Civil War memory runs deep in Richmond. The former capital of the Confederacy, the city was also one of the largest antebellum slave markets in the nation and produced over half of the Confederacy’s arms and ammunition during the war. It is full of monuments, museums, buildings named after famous generals, and other tributes large and small to the nation’s most destructive conflict and the city’s role in it. While many of these date from the war era, many also came about years later, as nostalgia, reunion, and the myth of the Lost Cause overtook the national narrative over the meaning of the Civil War.
Prominent among these is the Museum of the Confederacy, founded in the late nineteenth century and a landmark of the city ever since. As a museum for the Confederate States of America in the capital of the Confederacy, the museum has long served a role as a keeper of Confederate memory by gathering artifacts, educating the public, and generating pride among those sympathetic to the CSA and those who fought for it.
Over a century after the Museum of the Confederacy’s founding, it was joined in the city by another Civil War museum, the American Civil War Center. Located at the site of the historic Tredegar Ironworks Factory, the ACWC strove to cast a broader net—not just to focus on the CSA but to explore Union, Confederate, and Black perspectives simultaneously. While one might expect these two institutions to have substantive differences of interpretation and historiography—and they do—they also have a history of collaboration and community involvement. And in late 2013, they announced a merger: The two museums will become one new institution, the American Civil War Museum (ACWM).
This mix of the old and the new, this attempt to bring together multiple museums and perspectives under one roof, may appear odd at first. To understand the ACWM requires an understanding of the two museums that preceded it—their histories, their differences, their aspirations. And to understand this, in turn, leads not only to questions about how the two institutions will manage the ongoing process of joining together into a new museum, but also to questions about how this story is connected to Richmond’s—and the whole South’s—struggle to understand their own history and to construct, or reconstruct, their place in the national narrative.
The Museum of the Confederacy was founded as a memorial shrine in 1896 by Confederate veterans and wives of men who died during the war. Its biggest claim to fame is its extensive artifact collection, with over 15,000 items that include Stonewall Jackson’s sword, Jefferson Davis’s coat, Robert E. Lee’s boots and field bed, and the largest collections of Civil War uniforms and CSA battle flags known to still exist (they hold over 40% of all known CSA flags). The museum also owns the Confederate Executive Mansion, where Davis and his family lived during the war, and the museum operated out of the mansion until it bought its current building next door in the 1970s.
Founded around the same time that the first statues to Confederate heroes went up on Monument Avenue and that Redemption governments overthrew democratically elected assemblies in North Carolina and other states, the museum has long since cast off its role as a shrine in favor of a new status as a bona fide museum. The staff is fond of saying that it is a museum about, but not for, the Confederacy.
Yet that distinction is a difficult. The museum’s collection—or at least the part of it that attract the most visitors—slants White, male, and military. The main exhibit, “The Confederate Years,” which was developed during the transition from shrine to a museum, discusses battles, campaigns, generals, and other major military figures, but includes relatively little on Black people, women, or anything outside of major battles.
The causes of secession and war are detailed on a pair of plaques at the exhibit’s beginning, one of which describes “Confederate soldiers… fighting a ‘Second American Revolution’ for the rights and liberties that their forefathers had won in the first American Revolution” and lists slavery as one of a variety of flashpoints including westward expansion and tariffs. Throughout the exhibit, the word “rebellion” tends to appear in quotation marks. There is no mention of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Museum of the Confederacy ends abruptly with Appomattox, military surrender, and the capture of Jefferson Davis; there is no mention of Reconstruction or Lincoln’s assassination.
It would be a mischaracterization to say that the Museum of the Confederacy seeks to erase the role of slavery, or actively works to minimize non-White and non-male histories. Rather, “The Confederate Years” demonstrates the difficulties of the museum’s transition: developed while Black, women’s, and social history were still emerging academic fields, it points not necessarily to a Lost Cause mentality so much as the institutional challenges of how to build a museum. It tries to balance the competing interests of public perceptions of the Confederacy, providing the bread and butter for Civil War buff visitors, the museum’s desire to expand, and the limits of a facility far too small to fully showcase the institution’s rich collection.
