Over the past few years I’ve seen a wide range of images of the battle of the Crater. Once I tidy up a few loose ends in my Crater manuscript I am going to turn to making a decision about illustrations for the book. I am planning to include images that give the reader a sense of the drastic changes that have taken place to the physical landscape as well as how various illustrators have come to terms with the battle itself. Yesterday I spent some time in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which features a wonderful exhibit of Civil War drawings from the Becker Collection. The collection includes sketches of various aspects of camp life and battle that were done for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. Eventually, I came across, Andrew McCallum’s sketch of the Crater. I’ve never seen the original so the longer I stared the more difficult it was to walk away. The detail is incredible and he really does capture the horror of the battle. This one stands a good chance of making it into the book.
Well, then head on over to the Virginia Historical Society for their new exhibit, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia. I had a chance to sneak in for a few minutes today and it is well worth a visit. It covers all of the important aspects of the war in Virginia and it does so with a wonderful selection of paintings, artifacts and interactive exhibits. I am definitely going to have to go back and spend a bit more time. Most importantly, the museum offers a narrative of the war that reflects the best scholarship of the past few decades. I will give you a sense of what I mean based on their printed guide:
Why Did the Civil War Happen? [Yes, slavery was crucial as a cause of secession & war.]
Slavery caused the war, but the war was not begun to free slaves. The war had begun to determine whether the Confederate States of America would be allowed to break away as an independent nation, or whether the existing Union would survive. Only later did the the conflict become one of liberation. Why did the South want independence? Southern wealth was mostly invested in slaves or slave-worked land. Abraham Lincoln, newly elected president, led a party pledged to ban slavery in new states.
War or Murder? [Both Grant and Lee engaged in bloody assaults throughout the war.]
Throughout the war, both sides sought a single decisive victory long after it was clear that no such event was achievable…. Although Grant was called a butcher, Confederate losses, relative to the size of their army, were greater.
Men of Color To Arms? [Sorry, but no black Confederates prior to March 13, 1865.]
A few southern soldiers and civilians suggested as early as January 1864 that the Confederacy enlist slaves as soldiers, but most white southerners disagreed. One Confederate politician noted that, “if slaves will make good soldiers [then] our whole theory is wrong.” Desperate to avert defeat, the Confederacy authorized the enlistment of slaves on March 13, 1865, far too late to affect the outcome of the war.
Who Was the Traitor and Who the Patriot? [Virginians ought to remember their Confederates and Unionists.]
In 1861, pro-Union supporters defended the nation that had been created in 1776. Pro-Confederates said they were exercising the right, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, to “alter or abolish” unrepresentative and oppressive government. Wherever a Virginian placed his or her loyalty–to the rebel nation of 1776 of the new rebel nation of 1861–he or she was a patriot to the eyes of some and a traitor to others.
How Did Slaves Support the Confederacy? [The Confederacy (including Virginia) went to war as a slaveholding society.]
Slaves and free blacks provided more labor than usual for Virginia farms when 89 percent of eligible white men served in Confederate armies. Enslaved men were sometimes forced into service to build fortifications, women to serve as laundresses and cooks for troops in the field. Fearful that they might lose their freedom if they failed to contribute to the war effort, free blacks often worked beside the slaves, for minimal wages.
Did the Civil War End At Appomattox? [We need to think about the war beyond Appomattox.]
Freedom as Confederate independence failed. Defeat threatened to change white southern identity that had been based on racial supremacy. Although black Virginians were no longer enslaved, equality remained an unfulfilled goal for generations to come.
I don’t mind admitting that I am a sucker for the recent string of television shows that trace the family histories of our favorite celebrities. They perform an important function within the muck and mire that is popular entertainment. Most importantly, they present the study of history as an exciting process that often leads to meaningful self discovery. This episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” follows Vanessa Williams as she searches for information about her great-great grandfather, who served in the USCTs during the Civil War. Williams also learns that an ancestor served in the Tennessee legislature in the 1880s and even introduced legislation mandating public education. All in all we have here another strong emancipationist narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction that has made it into our mainstream culture.
For my second installment in this series I thought we would take a quick look at Ann DeWitt’s Black Confederate Soldiers site. It’s one of the more recent sites to appear and it is growing in popularity. Feel free to suggest websites that might be worth exploring at a later date. I apologize for the sound quality. I am still playing around with a couple of programs so hopefully things will improve.
Today the Virginia Historical Society’s exhibition, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia, opens to the general public and will run through to the end of the year. I am hoping to make the drive to Richmond to check it out at some point very soon.
An American Turning Point is not a top-down study of battles and generals. Instead, the exhibition engages visitors in the experiences of a representative group of individuals and situations to promote an understanding of the wartime experiences of Virginians, and those who served in Virginia, during the war. The stories of the men, women, and children who struggled to survive Virginia’s Civil War can be are found in the fabric of every uniform, the blade of every sword, the handle of every tool, the imagery of every drawing, the words of every letter, and the notes of every song.
The exhibit also reflects much broader changes since the Civil War Centennial surrounding how Americans have come to remember their Civil War. I see this exhibit as a crucial link between the work that historians have done over the past few decades and a general public that has shown strong signs of interest in this crucial moment in American history. Why Did the Civil War Happen? is the subject of the introductory video for the VHS exhibit. Enjoy.