 2020. The VCDL is a pro-gun rights nonprofit that started in Northern Virginia in 1994 and grew quickly to cover the whole state. Increasingly, it has relied on fear-based messaging to recruit members. In July 2019, group president Philip Van Cleave wrote in a letter to the Winchester Star: “True security is being able to protect yourself in an emergency.”
After the November election results, the VCDL called on members to push for Second Amendment sanctuaries and for local governments to refuse to comply with any gun-control laws. The VCDL’s revenue ballooned: Federal filings available on ProPublica show that in 2018 the group’s income was $52,582; in 2019, it was $1,001,409, with $361,000 attributed to membership dues. Van Cleave, who responded to questions via email, said that it was not his intention to use fear as a recruitment tactic, and that while a portion of the increase was from a member who had left them funds in his will, donations had also risen in response to the proposed gun restrictions.
At the Dec. 18 public hearing, when it was Tom’s turn to comment, he was emotional; his father, Robert, had died six days before.
“I had the unique opportunity as a child to be schooled by those who survived Hitler’s rise to power in Germany prior to World War II. They taught me the first step was 100 percent gun registration. And … the next step was when the socialists came house-to-house and collected all the guns. … My father wanted to be here tonight, but he passed away on Thursday. … As I sat there after the deputies had left and I sat in that empty house and looked at his meager possessions, the medals he earned in two wars defending his country, his wallet with his concealed-carry permit … and his favorite pocket watch … I held that in my hand, wondering what I would do next, and I turned it over and saw the inscription: ‘The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.’ ”
“We don’t have concerns about political extremism or possible violence,” Bev McKay, a Republican on the Clarke County Board of Supervisors, told me. “This is a very peaceful community.”
His voice wavered; there was resounding applause from the audience. The claim that removing guns enabled Hitler’s genocide is untrue, but was an idea seeded more than two decades ago by radical members of the gun rights movement that has since gained traction, according to historians.
Sharon also spoke that night, shortly after Tom. Her message was more concise. “Sometimes you have to take a stand. If I have to be a felon with a gun, I will.”
In the end, the board declined to pass an official resolution — which legal experts have said are merely symbolic — and instead tried to find a middle ground by making a supportive statement.
In January 2020, Trump tweeted his support for a VCDL rally in Richmond. “That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away.” The rally, an annual event, was also promoted by Rhodes, the Oath Keepers founder, and attended by LaRock, a longtime champion of the VCDL. (The group’s political action committee has given thousands to LaRock’s campaign.) According to a Southern Poverty Law Center report, at least 18 militias and 34 hate and extremist groups attended.
Tom told conservative media that Rhodes had approached him after hearing him speak at a rally in Northern Virginia after the presidential election and asked if he was interested in providing security. Rhodes is an Army veteran who founded the Oath Keepers in 2009 to “pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’ ” The Oath Keepers list gun confiscation by the federal government as one of 10 “Orders We Will Not Obey.” Tom gave Rhodes his contact information.
I stopped by the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office to meet Sheriff Tony Roper. Roper is the rare public figure who manages to keep both Republicans and Democrats satisfied; he grew up in Clarke, knows pretty much everyone and has run as a Democrat for the previous five terms. Roper’s family owned guns; he is a strong believer in the Second Amendment, but it’s well known that he doesn’t carry a gun on some of his calls. “I’m a talker,” he said, before joking that he would have worn his gun if he’d known I was going to ask about it.
Roper told me that when the gun-control legislation surfaced in Richmond, constituents immediately started calling him to express their concerns and ask his opinion. “I would simply say to them: ‘First off, relax a little bit,’ ” Roper recalled, smiling and holding his hands up. “ ‘But I will tell you that if the law passes, I will absolutely enforce the law.’ ”
Roper felt people in Clarke had always been concerned about government overreach, but that the current anxiety was amplified by the marketing of pro-gun groups. “I think sometimes that the fear is just so much more than the reality. When we get so afraid of things, we tend to overreact and we tend to think the worst. And when there’s all these people that are reinforcing those ideas, it can absolutely spiral out of control.”
One of the things I heard at Clarke County’s bars and restaurants like the Lone Oak Tavern was that people might be hotheaded or shoot for sport, but that it was just talk; they were unlikely to take violent action. That also seemed to be forming the core of Tom’s defense, according to his lawyer’s filings: that his text messages were not premeditated but rather the puffs of someone who was obsessed with Hollywood action films, a vet who couldn’t let go of his military mind-set. But I also met and came across on Facebook several people from the area who were stockpiling ammunition and guns.