The museum has worked to adapt to the nation’s changing perception of the Confederacy. “This word ‘Confederacy’ in the title gave the connotation that we didn’t care about any of the rest of it,” which S. Waite Rawls III, President of the American Civil War Museum Foundation and former CEO of the museum, acknowledges as a weakness. “Telling only one side is like telling the story of a football game only from the perspective of one team.” The museum’s transition was most pronounced in the 1990s, which Rawls calls “a remarkably progressive decade for the institution”—following their decision to operate as a more objective museum they immediately launched an ambitious exhibit on slavery, “Before Freedom Came,” in 1991. The exhibit examined slavery across the nation, including in Union states that did not secede, and was, Rawls claims, “by far the most important exhibit ever done on slavery in the United States” at the time. This was followed up by three more exhibits expanding the museum’s horizons: “A Woman’s War,” curated by nationally renowned Civil War scholar Drew Gilpin Faust and focusing on women’s roles and the home front experience; “Victory in Defeat,” on the rise of the Lost Cause; and “The Embattled Emblem,” an examination of the postwar legacy of the Confederate flag.
Echoes of these major exhibits are evident throughout the museum’s current exhibits, which touch on many of the same topics—the home front, bread riots, unrest over taxes, the ways in which the war changed women’s role in the economy, the legacy of the battle flag, the role of memory and nostalgia in enabling postwar discrimination—albeit on a smaller scale. One exhibit, “Colors of the Gray,” explores the CSA’s (technically the Army of Northern Virginia’s) infamous battle flag. In addition to a collection of flags, the museum displays a number of items depicting the pop culture afterlife of the flag, including a Clinton-Gore 1992 button with a CSA flag background (appealing to both men’s southern background), a battle flag dress worn by drag queen RuPaul in 1995, and a 1992 Captain Confederacy comic book featuring a Black woman as the Captain. These are fascinating specimens that bring increased complexity to the modern narrative about the kinds of people who still use and find meaning in the flag, and challenge the popular conception about what one might expect to learn at a place called the Museum of the Confederacy.
The American Civil War Center takes a markedly different approach. Located at the site of the historic Tredegar Ironworks factory, the museum tells the story of the war from three perspectives: Union, Confederate, and African American. The museum opened in 2006, and has a contemporary historiography: Extensive sections cover overarching themes such as the Union, home, and freedom, carrying on from the main exhibit. And unlike the Museum of the Confederacy, the ACWC also covers the buildup to the war, the home front, Reconstruction, and the reverberating effects of the war in subsequent American history. The museum came into being in the wake of a split on the Museum of the Confederacy board as they grappled with the progressive push of the 1990s and 2000s. “As we were becoming more progressive, or more objective, about the Confederacy, we began to attract criticism from some of the Confederate heritage groups,” notes Rawls. Questions over how to address slavery, the Black experience, and the causes of the war, as well as how to balance a focus preserving the legacy of the Confederacy and remaining relevant in a diversifying society, led some board members to split off and found the American Civil War Center.
Tredegar, as the ACWC is often called, does not equivocate about the causes of the war, stating prominently in their introductory video that while other causes contributed to animosity, “underneath, it was really an argument over slavery…. Even though most northerners didn’t fight primarily to end slavery, and most southerners didn’t fight primarily to preserve it, take slavery out of the mix and it’s hard to believe there would have been a war.” Tredegar has extensive sections on Black life during the war, including freedmen who volunteered for the CSA, enslaved people who used the absence of their masters to negotiate new roles in the southern household and labor force, work slowdowns, contraband and escaped Southern Blacks, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Black soldiers in the Union army. The museum also discusses the legacy of the war both in the immediate context of Reconstruction and the longer-term impacts of the war on federal power, race relations, regional politics, American industry, and more.
