The American Civil War Museum

Frederick Douglass illustration at the American Civil War Museum. Photo by Penelope M. Carrington/The American Civil War Museum

The American Civil War Museum opened its new Tredegar facility to great fanfare. The New York Times covered it with this story. Writer Jamelle Bouie tells us, ” ‘This is a period of history that’s been so distorted for a variety of reasons,’ the museum’s chief executive, Christy Coleman, told me, ‘where memory has taken over the actual history, and that collective memory is not historical in many cases.’ Modern scholarship on the American Civil War takes a broad view of the conflict, more interested in social, economic and political circumstances than battlefield tactics; more concerned with the perspectives of ordinary people — soldiers, civilians, Native Americans and enslaved people — than individual military leaders. Public memory of the war is a little different. It is still heavily influenced by work like ‘The Civil War’ by the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, which, the historian Keri Leigh Merritt writes, concentrates on ‘hard-fought battles, valiant, virile soldiers, and heart-wrenching tales of romantic love and loss.’ More worrisome, as President Trump’s praise of Robert E. Lee as ‘one of the great generals’ demonstrates, are those Americans whose ideas about the conflict owe more to after-the-fact Confederate propaganda than any actual history.”

We also learn, “In 1970, the Confederate Museum changed its name to the Museum of the Confederacy to emphasize an interest in scholarship rather than veneration. In the 1970s and ’80s, as historical sites in the state began to look deeper at slavery and the lives of enslaved people, the museum worked with the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop historically grounded exhibitions on the Confederacy. In 1991, it debuted ‘Before Freedom Came,’ a major show devoted to slavery in the South. Coleman, who was then the director of African-American Programs at Colonial Williamsburg, contributed to that exhibition, which used objects and artifacts to illuminate the experience of slavery in the South. In 2008, after nearly 10 years as president and C.E.O. of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit, she joined the American Civil War Center as president, which brought her back to Richmond.”

Christy Coleman. Photo by Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch

We end the evolution of the museum with, “The merger came five years later. After six more years of work — including the transfer of 100,000 Civil War artifacts and photographs from the Museum of the Confederacy — the American Civil War Museum was ready.”

Next we get a description of what we’ll find when we visit. “The first things you see when you walk into the museum are huge, colorized photos of key figures — Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Jefferson Davis. Similar historic photos, all colorized, decorate the walls and displays. This might seem like a minor touch, but there’s something about seeing actual skin tones and eye colors — the small details of uniforms or civilian dress — that helps you see these historical actors as actual individuals who experienced the world not unlike yourself. The same is true of the objects and artifacts, from firearms and military equipment to dolls and handmade utensils, which help ground the period in a material world. Knowledge of Confederate prison camps, for example, is greatly enhanced when you can take a close look at something like the objects imprisoned soldiers made to trade for food and clothing. Similarly, galleries devoted to individual battles and campaigns emphasize the chaos and confusion of the war, and the extent to which, in the moment, no one knew how it would unfold. The museum pays great attention to detail and even minutiae, but it isn’t myopic. From beginning to end, the war is framed as a defining conflict for American democracy, a struggle for freedom whose outcome had world-historical implications. And to emphasize this point, the galleries do not end with surrender and reconciliation; they end with Reconstruction and its aftermath. Visitors are confronted with two images and artifacts: a painting of the first elected black members of Congress; a painting of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, signifying Lost Cause nostalgia; and a set of well-preserved robes that belonged to a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”

In concluding the article, Mr. Bouie tells us, “Toward the end of our conversation, Coleman returned to the contrast between memory, which can flatter our recollections of ourselves, and history, which is ‘always challenging.’ For many Americans, the kinds of stories told in this museum will challenge their preconceptions. There are just too many myths about the Civil War — too much unreflective memory — for that not to be the case. With that fact in mind, Coleman hopes the museum can dispel those myths, bring clarity to the memories and allow the people who experienced the war to speak for themselves. ‘If we had let them do that from the beginning,’ she said, ‘we might not be dealing with some of the messes we’re dealing with now.’ ”

This episode of the “BackStory” history podcast covers the new museum as well.

Predictably, the racist confederate heritage advocates are up in arms about the new museum, proclaiming it “politically correct” and “having a modern agenda” despite the fact they haven’t set foot inside it. At least one racist idiot has lamented the passing of the “old Virginia” of “moonlight and magnolias” led by the scions of the First Families of Virginia and bemoaning the fact that today it’s led by what this moron considers to be “carpetbaggers and scaliwags [sic]” who are “kept in office by the denizens of large urban areas like Richmond, Petersburg, and D.C. [You know who he means–black people] bearing little knowledge and less interest in its storied past.” According to this racist idiot, black folks have no historical knowledge and no interest in history. This is typical of confederate heritage advocates.