I reached out to Mark Pitcavage, who in the mid-1990s created the Militia Watchdog website to cover the United States’ burgeoning militia movement. Pitcavage, now a senior research fellow on extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, says that Virginia developed a noticeable militia presence in the early 1990s. Over the past few decades, the movement has ebbed and resurfaced, never disappearing. “The militia movement is an extreme movement that indoctrinates people,” Pitcavage told me. “It’s a movement that, by and large, accepts violence as a solution.”
The government’s evidence against Tom and the Oath Keepers includes a large amount of social media and text messages, some of which appear in numerous court filings as the case slowly makes its way before a jury. Tom’s lawyer, David Fischer, has disputed the use of these messages, claiming the government has excerpted them out of context. Without access to the full transcripts it is difficult to judge, but the excerpts that appear so far, as well as Tom’s media appearances, allowed me to piece together a timeline.
About a year after Tom appeared at the Board of Supervisors meeting, he attended Trump’s Million MAGA March in D.C. on Nov. 14, 2020. Afterward, the Caldwells hosted Donovan Crowl and Jessica Watkins, the Ohio Oath Keepers members, along with several others, at their farm. (The lawyer for Watkins declined to comment, while lawyers for Crowl and Rhodes did not respond to questions.) A few days after, the documents show, Tom texted Watkins.
“Hi, CAP! Wanted to tell you it was great to have you here in Virginia. Don’t know what [Rhodes] is cooking up but I am hearing rumblings of another MAGA March 12 December. I don’t know what will happen but like you I am very worried about the future of our country…I believe we will have to get violent to stop this, especially the antifa maggots who are sure to come out en masse even if we get the Prez for 4 more years…You are my kinda person and we may have to fight next time. I have my own gear, I like to be ON TIME and go where the enemy is, especially after dark. Keep the faith! — Spy” (as Tom identified himself).
In late November, Tom texted a contact in his phone saved under the name “Oath”: “I was thinking. Regardless of what popeye [Rhodes] does, maybe we should get, ideally, 3 four man teams with a 2 man quick reaction force and 2 drivers/exractors to double as snipers/stallers (I’ll explain those later)… .” Tom, who has a concealed-carry permit, also bought online a double-barrel pistol designed to fold up into a cellphone, according to emails cited by the prosecution. Defense papers filed by Fischer state that the gun’s purpose is to “protect law enforcement by preventing unnecessary 911 calls by citizens unaccustomed to conceal-carry by nonpolice.” He also says that “the whole discussion about a ‘Quick Reaction Force’ boils down to a bunch of ex-military guys trying to out-plan one another.” And in his recent podcast interview Tom said he did not coordinate the force because, “I’m not tactical, I don’t understand this stuff.”
Watkins reached back out to Tom after Christmas to ask if the “rally point” was still at his place. “Not that I am aware,” Tom responded. “Have been contacted by NO ONE.” In another message later that same day, he writes about a person who is “committed to being the quick reaction force anf [sic] bringing the tools if something goes to hell. That way the boys don’t have to try to schlep weps on the bus.”
According to the government, Tom picked the hotel, the Comfort Inn in Arlington’s Ballston neighborhood, that Watkins as well as several other alleged co-conspirators stayed in. Around Jan. 1, Tom texted Crowl, “This is a good location and would allow us to hunt at night if we wanted to. I don’t know if [Rhodes] has even gotten out his call to arms but it’s a little friggin late. This is one we are doing on our own. We will link up with the north carolina crew.”
Tom’s messages are peppered with references to not only the quick-reaction force but also various extremist groups. On Jan. 3, Tom wrote to someone affiliated with another group that they could “More or less be hanging around sipping coffee and maybe scooting on the river a bit and pretending to fish, then if it all went to [s—], our guy loads our weps AND Blue Ridge Militia weps and ferries them across.” On Jan. 4, Tom sent an email with the subject line “NEW MAPS RELATIVE TO HOTEL AND INGRESS FOR QRF [quick reaction force].” When the Caldwells arrived at the Comfort Inn, according to the government, Tom brought with him a .22-caliber rifle concealed under a sheet; attorney Fischer says it was originally Tom’s father’s and lacked ammunition. The cellphone pistol had not arrived, its shipping delayed by the pandemic.
On Jan. 6, after the Caldwells reached the Capitol, the indictment asserts that at 2:45 p.m. Tom pushed past barricades and climbed the stairs to a balcony in the “restricted area” on the west side of the building. (Fischer denies that it was off limits.) At 2:48 p.m., Caldwell sent a Facebook message, “We are surging forward. Doors breached,” although it seems he did not actually surge forward. “This post was me narrating for far away friends what was happening at the Capitol,” Tom wrote in his emailed statement.
Watkins and the others who marched up the Capitol steps became part of the mob that violently shoved their way inside the building, sending members of Congress, their staffs and Vice President Mike Pence into hiding. At least 139 police officers were brutally assaulted; one member of the Capitol Police and four people in the crowd died. Many members of Congress, police and others who were there that day also thought that they might die.