Although it firmly asserts certain ideas such as the centrality of slavery to Southern ideology, and although its ample material on Black history asserts itself in the depiction of a war whose story has historically been centered on White actors in the government and army, the story told at Tredegar also deals well with the ambiguity of the war. While forthright about the horrors of slavery, they are careful not to give the Union a moral monopoly, citing Northern ambivalence about the war, racism in the North, and the difficulties faced by both Yankees and Rebels on the home and battle fronts. They are straightforward about the failures of Reconstruction and the Union’s complicity in some of that failure, including information about how the same government that fought for Black freedom—and in many cases the same popular military figures, such as William T. Sherman, Philip Sheridan, and George Custer—launched genocidal wars against multiple Native American nations within a few years of the war’s end. While it does a better job highlighting slavery as the cause of the Civil War and integrating the variety of themes, events, and questions that animate our understanding of the war, Tredegar is nevertheless careful to avoid a triumphalist narrative, working to incorporate Confederate history and viewpoints as part of a larger history.
Tredegar and the Museum of the Confederacy had a history of cooperation before merging in 2013, often to their mutual benefit, with Tredegar borrowing heavily from the Museum of the Confederacy to supplement its small 2,500-piece collection. “From the beginning [Tredegar] has been a borrowing institution,” notes Christy Coleman, CEO of the ACWM and formerly the CEO of Tredegar. The Tredegar’s emphasis on modern technology, while partially an attempt to draw more visitors, was also partially a strategy to counterbalance the difficulty that the young institution has faced in building a serious collection, since many of the important artifacts have already been claimed by older museums. This, in turn, has allowed the Museum of the Confederacy to display more of its collection than they have room for in their current building. The two museums have also hosted joint events and worked with other local institutions, such as the Virginia Historical Society, on public education programs.
In 2010 both museums were eyeing expansion. Tredegar, with its small collection, hoped for a larger building to help attract new traveling exhibits; the Museum of the Confederacy, whose current building has become entirely boxed in by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical Center, sought to open new buildings in Appomattox, Fredericksburg, Hampton, and Chancellorsville. Respectively they had raised $8 million and $7 million for their expansions when Coleman and Rawls got an offer from one of Richmond’s most prominent businessmen, Bruce Gottwald: he would match their cumulative $15 million if they would merge instead of separately expanding.
“The key is Bruce… had been working toward this for about 30 years,” notes Don King, a board member of the ACWM. Gottwald’s family heads the Newmarket Corporation, which owns the land on which the Tredegar Ironworks sit, and he had long hoped for a revitalization of the city’s Civil War museum scene. He was previously involved in the development of Valentine Riverside, a pre-Tredegar Civil War museum that shuttered within a few years, and had unsuccessfully worked to get the Museum of the Confederacy to merge with the Virginia Historical Society. Between the modernization of the Museum of the Confederacy, increasing public interest in Tredegar, and the two successful strategic campaigns, he sensed that this might be his opportunity, and went to work convincing both donors and museum boards (Gottwald declined to be interviewed for this article through a representative.)
“From a 30,000 foot view, this [was] the smartest business decision you could make,” says Coleman. A merger would provide both museums the larger space they sought, improve both museums’ capacity to display artifacts and mount exhibits, move the Museum of the Confederacy away from the increasingly busy and difficult-to-access site in the middle of the VCU Medical Center, and dramatically improve the collection available to Tredegar. As they continued to discuss the idea over the next three years, both Coleman and Rawls came to believe that a merger was the best decision for the long run. In September 2013 they announced the formation of the American Civil War Museum.
But while such a merger seemed like a win-win situation from 30,000 feet up, the work on the ground proved more difficult. “It’s not all about the work we’re doing, it’s about the constituencies,” notes Coleman. “Both sides considered it a hostile takeover.” The merger was designed to avoid legal and internal conflicts as often as possible. They created a holding company with both museums as subsidiaries, preventing any artifacts or property from officially changing hands and in the process opening up the possibility of lawsuits. The initial board was comprised equally of representatives from each of the museums and their finances and staff were integrated over the course of three years. They also enlisted the Virginia Historical Society as a third party to help lead the transition.