12 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    “At least one racist idiot has lamented the passing of the “old Virginia” of “moonlight and magnolias” led by the scions of the First Families of Virginia and bemoaning the fact that today it’s led by what this moron considers to be “carpetbaggers and scaliwags [sic]”

    Every time I read some variation of the lament on the passing of the ‘good old days’, I cannot help but to laugh, because the book The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible, by Otto L Bettman, forever cured me of that sort of nostalgia. These wannbe cornfederates have it stuck in their heads that they would somehow be hobnobbing with these *first families* of Virginia, when actually most of them would probably have been cast aside as poor white trash! Must be nice to live one’s life by the terms of one’s fantasies.

    I have read quite a few interviews with Christy Coleman, and I have also enjoyed her videos. She could face down any or all of these clowns on her worst day 🙂

    1. I agree completely, Shoshana. Thanks for adding your thoughts.

  2. jgoodguy · · Reply

    Change is good, but change also has critics. Some are going to be unhappy that the memories of childhood are displaced. Displacing memories involve complex changes in the brain that are painful in varying degrees and may involve changes to other memories. The change in the article is necessary, the challenges are necessary to ensure accuracy. Moonlight and magnolias remind me of going to see Gone with the Wind with my mom as a child and playing with magnolia leaves as a child. Lots of memory paths to adjust and adapt when I adjust my point of view.

    Some of the old ones will adapt, most will complain and life will move on with new memories. My interest lies in legal, social and political areas of the Civil War and I have had a lot of adjusting to do.

    It is a good article. I like the direction the museum is going.

    1. True, though there is a difference between nostalgia for the simple time of living with one’s parents and having few or no adult responsibilities and nostalgia for a time when the perspective of other races was ignored, when whites ruled unquestioned, and when blacks were kept in a subordinate position, which is what the person I quoted was talking about with the language of “carpetbaggers” and “scaliwags” [sic]. When they talk about “Politically Correct” interpretations, they’re complaining about the historical viewpoint that’s been the orthodoxy for fifty years. Some even openly lament the rise of the historical interpretations that have been influenced by the civil rights era. It’s an explicit racism they feel comfortable in enunciating because they feel that among fellow confederate heritage apologists their views are accepted and acceptable, and with few exceptions they are right.

  3. Clint Geller · · Reply

    Well Al, in my new book on Civil War Timepieces, I write a lot about “hard-fought battles, and valiant and virile soldiers,” but I did go out of my way to try to place the war in a larger context that captures the horrors of slavery, the inglorious aftermath of resurgent racism, and the world-historic implications of the conflict. I hope I succeeded.

    1. I think you did a good job, Clint, given the primary focus of the book was on timepieces and the men who owned them. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    A few more thoughts. The day has passed for the generations who have nostalgic/emotional attachments to the Civil War. The newer folks — myself included — for the most part, have no DNA in this pursuit, thus, marketing to us requires a whole new approach. Our interests are going to rest both inside and outside the normal paths taken up by *buffs* (that was for you, Albert 🙂 ) so the topics least explored in the past, may now overtake the once popular mainstays. I believe that this new museum has embraced and excelled at this approach, thus, there is hope for a continued interest in Civil War study.

    1. I think all Americans have some cultural DNA in all of American history, which is one reason why it’s imperative to approach it honestly with a primary goal of accuracy, which I think is what the American Civil War Museum [and the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg] is trying to do.

    2. Clint Geller · · Reply

      I hear you, Shoshana, and I mostly agree. But even though my own ancestors were all still in Poland when the Civil War was fought, I still feel gratitude towards the men who preserved the Union that was still there and waiting to receive my ancestors when they needed it nearly half a century later. So while I agree that making the Civil War relevant to modern Americans must focus primarily in the war’s legacy and in how that legacy informs the present, I’m sure you would agree that new generations can continue to feel inspired by the sacrifices and dedication shown by those who risked life and limb to defend the Union and end slavery.

      1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

        Hi Clint. I need to clarify myself. My point was/is that there are still folks out there who feel that carrying over the cause/beliefs of the confederacy is somehow honoring ttheir g-g-g-grandfather who fought on the side of the confederacy. This is what I meant by the DNA attachment to the Civil War.

        1. I agree with this, Shoshana, and I would add to it that they have their own identity tied to it. Some psychologist could have a career analyzing what failures they perceive themselves to be that they have to look to someone who lived 150 years ago to validate their existence today.

        2. Clint Geller · · Reply

          Ah. Understood, Shoshana.

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