Recently the country has engaged in a vigorous debate about the treatment and interpretation of Civil War artifacts. The treatment and use of the Confederate battle flag has elevated the discussion into the public policy arena. Statues of Confederate leaders and soldiers for over a century dotted the ground surrounding public buildings and parks. Other symbols and memorials dedicated to remembering the so-called “lost cause” provoked debate and legislation in several state legislatures. Public historians and museums are grappling with the question of how best to interpret the Civil War so that the public appreciates the impact of the war on contemporary American society.
On May 4, 2019 the new American Civil War Museum in Richmond Virginia opened to the general public. Richmond has always been an essential destination for Civil War buffs, enthusiast, historians and scholars. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy and the surrounding area was the site of over 40% of the battles during the Civil War. The new $25 million facility is located along the historic James riverfront and includes ruins of the Tredegar Ironworks. Certainly, the remains of the destroyed Ironworks where slaves produced canons of the Confederacy is a fitting place to reinterpret the war. The permanent exhibit includes over 500 artifacts including Robert E Lee’s hat, along with many tattered battle flags from both sides of the conflict. The first gallery in the museum includes a spectacular exhibit of the Henry House which was blown to pieces during the first battle of Bull Run. The widow Henry was killed when she refused to leave her house as the battle raged around her. The exhibits deliver the message that the American Civil War touched all Americans, white, black, North, South, Native Americans, and recent immigrants. The legacy of the Civil War reflects both the cultural diversity and inclusiveness that is the American experience.
The new Museum is the result of a merger between the 120-year-old Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center. Both institutions coexisted in Richmond for years even though both focused on the Civil War. Chisty S. Coleman the director of the Civil War Center and S. Waite Rawls, III Director of the Museum of the Confederacy, after lengthy discussions, agreed to merge the museums and present a more comprehensive and historically correct interpretation of the war and the social revolution it created. The Museum of the Confederacy traditionally supported Confederate apologist and a conscious decision was made to abandon the “Lost Cause” while still maintaining respect for courage of the Confederate soldier. Efforts are underway to digitize and make available the extraordinary archival material that includes private papers of numerous Confederate political and military leaders as well as the personal correspondence and diaries of southern citizens to further explain the passion and emotions of Southerners during and after the war.
The American Civil War Museum will continue to generate further debate and discussion, but perhaps the stories revealed in these galleries is the best way to incorporate the contributions of the Civil War into our personal understanding of the overall American experience.