Interpreting Lincoln at Tredegar

As I mentioned yesterday today my Lincoln class will be traveling to Richmond to visit the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar.  The purpose of the trip is to explore how Lincoln has been remembered/interpreted in a museum setting.  Students will write a final essay which compares Tredegar’s interpretation of Lincoln with other sources discussed over the course of the semester.  Below is the handout.  Feel free to offer comments.

Interpreting Lincoln at the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar: Final Project

Directions: Over the course of the semester we have read a great deal about the life of Abraham Lincoln and specifically his crucial role during the Civil War. Interpretations by historians such as William Gienapp, Ira Berlin, and James McPherson have given us a great deal to debate and discuss. While our main sources in this class have been primary and secondary sources, Lincoln’s life and public career has been interpreted much more widely through monuments and in other public spaces.  Museums also interpret the past and the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar is one of the more recent sites to do so. The museum’s overall goal is to interpret the Civil War from Union, Confederate, and African-American perspectives. In doing so, this museum attempts to be both inclusive and at the same time acknowledge that the war was viewed very differently depending on a number of factors such as race, place, gender, and political affiliation. The information that you collect today will serve as the foundation for your final essay in this class, which will address how the museum at Tredegar interprets Lincoln’s presidency.

1. Overall interpretive questions that you must address at the beginning of your essay: Discuss the way the exhibit interprets the three perspectives on the war. Are all three given the same weight? What are the most effective components of the exhibit? Choose three artifacts that best represent Union, Confederate, and African-American perspectives.  Is the stated goal of the exhibit successful? sure you explain your answer.

While the museum is not focused narrowly on Lincoln, it does acknowledge his importance at various points in the exhibit. Your job is to explore where and how Lincoln is interpreted throughout the exhibit. Concentrate, but do not confine yourselves to three main areas of the exhibit, including the cause of the war, emancipation, and the end of the war. Use the following questions as a guide.

A. The Cause of Secession/War: Make sure you explore the interactive video on the cause of the war.

     1. Where is Lincoln first introduced in the exhibit and what does it say about him? How does the museum explain the cause of the Civil War and what is Lincoln’s role in the interpretation?

     2. As you view the interactive video on the cause of the war pay careful attention to references to Lincoln. What do the three commentators state or fail to state about Lincoln’s role in secession?

B. Emancipation: We have read quite a bit about Lincoln’s role in the “emancipation drama” this semester. Your goal here should be to think comparatively between how the historians discussed this semester explained emancipation and how the museum exhibit addresses this.

     1. How does the exhibit compare with Ira Berlin’s claim that the slaves themselves functioned as “primary movers” on the road to emancipation? Would Berlin be pleased with this section of the exhibit?

     2. Is Lincoln’s role in emancipation given sufficient attention? In thinking about this question pay careful attention to the video on the subject. [In your final essay you can compare the museum interpretation with Gienapp, Berlin, and Ken Burns.]

C. The End of the War/April 1865 and Reconstruction

     1.In what way is Lincoln’s legacy explored in the exhibit? Think about his visit to Richmond in April 1865 just after the surrender of the city as well as his vision of Reconstruction.

Three Lincoln Links

Tomorrow I am taking my Lincoln class to Richmond to visit the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar.  Following the visit we will walk over to the Lincoln-Tad monument and talk a bit about how Lincoln has been remembered, commemorated, and vilified since his death in April 1865.  Afterwords we will drive over to Hollywood Cemetery for a quick walk around Confederate Avenue followed by lunch.  In preparation for our visit my students will read three articles on the Lincoln statue:

New York Times article from April 6, 2003

Statement from Charles Bryan Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer of the Virginia Historical Society

Southern Poverty Law Center article, "Lincoln Reconstructed"

Bruce Levine Wins Peter Seaborg Award

Mark Grimsley has announced that Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2006) has been awarded the 2007 Peter Seaborg Award.  This is an excellent choice for the award, which is given annually by the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  [Their website does not mention anything about the 2007 and I was unable to locate an online news item.  No doubt Mark has an inside source.]  Levine’s study addresses the debate in the Confederacy surrounding plans to free and arm slaves as well as why most white southerners steadfastly refused to approve the plan until close to the end of the war.  The book also addresses issues of memory in connection with the continued popularity of stories purporting to demonstrate that large numbers of free and enslaved black men served in and supported the Confederate war effort.   

Congratulations to Bruce Levine

Buster Keaton Points the Way

275pxtredegar_iron_worksI find it interesting that in Keaton’s short cinematic interpretation of the Civil War it is the locomotive – a popular symbol of the antebellum and post-bellum north – that saves the day as Confederate troops retreat in the face of advancing Federals.  It would be a mistake to over-interpret his use of the locomotive beyond the fact that they tend to make for first-rate comedy.  Given that the production and release of "The General" took place well after the height of the Industrial Revolution in this country it is unlikely that Keaton would have acknowledged the still lingering sectional split over how to differentiate between the antebellum north and south. 

