This Is Not Your Grandfather’s Civil War Museum: A Review of the ACW Museum At Tredegar

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar in Richmond.  The museum’s debut was last weekend and the reviews thus far have been generally positive.  I spent about three hours and had a chance to take everything in, including all three movies that define three distinct spaces: the cause of the war, the war on the home front, and the war’s legacy.  Throughout the exhibit area the visitor is introduced to three interpretations which follow how the war was interpreted by the Union, Confederacy, and African-Americans. 

Overall, the exhibit provides the most sophisticated interpretation of the Civil War that I’ve ever experienced in a museum setting.  The list of historical advisers clearly exercised a great deal of influence over the content of the films as well as the narrative that accompanies each artifact and other technical exhibits.  What we have is an interpretation that anyone familiar with recent trends in Civil War historiography will easily recognize.  This makes for an exhibit that is challenging as visitors are forced to draw certain distinctions and perspectives that are not readily familiar.  The first section of the exhibit which focuses on the history of the nations from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to Lincoln’s election includes an excellent video which explores the role of slavery.  At the beginning viewers are asked to vote on the cause of the war by pressing one of four buttons on the seat’s armrest.  The choices are: (1) Federal v. States Rights, (2) Economic/Cultural Differences, (3)  Westward Expansion, or (4) Slavery.  Surprisingly slavery came out ahead of the other three.  With the help of three narrators the video explores the first three options by examining how each revolved around slavery.  By the end slavery can be seen in all of its complexity and stands out as the most important issue on the national scene by the mid-1850′s. 

The second section takes you through the first shots and begins the process of exploring the complex relationship between the battlefield, home front, and slavery.  A second video does a fantastic job of explaining the conditions on the ground between the lack of success for Union armies in the East and especially the actions of fugitive slaves as factors that explain Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  Slaves are considered as full actors and the Proclamation is explained as a document that was responsible for nothing less than the "transformation of American society."  Again, the interpretation here fits perfectly into recent studies of the war in 1862-63 and Lincoln’s own journey to this important decision.  The narrative tends towards realism and makes it a point to keep the viewer focused on the military necessity behind Lincoln’s decision and the initiative taken by the slaves themselves.  The video also introduces the viewer to the introduction to U.S.C.T.’s who "seized the opportunity to fight" and began the long process of "making America One National for All."

The one film that I had trouble understanding was called, "The War Comes Home: 1863" which attempts to explain – as best one can – the emotional and material price of the war on the home front.  The video is narrated by a generic character who never identifies himself as Northern or Southern, but does a fairly good job imparting an "everyman" image.   The video focuses specifically on 1863 and begins with a brief history of the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and Vicksburg before connecting these events to the Richmond Bread Riots and the New York City Draft Riots.  These are important events, but the narration and images fail in its attempt to bring the connection to light.  The video ends with coverage of the 54th Massachusetts at Battery Wagner, which only complicated things for me further.  If I may be so bold as to offer a suggestion: I would have concentrated on one battle or campaign such as Gettysburg or Vicksburg and explored how large-scale conflicts that took place in populated areas impacted the local economy and the population.  In the case of Gettysburg the additional themes of the Army of Northern Virginia’s steps to capture escaped slaves could have been added to the mix.  The jumping from Richmond to New York to Charleston left no time to do justice to this important interpretive strand of the exhibit. 

Overall, the artifacts are clearly explained and also bare the mark of recent scholarship.  One of the best examples of this is the order authorizing the recruitment of black soldiers into Confederate armies in March 1865.  There is no reference to the presence of large numbers of black soldiers; the narrative is limited strictly to the events surrounding the document.  Included are three passages from white Southerners who were clearly troubled by the prospects of black recruitment.  No reputable historian has demonstrated the presence of significant numbers of black Confederates so there is no place for it in this exhibit.  There is a wonderful little space for children which includes some hands on activities that are quite thoughtful.  One activity asks children to think and write about how we communicate with loved ones away at war today and another activity involves deciding what kinds of things should be sent in a basket to soldiers at the front.

