A Visit to the Museum of the Confederacy
Kevin Impellizeri is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Delaware, where he studies the social and cultural impact of video games in America. This article originially appeared at his blog.
A few weeks removed from my presentation at the “Implementing Connecting to Collections” panel at the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History, I am happy to report the presentation was a great success. The video of the presentation is not up as of yet; however the video of our work at the Laurel Historical Society is available through the Delaware Division of Libraries’ YouTube page. My special thanks go out to everyone who made the initiative a possibility.
During the presentation, I feel I committed a great oversight in not mentioning by name the other members of the project, for which I extend my sincerest apologies. I hope by listing their names here, I help to further give them the recognition they deserve: Abbey Chamberlain (my co-presenter), Jen Matthews, Laura Muskavitch, Kate Duffy, Liz Jones, Retz Monroe, Jesse Gagnon, Nicole Belolan, and Jackie Williams-Bruen.
While in Richmond a colleague and I decided to take in one of the local museums, settling on the Museum of the Confederacy and the Jefferson Davis House/White House of the Confederacy. Located in downtown Richmond, the Museum’s mission is to preserve and present the history of the Confederate States of America. The museums are flanked by the buildings of Virginia Commonwealth’s medical school, and are not visible from the street unless you’re right in front of them. Clearly the museums’ clientele are those who are already aware of its existence because it really isn’t in a position to welcome passersby.
When you enter the museum, it's your standard Civil War affair. If you’re interested in seeing a lot of cases full of guns and uniforms then this is your lucky day, as the museum is packed to the gills with them. The core exhibit—The Confederate Years: The Southern Military in the Civil War—devotes a separate case to every major battle of the war; given the museum’s interpretive spin of the nature of the war (the word “rebellion” in ironic quotation marks frequently appears on labels throughout the museum) it is interesting seeing how they interpret the materials from the later battles when the war was, to put it euphemistically, not going in the Confederacy’s favor. There isn’t too much to say about the cases. Some suffered from poor lighting but for the most part you get your fair share of guns and uniforms.
As for the tour of the White House of the Confederacy, those that have toured historic houses before will find little that is surprising. For those unfamiliar it involves walking through rooms and largely marveling at the authentic antiques and the period decor. The docent led us on a one-hour tour guided tour of the house describing the artifacts and talking about the life of Davis and his family.
In a museum devoted to the Civil War, I will admit I was pleasantly surprised to find a floor of the museum devoted to life on the Confederate homefront. They had some items of questionable educational value or provenance, such as an envelope containing locks of Robert E. Lee’s hair and a hoof from a famous Confederate horse. However, some materials captured the scarcity for people on the homefront as resources were poured into the battlefields. A few of the more interesting pieces were homespun clothing made from newspapers and human hair, and a model of a dog made from Union greenbacks.
When visiting the Museum of the Confederacy it is important to keep in mind the biases of its intellectual focus. To put it lightly, they frame the Civil War and the Confederacy in a very specific light. The main panel of the core exhibit spoke dismissively of the war as a rebellion, emphasizing the Civil War as a war for independence and the sovereignty of state’s rights typical of discussions of the so-called “War of Northern Aggression.” The case of the war itself was not Confederates firing on Fort Sumter; rather it is Lincoln who is painted as the villain, placing troops in the fort in an effort to goad the Confederacy into shooting first. One panel emphasized the thousands of Confederate soldiers who died in Union prisoners, yet the museum had conveniently little to say of Southern prisons such as Andersonville. One of the books prominently featured in their gift shop emphasized the North’s complicity in the slave trade, in addition to one of the wildest souvenirs I’ve ever seen in a museum giftshop: a slingshot made in the shape of Robert E. Lee.
Speaking of slavery, it may be of no surprise that given the museum’s slant regarding the war that it does little to address slavery. My colleague and I kept count and the most we saw mentioned of slavery was a brief mention of it on one of the main panels describing it as a cause for the war (second, of course, to state’s rights) and the aforementioned book in the gift shop. For that matter, the museum makes no mention of plantation life at all; its actors are largely the middling whites of the cities and farms and the soldiers and generals on the battlefield. During the tour of Jefferson Davis’s house, the closest mention to Davis’s slaves was when the docent pointed out the door through which “servants” entered when entering the dining room where Davis received generals and politicians. When a visitor asked about the outbuildings where the “servants” would have resided, the docent replied the rooms had chamber pots (clearly confusing outbuildings with outhouses).
Considering the significance of slavery in antebellum American politics this is an inexcusable oversight on the part of the museum’s curatorial staff. Despite the hemming and hawing over “state’s rights,” the right to own another man as property was one of the core principles upon which the Confederacy was founded. The preservation and extension of slavery were established in the Confederate constitution: in the Constitution the abolition of slavery was forbidden and new states were required by law to be slave states. While there were other factors, Southern secession and the Civil War were issues that had slavery at their hearts. A museum at its heart is an institution for public education. That the Museum of the Confederacy chooses to ignore it undermines the very principles of a museum.
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