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Museum of the Confederacy to break ground on Appomattox branch

Design: Rendering of a Museum of the Confederacy gallery.
Design: Rendering of a Museum of the Confederacy gallery. (Museum Of The Confederacy)

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010

The pen that Gen. Robert E. Lee used to help end the Civil War. The elegant uniform he donned that day in 1865. The sword he carried to the momentous surrender of his army.

These three iconic relics of the Confederacy, along with hundreds of other artifacts of the doomed rebellion, soon will be moving from downtown Richmond to a new, $7.5 million museum in Appomattox, about a mile from the farmhouse where Lee surrendered the main Confederate army and effectively concluded the war.

The Museum of the Confederacy -- technically the Confederate Memorial Literary Society -- announced this week that ground will be broken Sept. 23 for its Appomattox site, one of three new locations planned for the 114-year-old repository of Lost Cause artifacts. The museum believes the Appomattox branch, due to open in 2012, is the nation's largest such building project scheduled during the upcoming sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the 1861-65 conflict. Appomattox is about 175 miles southwest of Washington, and 90 miles west of Richmond.

The Museum of the Confederacy-Appomattox's groundbreaking will be the latest step in the museum's attempt to bring its striking collection to a broader geographic and demographic audience, and thrive. For more than a century, the museum has been housed in downtown Richmond, the heart and capital of the southern Confederacy.

Four years ago, struggling with falling attendance, financial trouble and logistical constraints, the museum decided to build three new sites and spread its vast collection beyond the confines of its 1976 headquarters in Richmond. Museum attendance is around 45,000 a year, down from a peak of 91,000 in 1991, the year it had an exhibit on slavery, said spokesman Sam Craghead.

The museum will maintain the Richmond site. Some people ask, "Are you leaving Richmond?" S. Waite Rawls III, museum president and a descendant of a soldier in the 41st Virginia regiment, said Thursday. "The answer is: no. We're transitioning from a one-museum site to multiple-site system of museums. . . . We think you've got to take the museum to the people."

The museum has on display only 10 percent of its collection of 20,000 artifacts and 100,000 documents and photographs, Craghead said. Among its holdings are 550 wartime Confederate flags, 300 swords and the 10-foot-long Confederate constitution.

"We can put stuff in three museums and still have plenty . . . left over," Craghead said. The idea was to establish branches near Fredericksburg, Fort Monroe and Appomattox, with each site covering special themes of the war. "The museum at Appomattox will be . . . focused on the end of the war and the reunification of the country," he said. Plans for the other two sites are in the works.

"This is an exciting thing for us," said Appomattox Mayor Paul Harvey. "It's a great compliment to the historical park we already have here . . . It's going to bring out the story of Appomattox even more." The National Park Service operates the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park.

The museum's expansion also comes with heightened sensitivity over the role of slavery in the war and what historians say was the Confederacy's bloody crusade to maintain it. This year, the governors of Virginia and Mississippi sparked controversy by neglecting or sounding dismissive of the role that slavery played in the war.

The Civil War claimed 600,000 lives, or 2 percent of the nation's population in the 1860s. Historians say that percentage would equal 6 million dead today.

In addition to the Lee artifacts, the Appomattox branch will likely display the uniforms of 12 other Confederate generals who surrendered that day, Craghead said.

The ground breaking ceremony is scheduled for 3 p.m. Sept. 23 on Route 24, about a mile and half south of the surrender site.

"It's a big step for us, and it's also a big step for the nation," Rawls said. "Appomattox is a great metaphor for the reunification of the nation."


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