The final section of the exhibit concentrates on the legacy of the Civil War.  There is a video that explores elements of the Lost Cause and the gradual displacement of the "emancipationist" interpretation of the war for one that achieved wide exposure and a general consensus.  While Reconstruction is referenced as a time of hope the harsh realities of Jim Crow are not lost on the audience.  However, between a reference to the long march between the "Civil War and Civil Rights" and a wall that is covered with images from the twentieth century, the viewer is left with a sense of optimism that our founding ideals are alive and a more complete appreciation still within reach.  The narrator suggests that to think about the legacy of the war is not just to think about "forts and reenactments, but a better understanding of what the war means."

With so much to praise, however, I do have a few concerns.  First, I found it difficult to follow the military history of the war.  Large maps that track each year of the war were clear reference points, but there was a lack of focus on major battles apart from their connection to the exhibit’s other interpretive strands.  I am especially concerned that this is going to be a problem for visitors who are expecting a heavy dose of battlefield interpretation.  Unfortunately, there are relatively few artifacts to view.  Perhaps this will change, but it does reinforce my earlier point that this is an intellectually demanding museum.  I’ve said it on this blog countless times, most Civil War enthusiasts are not interested in the complex issues related to race, slavery or the home front.  I wonder whether the museum runs the risk of alienating those groups.  Time will tell and I am willing to admit that these concerns may be entirely misplaced. 

On a more serious note I will not be surprised to read that certain groups, especially heritage groups, are not satisfied with the heavy emphasis on race.  At almost every turn the visitor is confronted with videos about race and their volume guarantees that while walking talk of fugitive slaves, emancipation, and U.S.C.T.’s will remain constant companions.  Again, time will tell, but the ongoing opposition to the NPS’s interpretive revisions is a sufficient reason in and of itself to be concerned.  I am pleased to see such a strong emphasis on education and outreach at Tredegar; this should be their focus as young Americans provide the most important vehicle for sharing a broader and more meaningful interpretation of the Civil War.  [I was pleased to learn that my friend Jim Alperston has been awarded the museum's first annual Samuel L. Gravely award for excellence in teaching the Civil War. Jim is an energetic teacher who includes multiple battlefield and museum visits in his Civil War curriculum.]

With the Civil War Sesquicentennial right around the corner, I couldn’t be more pleased with the overall quality of the ACW Museum at Tredegar.  The location of the exhibit inside one of the Tredegar buildings is ideal and its proximity to the James River, Belle Isle, the Museum of the Confederacy, and the rest of downtown Richmond makes a trip all the more worthwhile.  I encourage all of you to visit and/or support in any way possible.  Oh….and did I mention that I bought a Lincoln bobblehead in the museum store?

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4 thoughts on “This Is Not Your Grandfather’s Civil War Museum: A Review of the ACW Museum At Tredegar

  1. Sarah

    First of all, let me say I was delighted to read this entry since my thesis research now deals entirely with Civil War memory in Richmond. Let’s not forget, however, that heritage-types will already be disposed not to like the new museum. Afterall, Tredegar is the sacred ground that was defiled only a few years ago with the statue of Abraham and young Tad.

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Sarah, — Nice to hear from you and I hope your research is progressing. I agree that heritage-types “will be disposed not to like the museum.” That was my point and why I emphasized that the museum must focus on a new generation of students. Feel free to send me a copy of your thesis for review; I am curious as to what you’ve discovered in your travels.

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  3. Kristen

    I wish I still lived in Virginia (sigh). I miss being so close to Civil War sites and museums. Although I focus on the antebellum period, I have a great affinity for the Civil War not only as a historian, but also as a descendant of one of Virginia’s earliest families. Maybe I can make it to this museum the next time I am on the East Coast!

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