Museum of the Confederacy Will Move

Many of you no doubt have already read that the Museum of the Confederacy (MOC) will be looking to move in the next few years.  The plans also involve keeping the White House of the Confederacy in its present location.  From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

The Museum and White House of the Confederacy, which maintains the world’s most comprehensive collections of Confederate artifacts, manuscripts and photographs, has been losing visitors and income for years as the continued development of VCU has nearly swallowed its small campus. Since the early 1990s, annual visitation has dropped from 92,000 to about 51,500. The museum’s deficit is expected to reach $700,000 this year.

In response to its financial woes, the institution cut its operating hours last month. The museum is now closed on Wednesdays from Labor Day to Memorial Day, and the White House will be closed for public tours in January and February.

Anyone who has visited the MOC in the past few years has put up with having to deal with the traffic and parking in the middle of VCU’s medical facilities.  As I’ve said all along, moving the MOC is really the only possible solution.  What that means for the White House remains to be seen. 

As much as the gradual decline in visitation can be attributed to the MOC’s location there may be other factors involved.  The sharp increase in the number of public controversies involving the Confederate flag has perhaps alienated a certain number.  There may be the perception that a visit to the MOC is some kind of public statement in support of the flag. 

I pointed out in my review of the new American Civil War Museum at Tredegar that their focus on slavery and a more sophisticated overall interpretation may in the end alienate certain groups who are interested either in a heavy dose of the military and/or an overall sanitized interpretation of the war.  One of the things that continues to strike me is the almost complete absence of support for the MOC from SCV organizations and other Southern Heritage groups.  No fund-raisers and as far as I can tell and no literature to inform the public about the Museum’s dire situation.  So, how should we explain this?  Not too long ago I commented on a news story involving the Edmund Ruffin Fire Eaters Camp (SCV) who called for the removal of Waite Rawls who is currently the Executive Director of the MOC.  I can only conclude from this that there is a perception out there among heritage groups that the MOC’s interpretation/mission has moved too far from the outlines of the Lost Cause. 

As a historian who concentrates on memory and the South I couldn’t be more pleased with their recent exhibits and overall push to bring a more mature interpretation of the Confederacy and the South to the general public.  A final thought: Perhaps as the staff prepares for this important move they should also think about changing the name of the museum.

It’s A Woman’s War

Just a quick follow-up to yesterday’s post about student interest in Civil War military history.  I failed to point out the most surprising development this year and that is the extent to which the female students have asserted themselves in class discussions.  In the past the classes have been populated primarily by male students. I don’t know why I am surprised by this, but perhaps it does go against some implicit gender assumptions surrounding the way we identify with the Civil War.  It was not too long ago that some Civil War Roundtables barred women from joining in their monthly meetings.  It may have simply been a matter of men wanting to feel comfortable sharing their testosterone-driven thoughts about battlefield glory with other men or the worn out cultural belief that women need to be shielded from discussions of blood and guts.  Whatever the story is, I am pleased to see that times have changed.  Not only has it changed, but some of the most talented Civil War historians working on military topics are women.  I am thinking of Jacqueline Campbell’s short, but rich study of Sherman’s March; Carol Reardon’s work on memory and Pickett’s Charge, and Chandra Manning’s studies of Civil War soldiers.  Finally, there is Anne Bailey’s work on the war in the West and Lesley Gordon’s forthcoming study of the 16th Connecticut Regiment in history and memory.

Yeah, you sometimes have to deal with the old male insecurities that women are intruding on male territory, but hopefully most people simply dismiss these all-too-common "feminist critiques" as silliness.  Whether women bring a different sensibility to the study of history can and should be debated.  No one seriously debates whether women can engage in the same kind of hard-nosed analytical style that is the mark of our best historical studies.  From my point of view it simply comes down to a matter of numbers: the more historians working, the more we learn.

It is comforting to know that that there is a wide-range of talented female historians that I can point to to encourage my students to pursue their interests in a field that has a history of being perceived as male only. 

Who Won The Overland Campaign?

Last night Gary Gallagher addressed the Charlottesville Civil War Roundtable. His topic was the Overland Campaign and the more specific question of which side could claim to have come out ahead by the beginning of the siege of Petersburg.  Gary has been a guest every year, even going back to when he was teaching at Penn State before he moved to Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. Not surprisingly he gets a large turnout every year.  I’ve read most of Gallagher’s scholarship and am rarely surprised by his topics or conclusions.  I enjoy watching him engage the audience and the chance to share what many of us know to be his great passion in life.  He’s got a real knack for combining a serious interest in the war with an entertaining speaking style.  His criticisms are typically couched in a dry, but serious wit.  At the beginning of his talk he criticized his own colleagues in the academy who teach or study the war without any reference to the military side.  Most of the audience enjoyed this little swipe at the academy, but Gary was quick to counter with the fact that most of the people in the audience study nothing but the battles and have little or no appreciation for the broader issues.  "Somewhere between both of these approaches," Gallagher concluded "is where the real Civil War resides." 