When the FBI searched the Caldwells’ home on the day of Tom’s arrest, they found a handwritten note labeled “death list” with the name of an elected official from another state. I requested a copy of the list from the prosecution, but they declined to comment. I asked Tom what explained the contents of the note. His response, via the emailed statement: “Do you really think a federal judge would let me out of jail if I intended to kill elected officials?”
After his arrest, Tom says he spent 49 days in solitary confinement. Two months after, in March 2021 he was released on house arrest in light of his health, as well as for what U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said was insufficient evidence of concrete plans to enter the Capitol. Just before Christmas, Mehta further loosened the restrictions, setting a curfew but allowing Tom to resume his normal daily life within the perimeter of Clarke and neighboring Frederick County.
The government has not brought charges against Sharon, who told Tucker Carlson that they had gone into D.C. as a “fun couples outing.” She consistently appears alongside Tom in his ongoing media appearances, and in a fundraising post Sharon wrote after Tom’s arrest, she attempted to reclaim the narrative, stating that on Jan. 6 they got “swept up in the crowd, went up one set of stairs — never went inside the Capitol — hung out on the first terrace for a bit … and hobbled back to our car.” Meanwhile on Fox News, Tom reiterated that he was not a member of the Oath Keepers, as initially accused by the government, but called the Oath Keepers “very nice people.”
To date, three members of the Oath Keepers have pleaded guilty to sedition.
As investigations into Jan. 6 drag on, many of us are still searching for answers. In order to heal, we would like to pinpoint the exact cause, the moment or person that led to the near-collapse of our democracy. What I found back home was the intersection of the threads of so many conversations that have captivated the country: increased polarization, racism, gun ownership becoming an identity, a perceived split between rural and urban values, the proliferation of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Regardless of whether Tom is acquitted or found guilty, it is not clear to me how small communities like mine will find a way to bridge the chasm that the insurrection revealed. One evening as dusk fell I attended an outdoor concert in Berryville featuring Malian musician Cheick Hamala Diabate. Kids ran through the recently mowed grass, couples sat in neon-colored camp chairs and food trucks doled out barbecue. It was mildly idyllic and felt like the home I knew was there, underneath the muck.
But I also knew a lot of people from the county weren’t there that night and that increasingly there were no structures to bring these two groups into the same space, much less conversation. The local paper, the Clarke Courier, which I wrote for in high school, was the first small-town newspaper in Virginia to fold, and like the rest of the country, many are consuming their news online and on cable, fed the same stories and opinions in a never-ending loop. I thought about the video of the child smashing the Black Lives Matter sign, and how both violence and beliefs can be inherited from one generation to the next.
Recently, Clarke’s Board of Supervisors decided not to remove the Confederate statue of an unnamed soldier who stands outside the county courthouse: Too many people had written letters demanding the statue stay because it represented their history. It was clear from reading through the public comments that some of those supporting the statue also subscribed to more modern conspiracy theories, an ecosystem of lies and distortions building on one another.
There is no monument yet to the 60 Black people from Clarke who fought and died for the Union Army, but there is a graveyard. The dry grass crunched beneath my feet as I visited the resting place of Thomas Laws, a free Black Clarke resident who risked his life to help feed vital intelligence about Confederate troop movements to the Union Army.
A few days after my arrival, I heard Tom and Sharon had started attending Berryville Presbyterian Church after his release on house arrest.
As I parked in the church’s back lot on a Sunday morning, a shiny baby-blue antique Thunderbird slid into a spot at the rear entrance. It was the Caldwells, casually but neatly dressed: Tom in a tucked shirt, khaki pants and New Balances, Sharon with a bright green shirt, her golden highlights glinting. They ducked in through the back, Tom carrying a cane but ascending the stairs easily.
I entered through the front and took a seat on one of the pews, inhaling the polished wood and velvet, the light spilling through stained glass. The sermon that day was on unity. Pastor Jonathan Bunker urged the congregation to “live lives worthy of the gospel: humility, gentleness, patience and love,” all of which are relational qualities. He spoke of man’s brokenness but also said, “What was made to be whole might be whole again,” and emphasized the work was to “love everyone God has made.” From their pew near the front, the Caldwells looked straight ahead, never glancing around or speaking to anyone except each other.
After the service, the couple went quickly out through the rear and got into the convertible. Tom put his sunglasses on and then lowered the top. They looked carefree and weightless as they rolled out of town. As they turned off the highway onto a winding back road, the blinding midday sun illuminated the pale white sacks of gypsy moths hanging from the trees. Tom Caldwell accelerated around a curve and then disappeared.
Caitlin L. Chandler is a writer based in Berlin.