From a certain perspective Keaton’s linking of an popular symbol of industry with "the South" and the Confederacy anticipates a great deal of recent research.  We are wedded to certain beliefs that are picked up at various points in our lives and held to tightly.  In the case of the American history one of the most popular is the distinction between an agrarian South and industrial North.  The two regions were not simply different in degree, but in kind.  We hold to these distinctions as if they are sacred and rarely look beyond the surface to better understand the extent to which they help us understand the past.  Part of the problem is the implicit moral assumptions that lay just below the surface of these beliefs many of which are culled directly from travel reports from such notables as Frederick Law Olmsted and George Fitzhugh.  Many of us identify with these ideas as a way to defend or vindicate the past. 

I’ve commented quite a bit about Peter Carmichael’s recent study of young Virginians who matured in the 1850s and who eagerly went off to war in 1861.  Carmichael demonstrates that these young Virginians from slaveowning families were quite progressive in their call for internal improvements and other steps to "industrialize" the commonwealth.  These young men clearly did acknowledge a distinction between themselves and their neighbors to the north, but that stance was much more complicated and not drawn along a strict industrial v. agrarian line.  I am currently making my way through Charles Dew’s wonderful study Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph Reid Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works [first published in 1966 and re-published in 1999 by the Library of Virginia].  I found the following passage where Dew describes Anderson’s appointment to assistant state engineer to the Valley Turnpike in 1837 to be quite interesting:

Anderson found is new job attractive for a number of reasons.  It got him out of the army, of course, and it took him back to his native Shenandoah Valley.  But it also offered him the chance to do something tangible to further the economic development of the state.  While still at West Point, he had compared the bustling commerce of New York with the languid pace of economic activity in Virginia and decided that internal improvements lay behind Yankee prosperity.  "The immense profits of the New York Canals are enriching the state," he noted in 1834.  "Every day numberless vessels are seen wafting on the waters of the Hudson to the great city of New York the inexhaustible resources which these very improvements have increased or developed."  It was time for Virginians to wake from their economic slumber, start digging canals and building turnpikes, and secure their share of trade and wealth.  After settling in Staunton, he supported various canal and railroad projects intended to improve transportation between the Valley and the Tidewater.  This interest in internal improvements led him first into the Whig party and then into the Southern commercial convention movement, which was just beginning in Virginia in the late 1830s.

Dew is very careful in the way he analyzes Anderson’s correspondence.  According to Dew, Anderson did not compare an agrarian/pre-industrial south with the north, but acknowledged a nation on the move and a region that stood to benefit from continued and expanded economic development.  Anderson’s story serves to remind us that our own deeply-held assumptions about the past may tell us more about ourselves than anything having to do with serious history.


The other day I was contacted by a publishing agent who was interested in purchasing space on my blog to advertise a work of Civil War fiction.  The book was written by a fellow blogger who I highly respect; however, after thinking it over I decided against it.  In this case, I felt uncomfortable agreeing to advertise a book that I have not read nor plan to read.  More to the point: I don’t read much Civil War fiction so why advertise it.  At the same time I find the idea of making a little extra cash attractive and I have to admit to thinking about contacting certain publishers to see if they are interested in purchasing space on my site.   These are, of course, publishers whose books I feel comfortable advertising even if I haven’t read every title or agreed with the arguments contained in those I have read.  One of the goals of this blog from the beginning has been to introduce more casual Civil War enthusiasts to more “scholarly” studies that take the reader beyond the battlefield.

A few weeks ago at the SHA in Richmond I ran the idea of selling space to certain publishers by a fellow historian who reads my blog  and who I highly respect.  He didn’t like the idea at all.  His concern was that by advertising I would loose my ability to judge books objectively.  While I do think this is a concern, I already have a policy which I make perfectly clear to publishers that ask me to review specific titles.  At the same time academic journals and other publications routinely include advertisements from publishers and there is no reason to think that the integrity of their book reviews are compromised.  In fact, from the perspective of the publisher it shouldn’t matter if one of their books receives a negative review since it will no doubt be linked to Amazon or one of the other book-selling outlets.  All that matters is that the book is mentioned and it is up to the reader to click on the link and make a decision as to whether to purchase it.

The last thing I want to do is clutter my blog with pointless advertisements that somehow relate to the Civil War.  Any thoughts, especially from those of you who do include online ads on your blogs, is appreciated.

Why I Love Teaching in December

My Lincoln class is reading a chapter by James McPherson titled "How Lincoln Won the War With Metaphors" from his book Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1990).  Students in my two sections of regular U.S. History have just started reading William Gienapp’s Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography.  Finally, my AP students are right in the middle of the Civil War and are preparing for a discussion based on Ira Berlin’s article "Who Freed the Slaves?". 

Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission Endorses Battlefield Preservation Initiative

I was unable to attend last week’s meeting of the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission so I am reading this for the first time.

At its meeting last week, the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing the Civil War Preservation Trust’s (CWPT) Virginia Sesquicentennial Battlefield Initiative. Initiative encourages state funding for battlefield preservation in Virginia during prior to and during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (2011-2015).

Read more.