By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 7, 2006
RICHMOND 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, which opens today, argues that each of the three had distinct ideas about freedom -- and few would challenge that. Its inaugural 10,000-square-foot exhibition, "In the Cause of Liberty," suggests that in this complicated story there were more lines crossed than the military ones. 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 to the concepts 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.
These views reflected the uphill battle of winning over people in Richmond to the project. And some, seeing the equal treatment of the three groups, might think it's a little too fair.
"The Civil War is still a hot-button issue and the center wants to address the issues candidly," said James M. 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," McPherson says. "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 that was 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 B. Dew, a historian at Williams College.
William J. Cooper Jr., a historian at Louisiana State University who has written extensively about the South and slavery, was looking for honesty in the story, too. "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.Where Cannons Were Forged
Putting aside the debate over its approach, the museum presents an interesting visual narrative.
The setting, on the banks of the James River, is the historic Tredegar Iron Works Gun Foundry, built in 1840s. Here naval guns had been made for the Union; but after the war started, 1,100 cannons were built for the Confederate army, and at one point, half of the foundry's 2,500 workers were slaves.
"The city was ground zero for the Civil War," says the museum's Wise. Forty-three battles were fought within 30 miles of the city. For most of the war, Richmond was the Confederate capital. And Tredegar was the South's industrial jewel, the only factory that could build heavy cannons.
The $13.5 million museum sits within the thick brick walls of the historic building, which was outfitted with materials, such as graceful iron railings, that honor its industrial roots. "We acknowledge that the factory was at the cutting edge of its day," says Daniel B. Murphy, of Fairfax-based PRD Group, the exhibition designer.
The eight-acre museum campus on the Tredegar property is owned by the Ethyl Corp., and leased to the museum. Wise says the idea for the museum and the foundation grew out of his preservation work for the state. Most of the money came from private donations, though the museum got several state and federal grants.
Exhibits take up two floors, including a large mezzanine, and they tell part of the story on two-story banners that display the words of ordinary people who lived through the war's destruction. Encircling the first floor is a timeline, from 1775 to 1865, with an encyclopedia's worth of facts, including information about the home front and the lives of children. One of the goals is to "get a real sense of the scale of this huge, cataclysmic event," Wise says.War Stories
The introductory film features three young people talking about what caused the war. Was it western expansion? Slavery? The economy? Or was it 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, when all hell was breaking loose on all sides. 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.
One innovation used by the museum are 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. This technique underscores how the museum is trying to deconstruct the story of the war, usually told in broad strokes focused on men and battles.
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. For some African Americans, this meant an opportunity to escape to the North and fight against slavery. Confederates were alarmed and felt the Union strategy explicitly aimed to undermine their way of life.Object Lessons
The 150 objects on display were gathered from 30 different 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.
"The Civil War evokes passion and the passion is always tilted in the view of the observers. They have worked real hard for balance," says S. Waite Rawls III, a former banking executive who is the museum's executive director. Fifteen years ago the museum did an exhibition on slavery that was considered ground-breaking. "One of the most important and under-told stories is that of African Americans during the war. The basic mission at Tredegar is extraordinary in what they are trying to do," Rawls says.
Since African American artifacts from this period are scarce, the gift of items from the private collection of John H. 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. Lee-Jackson Day is still a state holiday in Virginia. And some in Richmond still wistfully imagine what might have been: What if Jackson hadn't fallen at Chancellorsville? What if Confederate Gen. James Longstreet had attacked earlier at Gettysburg?
Wise, however, wants people to go further and think about "the dynamics it unleashed," and hopes the museum will provide a quiet conversation about different views.
"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.
Gen. 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. He is now convinced that is true. After he began making speeches about the Tredegar project, his black cousins found him.
The American Civil War Center, 490 Tredegar St., Richmond. 804-788-6480.http://www.tredegar.org