The question of who would become CEO initially caused some difficulty, with Tredegar’s representatives advocating for Coleman and the Museum of the Confederacy’s representatives for Rawls. Eventually Coleman and Rawls proposed a compromise whereby both would become co-CEOs. Their strengths for the position complement each other quite well: Coleman, who is Black, has an extensive background with history museums, including as Director of African-American interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg and President of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. She was drawn to Tredegar by its mission to tell the war’s story from all sides, which she describes as “ballsy,” especially for Richmond. Rawls has an extensive background in finance and fundraising and sat on the board of the Civil War Trust, the country’s largest battlefield preservation group, during a large merger in 2000. Rawls also has excellent lineage for the job—his family fought for the CSA and his great-great-grandfather, William Closs, is credited with coining the term “scalawag” after the war. Rawls’ great-grandmother was also the North Carolina regent for the Museum of the Confederacy in the 1900s, soon after it opened. Recently Rawls has stepped down as co-CEO in order to organize and lead the American Civil War Museum Foundation, a new branch of the organization that allows him to draw more fully on his fundraising and financial strength. Coleman remains the CEO of the museum.
Despite initial suspicion and backlash from some corners—most prominently, according to both Coleman and Rawls, from neoconfederate heritage groups—things have progressed smoothly. King notes that most board decisions since the merger have been unanimous and that they have a unified vision of what they want the new museum to accomplish. While both museums continue to operate at their original sites for now, the ACWM plans to break ground on their new building at the Tredegar site in early 2017.
The American Civil War Museum brings with it the chance to redefine the way that each museum tells its story. The contrasts between the Museum of the Confederacy and Tredegar mean that they offer different strengths and approaches, something that Coleman sees as an opportunity rather than a challenge. “We don’t want to be your granddaddy’s Civil War museum,” she says—they have no interest in erasing the bread and butter elements that Civil War buffs will expect to see, but she expects the museum to move past the basics. Rawls agrees. “We don’t need another survey of the Civil War—on this day such and such happened, on that day such and such happened—so we’re not going to do that.” Instead they hope to focus on new narratives that neither museum alone has fully explored.
The underlying principle of the ACWM’s historiography will be to focus on perspectives. “Not sides—perspectives,” says Rawls. He credits Tredegar’s innovative approach of telling three sides of the story, but also notes that “30 million people don’t fit into three buckets…. The perspective of an individual might have changed several times during the war.” He cites examples such as Lincoln’s evolving views on the purpose of the war from one over Union to one over slavery, or a housewife whose letters reveal a shift over time from encouraging her husband to fight to wanting to find a way to bring him home. “From the home front to the battlefront to the political front, this thing was washing back and forth like tidal waves, and we want to capture some of that.”
This effort will combine individual stories as well as larger themes. King says that the museum will hopefully open with an experience theater, giving visitors a 360-degree experience of standing in a burning city or on a battlefield. Rawls adds that one exhibit might focus on two brothers from Warrenton, VA, one of whom had recently moved to Ohio and enlisted with the Union and one of whom stayed in Virginia and enlisted with the CSA. Both kept diaries, and Rawls hopes to compare respective entries from the same day to track their different experiences throughout the war. Aside from the battles, he hopes the exhibit will give a taste of the ebb and flow of the war—at various points it looked like either the Union or Confederacy might win, and he believes the diaries will highlight the emotional roller coaster of the conflict.
Coleman hopes the ACWM will thoroughly explore leaders such as Robert E. Lee and William T. Sherman who had “absolutely admirable qualities” but are also highly controversial figures. “We have to recognize that there are personal and political and military decisions that are being made on a constant basis. This is about choices that communities are making as well as individuals….Where are their transition points?” Coleman also notes some of the larger questions that the museum might address. At a time where democratic republics were still a rare political system, how did the secession of the Confederacy and the subsequent reunion and success of the United States challenge and reshape international conceptions of what is politically possible?
Before the war the South produced 90 percent of the world’s cotton, but blockades during the war led European nations to develop other markets in colonies such as Egypt, which remains the world’s largest cotton supplier today—in what other ways is the Civil War connected to international industry and finance? The CSA government, despite its talk of states’ rights, was “bigger than the federal government would be until the New Deal…[largely] because of the structures that were put in place to police and to manage what was happening in the states, especially with the enslaved populations that they were increasingly fearful of”—how should a museum balance these aspects of the CSA’s identity? Or for that matter, how should it balance the Union’s stated interest in freedom with its pervasive racism and the cheap immigrant and child labor that supplied so much of the manufacturing for the war effort?
