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?

Civil War Memes

Brooks Simpson asks why specific claims persist in Civil War studies even after they’ve been challenged by careful research:

Why would one want to continue to use a story that is not only not
supported by evidence, but rather clearly contradicted by it, and where
the veracity of the account in which the story appears is questionable,
to say the least?

You tell me.

I just finished reading Jennifer L Weber’s fine study of the Copperheads (Oxford University Press) and in her comments about Cold Harbor she lays out the standard story of soldiers stitching their names  in their coats for identification following the battle and 7,000 Federals killed in less than an hour.  Both of these stories have been challenged by Gordon Rhea.  Other examples include the tendency to see Gettysburg as the "high-water mark" of the Confederacy or states rights as the cause of secession.  Brooks cites a story between Lincoln and Alexander McClure that continues to find a home in histories even though they’ve acknowledged the research that challenges the claim.  Countless other examples abound in the literature.  While sloppy research and a lack of awareness are no doubt involved it is worth exploring another possibility.  In this case it is the idea of the meme.

From Wikipedia:
The term "meme" (IPA: [miːm], not [mɛm], or [mimi]), coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, refers
to a unit of cultural information transferrable from one mind to another.
Dawkins said, Examples of memes are tunes, catch-phrases, clothes fashions,
ways of making pots or of building arches.
A meme propagates itself as a
unit of cultural evolution analogous in many ways
to the gene (the unit of genetic information). Often memes propagate as
more-or-less integrated cooperative sets or groups, referred to as
memeplexes or meme complexes.  The idea of memes has proved a successful meme in its own right, achieving a
degree of penetration into popular culture rare for a scientific theory.

Proponents of memes suggest that memes evolve via natural selection — in a way very similar to Charles Darwin’s ideas
concerning biological evolution — on
the premise that variation, mutation, competition, and "inheritance" influence their
replicative success. For example, while one idea may become extinct, other ideas will survive, spread and mutate — for better or for worse —
through modification.  Meme-theorists contend that memes most beneficial to their hosts will not
necessarily survive; rather, those memes which replicate the most effectively
spread best; which allows for the possibility that successful memes might prove
detrimental to their hosts.

And which memes "replicate the most effectively" in the Civil War community?  Well, it seems to me those that reinforce the stories that its readers and even researchers want to hear.  We are indeed emotionally attached to certain strands of thought from our Civil War.  You can see it at Civil War Roundtables where the audience waits on the edge of their seat to hear the standard story that will reinforce childhood stories.  Perhaps these memes persist because most Civil War enthusiasts (reader or writer) do not see the Civil War as history (strictly understood) but as entertainment or heritage.  In the end, it makes for a better story.  What’s the Civil War without the story of those soldiers stitching their names into their coats so that their bodies can later be identified?

 

Tough Love or Peer Review: Part 3

I just finished an anonymous journal review and feel just a bit uncomfortable.  Previous posts on this can be found here and here.  I’ve only done a few of these in the past so I am still working on developing my writing style.  I would be very interested to know how others approach these assignments, especially when faced with an essay that fails to meet even the minimum requirements for publication in an academic journal. 

As mentioned in previous posts I have been the recipient of some incredibly critical reviews of my work.  In every case, however, those criticisms were warranted and the final published product was better for it.  That said, it can be incredibly discouraging when you open that attachment and find months and sometimes years of research and/or writing thrown into question.  I guess the trick is to take the long-view of your own work.  I am finding that being on the receiving end of the criticism is much easier than doling it out to someone else.  At the end of the review I found myself trying to balance my criticisms with words of encouragement; I wonder if it comes off as sincere or as an attempt to put myself at ease. 

As I said above, I would be interested to know how others handle these assignments.  My model is based almost entirely on reviews of my work by my graduate adviser and the few critiques I’ve received regarding my own work.  This is much too small of a sample.  Any advice?

White Guilt In The Classroom

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

One of my students came to class this morning with a look of deep frustration.  When I asked if everything was alright he responded by saying that he felt guilty about being white.  He had just come from his English class where they are reading Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography and between that class and history he admitted to feeling a bit defensive about race.  I thought it was a perfect opportunity to discuss the issue as a class and I asked him if he would repeat his comment for the benefit of his fellow students, which he agreed to do.  We are currently working on a fairly detailed packet that takes students through some of the intricacies of the Constitution, but I thought this was clearly more important.

As we began the discussion I was surprised by how many students agreed with this student’s comment.  Some of the students who didn’t necessarily feel guilty did admit to a feeling of defensiveness or shame that this country could have sanctioned or permitted the horrendous acts that defined slavery, which are described so eloquently by Douglass.  For many students this is the first time that their history class has emphasized the importance of race and slavery as a central theme of American history and that can easily bring about a feeling of uneasiness and even a temptation to distance oneself from it.  I gave the students as much time as they needed to share their thoughts in their own language, and I was amazed by how carefully they listened to one another. 

Once they finished I offered to share my own perspective on this issue which the students seemed eager to hear.  I tried to make the point that their difficulties are a result of the way they’ve been taught to interpret American history.  Since most of them admitted to not having learned much about slavery or race before this year I suggested that their broad view of American history was skewed towards seeing freedom as progressively expanding within a white-only community.  Race and slavery represents a kind of external threat to their clean and tidy interpretation; more importantly, that external threat is seen as existing outside the boundaries of American history.  In short, there is an implicit assumption worked into their psychology over the years that white = American and black/slave = "foreign". 

The problem is that they don’t interpret Frederick Douglass’s story or the broader story of black America as an American story.  While it is impossible to deny the horrors of slavery there is a way to see the story of black America before emancipation and after as a story of resilience and courage in the face of the worst possible conditions imaginable.  As we’ve already discussed in class – a point that I reminded them of – was that by the 18th century the slave population through many of the colonies was beginning to increase naturally and families were becoming more stable.  A distinct African-American culture evolved and involved some of the same practices such as marriage along with many of the same hopes and dreams that we take for granted.  And all of this took place in a slave society.  I am not trying to simplify slavery or excuse it, but point out that within the strict confines of slavery people managed to live their lives with a strong sense of meaning attached to it.  Douglass’s story is the quintessential American story as his dreams involved "stealing his body" and escaping from slavery.  You simply can’t get any more American than the slavery to freedom saga. 

There is a mental shift that needs to take place when introducing this material to high school students.  They should not interpret Douglass simply as a black man, but as an American who understood – as have so many – the price and risks involved in attaining basic freedoms.  I am not surprised by their reaction and I am glad that it surfaced so early in the year.  As I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, I teach in a predominantly white school with students who are financially fairly well off.  I believe that teaching history involves taking ownership of your history and this can be done without the feelings of guilt.  The racial issues that we continue to struggle with are intimately bound up in the past.  If we are to bridge those barriers it seems that a good place to start in challenging our deep rooted assumptions about what it means to study American history should take place in the classroom.