I am not going to go through Gallagher’s full presentation; those of you familiar with his books and edited collections know where he stands in terms of the broad outline.  While he admitted that it is easy to conclude that both armies had reasons to be optimistic about the way the campaign evolved, Gallagher seemed to tip his hat to Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.  And the main factors involved had to do with the campaign’s political ramifications.  Gallagher argued that morale was actually higher in the Army of Northern Virginia at the beginning of the Petersburg Campaign compared with the Army of the Potomac.  Based on my reading of the manuscript and other primary sources in reference to the Crater I have to agree.  I was very surprised by how Confederates and those on the home front responded to the Confederate victory on July 30, 1864.  It rallied both soldiers and citizens around the belief that Grant’s army could be dealt with successfully at least until the fall elections.  And the presence of black soldiers reinforced for many white Southerners just what defeat would involve.  Gallagher was careful to emphasize the steps that the Democrats and "Copperheads" took to win the presidential election.  I highly recommend Jennifer Weber’s new study of the Copperheads.  She argues persuasively that we have not fully appreciated their growing influence in the North and especially in states like Indiana as the Overland Campaign and engagements around Petersburg left horrendous casualties and a sense that the war was not close to being won.  The Copperheads exercised tight control on the Democratic Party platform which was formulated in August 1864 and even managed to get one of their own on the ticket with McClellan.  Weber does point out that the Copperheads’ fatal flaw was in never presenting a reasonable alternative to seeing the war to a successful conclusion through military means; they failed to answer important questions about the legality of secession and emancipation (slavery).  This oversight alienated most of the soldiers in the army and guaranteed their support for Lincoln and even led to violence against individual Copperheads while on leave. 

What I was most struck by was the sharp change in public opinion regarding the Democrats following Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in early September 1864.  Support or interest doesn’t gradually decline, it disappeared throughout much of the country.  Gallagher compared this sharp shift with the summer of 1862 and Lee’s successful defense of Richmond and offensive that culminated at Antietam.  It is clear to me that the fighting around Petersburg did not guarantee Lincoln’s re-election; in fact it threatened it.  It was the capture of Atlanta that brought about the dramatic change in the political climate of the North which guaranteed Lincoln’s re-election.  A good case can indeed be made that as late as mid-August 1864 Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had the advantage.

Where Is The War In My Civil War Class?

This is my fourth year teaching the Civil War course and as all of you know I thoroughly enjoy it.  When I planned the first year I was very concerned about the balance between battle coverage and broader political, cultural, and social issues.  Basically, I was concerned that teaching a course on the Civil War in the heart of Virginia would bring young boys with a voracious appetite for the Lost Cause and the kind of battlefield coverage that I am not qualified or even comfortable teaching.  In yesterday’s post Hugo Schwyzer briefly touched on this tension in reference to his own Western Civilization course:

In my survey courses, I do very little military history.  In my Western Civ classes, there are a few battles so vital I describe them in detail: Salamis and the Somme, for example.  But I always fall short of what some of my eager young men want.  Every prof who teaches survey courses knows the type: the earnest lad who comes to office hours, filled with righteous anguish because I chose to talk more about the unique status of Spartan women than the heroics of their husbands and brothers at Thermopylae!  I’ve noted that the most consistent complaints I get as a professor is the lack of military history in my survey courses. I emphasize religious, gender, and social history at the expense of battle tactics time and again, and given the time constraints, I make no apologies for it.

What is interesting to me is that most of my students in this class over the past four years have not pushed or questioned the amount of straight-forward military history in the class.  I’ve never had a student come to my office and complain that I didn’t do justice to Jackson’s flank march at Chancellorsville or Meade’s defense at Gettysburg.  Since this course is structured thematically we tend to touch on broader issues over time rather than a strict chronological approach.  For example, last week we talked about the broader issue of emancipation and the Federal government’s steps towards the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Seven Days’ Battles and the battle of Antietam were discussed in this context, but were not covered in any serious detail apart from their connection to the transition from "Limited" to "Hard War," emancipation, and foreign recognition.  Even our trip to the Chancellorsville battlefield, which is fast approaching and will be focused heavily on the realities of battle, will also be used to address a whole host of issues beyond the battlefield. 

To be honest, I don’t think my students really care about the kinds of things that drive most Civil War enthusiasts.  The "Lee To The Rear" accounts simply fail to stir.  I remember once during that first year where I gave a fairly detailed lecture about the actual battle of Antietam.  Now, I should say that I am a pretty good lecturer, especially when I am discussing something that I care about.  By the middle of the class at least 75% of the students had lost focus or had that look of complete despair.  This doesn’t mean that military history is ignored – far from it.  What it does mean, however, is that at least in my class the battles and campaigns must be connected to the bigger issues of the war.  So, I tend to agree with Hugo’s bold comment in reference to the balance between religion, gender, social history (I should also add politics) and battle tactics.  And I also make no apologies for it.

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?