The museum hopes to serve as a resource for archival research and public education as well. The new facility will be better outfitted for collection conservation and they have partnered with the Virginia Historical Society to digitize all of their manuscripts and make them available online for free. Rawls notes the impact this will have on researchers. “It’s… a re-enactor who wants to research a uniform, it’s women who want to research the way a dress is sewn or a quilt is made, or how slaves would make children’s dolls. So it’s an active collection.”
King says that the museum’s expertise has made it an important national resource during recent controversies over the Confederate flag, and that they hope to continue playing an active role in national conversations over the CSA’s legacy. He notes that museum staff gave around 75 interviews in the wake of the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, giving “tremendous historical context” for the history of the flag and its adoption by hate groups. He also cites the museum’s role in a 2014 controversy over Confederate flags in the chapel at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA, where Robert E. Lee once served as president. Many students were demanding the removal of the flags, while many others demanded they remain for historical context and in honor of those who fought for the south. But the flags were all reproductions with no actual connection to Lee, the university, or the county. The museum helped broker a compromise whereby they loaned two battle flags to the school, one of which was flown by a Virginia regiment during the war and one of which was carried at Lee’s funeral, to be displayed in the university museum rather than the chapel. “It’s a perfect example of authentic truthful history being something people can deal with,” notes King, and the kind of dialogue they hope to facilitate more of in the future.
In the midst of the excitement over the possibilities for the American Civil War Museum is the implicit idea that some of what was will not remain. In many ways this seems like an improvement—both museums have their shortcomings, and the Museum of the Confederacy in particular has suffered from declining attendance and negative associations based on their name in recent years. A larger facility and more comprehensive set of exhibits will hopefully attract a wider audience and help the museum weather conflicts over war memory in culture wars to come. Yet some have expressed concern that the two museums, with their unique characters and histories, are changing so dramatically.
Coleman, however, disputes the notion that the ACWM will detract from the legacy of either of the previous museums. “It’s not necessarily about taking away history,” she says. “It’s about adding to it and giving it the kind of dimensionality that was always there.” This notion of additive history strikes a tricky balance that has other iterations throughout the city of Richmond as well. A prominent example is Monument Avenue, home to some of the city’s most famous Civil War tributes: five statues of Confederate heroes Jeb Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury lining a two-mile stretch of one of Richmond’s major boulevards. Erected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the statues—some 60 feet or higher—were important early icons of the Lost Cause mythology. In 1996 a sixth statue of Black tennis icon and Richmond native Arthur Ashe was added—in contrast to the 60-foot-tall Lee, he stands 24 feet tall—and the city plans to erect a statue of Maggie Walker, a Richmonder who in 1903 became the first Black woman to charter a bank in the US, in another part of downtown. In recent years the city has developed a slave trail to commemorate sites important to the Richmond slave trade. It is debating how to excavate and mark the recently rediscovered site of the notorious Lumpkin’s slave jail, which sits under a parking lot by the train station.
The particular challenges of how to add to some of these sites, or how to commemorate the city’s history in ways that complicate and contextualize institutions like the Museum of the Confederacy or Monument Avenue, thus tie in to debates taking place both throughout the city and across the South more broadly. And the particular scrutiny that the Confederacy’s flag and leaders face in the wake of the 2015 Mother Emanuel shooting has certainly come to Richmond, as it has elsewhere. Six days after the massacre Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, issued an order to cease production of specialty license plates that incorporated the battle flag design; the Davis statue on Monument Avenue was also vandalized twice, including by one protester who sprayed “Black Lives Matter” across the base. Yet McAuliffe was adamant that the Monument Avenue statues would remain in place, and the avenue was prominently featured along the route of an international bicycle race in October 2015 that brought a host of international tourists and cyclists through Richmond.
