New Civil War museum evokes old divisions
In some parts of the country, the Civil War is still being fought. And perhaps nowhere are the aftershocks and viewpoints as evident as in Richmond, where a new museum is attempting to tell the history of the war from three angles. That would be: the Union, the African-American and the Confederate.
The American Civil War Center argues in its inaugural 10,000-square-foot exhibition, "In the Cause of Liberty," that each of the three had distinct ideas about freedom. Each side was passionate. Each found justification for its goals in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Each suffered many casualties.
"There are three big ideas — the War for Home, the War for Union and the War for Freedom. Some of these concepts bumped into one another, creating more tensions. What we are trying to do is model a discussion, rather than shouting about the points of view," says H. Alexander Wise Jr., the museum president who is a former state historical preservation officer for Virginia and the descendant of a Confederate general. The museum is run by a private foundation based in Richmond.
The reaction of African-Americans ranges from outrage to open-mindedness.
"This is ridiculous. Number one, it puts villains on the same plane as American heroes, Lincoln and Douglass," says Raymond Boone, former editor of the Richmond Afro-American newspaper. "When you start celebrating the Confederacy, you are talking about terrorists. It is normal to celebrate a just cause. It is abnormal to celebrate a losing and unjust cause."
John Fleming, the vice president for museums of the Cincinnati Museum Center and the president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, was recruited as an adviser. He praises the center for putting the African-American story on center stage and says he learned a lot about the Confederacy. "I never came to agree with their goals for war because their goals would have kept black people in slavery. I came to understand why they fought for home and liberty, as they understood it. That was a big jump on my part," he says.
Winning over people in Richmond to the project was an uphill battle.
"The Civil War is still a hot-button issue and the center wants to address the issues candidly," said James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian. He is an adviser to the museum and participated in several early meetings with local residents. "The black community is traditionally suspicious about the way Civil War history has been presented in the South. It's so often romanticized with Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. This is a bold departure, and I felt most strongly about being open, not using any coded language to talk about slavery and the war aims."
Casting light on all sides of the story is a difficult task, but one endorsed by the advising historians.
"What I hope is that it opens the eyes of people who are interested in the Civil War and who approach it from one of the three stories and then engage their interests on the other two sides. I hope it will get African-Americans of the present day to take a fresh look at the Civil War in a way that engages them and gets rid of the notion that this was done for us, or to us," says Charles Dew, a historian at Williams College.
William Cooper, a historian at Louisiana State University who has written extensively about the South and slavery, was looking for honesty in the story. "We are not going to camouflage the fact that the North didn't start doing anything about slavery until the war. Everybody thought they were fighting for liberty," says Cooper. They just had different ideas about what liberty was.
The introductory film features three young people talking about what caused the war. Was it western expansion? Slavery? The economy? Federal power vs. states' rights? Visitors have a chance to vote electronically, and Wise hopes this "becomes a teachable moment."
Another film is meant to put the visitor right in the middle of a horrific 100-day stretch in 1863. There were bread riots in Richmond. There were draft riots in New York. Robert E. Lee, commander in chief of the Confederate army, won a tremendous victory at Chancellorsville, but lost Gen. Stonewall Jackson, who was mortally wounded. There were other crucial battles — the enormous slaughter at Gettysburg, the siege at Vicksburg, which eventually gave the North control of the Mississippi.
The museum uses giant maps with symbols marking political and military milestones for freedom, union and the home front. Below the maps are panels that explain how the events were interpreted from the African-American, Union and Confederate perspective.
The Emancipation Proclamation is examined from several angles.
"Lincoln wanted three things. He wanted to undermine the Confederate labor source of slaves by putting the word out they were free. He hoped the people who would flee would then join the Union Army. And he wanted to keep the French and British, who were anti-slavery, out of the conflict and the proclamation would please them," says Wise.
The 150 objects on display were gathered from 30 institutions, including the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, the world's largest storehouse of Confederate artifacts. It lent the cane of Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, the leader at Fort Sumter, and a frock coat that belonged to Confederacy President Jefferson Davis.
Since African-American artifacts from this period are scarce, the gift of items from the private collection of John Motley was especially important. Motley, a Connecticut lawyer and businessman began collecting black memorabilia after seeing Alex Haley's "Roots" in 1977. Motley is chairman of the center's board. Among his items are iron shackles. "I had goose bumps when I heard about this idea. This is exactly what needs to happen," Motley says.
Other items are: A draft cylinder from Massachusetts, used in 1862 to pick the names of men of military age required to report for duty. A vest belonging to Frederick Smyth, who aided wounded Union soldiers at Gettysburg and was later governor of New Hampshire. The camp flag for the 20th U.S. Colored Troops, who were organized at Rikers Island, N.Y. The New Testament carried by John Russell, who died at the Battle of Shiloh. A pair of Lee's boots. A rifle that belonged to Capt. John Quincy Marr, who was killed at Fairfax Courthouse in June 1861 — the first Confederate officer to die in action.
The story doesn't end in the museum, says Wise, and he acknowledges it hasn't in real life.
"I have the three stories right in my family," he says.
He is the great-great-grandson of Confederate Brig. Gen. Henry Alexander Wise. As governor of Virginia, he signed John Brown's death warrant when the abolitionist was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859.
Wise's sister was married to Maj. Gen. George Meade of Philadelphia, who commanded the Union forces at Gettysburg; Wise surrendered to his brother-in-law at Appomattox.
And the African-American side? "For years there's been circumstantial evidence that Wise might have had a mulatto son," Wise says. After he began making speeches about the Tredegar project, his black cousins found him.
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