Coleman agrees with McAuliffe’s line of argument here: She does not advocate removing the Monument Avenue statues or downplaying the complexity of the CSA in the new museum, but she would like to see Monument Avenue and the Confederacy placed more broadly in the story of what was happening at the time, both in Virginia and around the country. “What we advocate is [to] give some context to these things so that people understand them, and then continue to add to the social landscape and the fabric of the community,” she said, noting that Tredegar’s public education programs for the war’s sesquicentennial have already introduced many locals new perspectives, including a reenactment featuring Black troops who helped retake the city. Rawls argues that despite the reputation it gets for its historic Confederate institutions, Richmond has quietly built up a more complex presentation of its history, including not just the Ashe and Walker statues, but also statues of Barbara Johns, a Black student who led a walkout against segregation in Prince Edward County, VA; Bill Robinson, a Richmond native who was one of the most popular entertainers of the early twentieth century; Abraham Lincoln; and a slavery memorial statue. “It’s not just a city full of Confederate statues, it’s a city full of statues,” he says.
The staff and board of the ACWM are optimistic about their role in this challenging landscape of memory and education. “The women of a hundred years ago [who founded the Museum of the Confederacy]…were highly concerned about future generations, and one of the things that’s inspiring to me about the history of the museum is that… they have been adapting for generations to changes in the nation,” says Rawls. “It really is helping the city, and I think it helps the country, when people come here and see what we’ve done, and see how we tell the whole story,” adds King. “We are in a space and place where history is contested every day, but we have to own that space, and we have to allow people to come in from wherever they happen to be and bring them to a place of clarity on these issues,” says Coleman. “We’re not necessarily about changing people’s minds, but we are about challenging those people’s minds…. We have this extraordinary opportunity not to be afraid.”
In a city that was a major focal point of the Civil War—almost half of the war’s casualties occurred within a few hundred miles of Richmond—these questions ignite strong passion and debate. “We’re sort of the Normandy of the Civil War,” notes King. “People want to come and see where their relatives fought and died, and that’s part of what makes Richmond sacred ground.” But these issues are hardly confined to Richmond. While the American Civil War Museum may be one answer, the issues underlying the museum’s mission and the city’s commemoration of its history are tied to issues that the rest of the South, and the country as a whole, continues to wrestle with.
Most obvious is the question of memory—how and what we choose to memorialize, the context in which we place it, the struggle to understand how the same symbol means different things to different people, and how that dichotomy plays out not only in private opinions but also in public displays. The difficulty of memory applies not only to the war itself, but also to the museums that merged to form the ACWM, particularly the Museum of the Confederacy. While both museums are pleased with the changes they will see under the new merger, there is nevertheless something sad in knowing that the Museum of the Confederacy—a historic Richmond institution with its particular character that harkens back, in ways that are often confounding and challenging, to a time when America told this story differently—will lose much of that character during the transition. Balancing the need for an inclusive and historically honest recounting of the war with the desire to preserve the museum—itself as a piece of history—as it currently stands is a puzzle without an easy answer.
Beyond this, the American Civil War Museum implicitly asks us how to separate the pride of Southernness—the pride of being from a particular place, of loving your home, of admiring the way in which history and rootedness define this city—from the particulars of its history. Southernness, and, to no lesser extent, Americanness, cannot easily be extricated from our region and nation’s histories of racism, genocide, stolen land, and stolen labor.
When we speak of Southern hospitality and pride, of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the James River, of the American dream and sea to shining sea, what responsibilities do we adopt in the process? How are those details complicated by the hosts of people who never experienced Richmond in its modern iteration as the growing, trendy RVA, but as a segregated city or a slave market? How do experiences of Richmond, Atlanta, or Durham, North Carolina differ from Appalachian coal regions and southeastern Georgia in an effort to understand Southernness, and how do such experiences differ between neighborhoods, races, and income brackets?
How we tell ourselves the story is deeply connected to how we understand the place. If the American Civil War Museum is an attempt to further our understanding of the Civil War’s complexities and its impact on subsequent American history, it is no less an attempt to put a check on the hillbilly stereotypes on the one hand and the New South trendiness on the other that form opposite poles of the region’s modern reputation.
A museum that incorporates as many different visions, histories, and interpretations as the American Civil War Museum hopes to is certainly invested in the notion that there are many different Souths. They know, as many others do, that even as we choose to embrace and inhabit an area that comprises a larger region in popular imagination, the particulars of place still make defining what exactly it is that that we take pride in, and where exactly it is that we live, a question with many answers.