Review of American Civil War Center

I am planning to drive down tomorrow to Richmond to see the new Civil War museum with my wife.  The few reviews that I’ve read thus far seem to suggest that the museum does in fact offer something entirely different for the Civil War enthusiast and for those that will be introduced to the war for the first time.  Andrew Ferguson’s review of the museum in the Wall Street Journal is worth reading.  Here are a few passages:

"Heritage tourism" has become a moneymaker in states like Virginia. The $13 million center, housed in a restored Civil War-era gun foundry on the banks of the James River, will surely bring in folks from the commonwealth and beyond. But Mr. Wise cradles grander ambitions. He wants to do something here that hasn’t been done adequately in other Civil War museums — to give due credit to the war itself as a war of ideas. 

Anyone who has slogged through contemporary museums will see how radical Mr. Wise’s ambition is. Notwithstanding the success of heritage tourism, these are difficult times for history museums. As attendance flatlines or falls, curators have forced themselves to compete with theme parks and TV for the attention of tourists and locals alike. Many museums are tricked out in an aesthetic borrowed from Best Buy: cavernous spaces jumping with video screens and echoing with disembodied voices from hidden speakers, a riot of sound and color in which the transmission of knowledge takes a secondary role to the task of keeping busloads of schoolchildren entertained, through exhibits that are — charmed words! — "immersive" and "interactive."

Whether we like it or not Wise’s "grander ambitions" may end up being dictated by the all-mighty dollar.  As Ferguson points out, attendance is down at many museums which puts site managers in a position of having to "sex-up" the place.  The relationship between education and entertainment need not necessarily be in conflict as long as Wise and others do not take their focus off of educational programs geared to school kids as well as more knowledgeable visitors.  Last year I spent a few hours at the new Constitution Center in Philadelphia while attending the AHA and I was blown away by the ways in which technology is used.  It is geared to school kids and is both highly entertaining and incredibly informative. The creative use of technology can not only enhance the historical content, but introduce it in a way that is more likely to bring about serious critical reflection following the visit.

The displays are organized around the three main ideas over which — according to Mr. Wise and his historians — the war was fought: "Union," whose preservation inspired the North; "Home," whose defense motivated the Confederacy; and "Liberty," the goal for both North and South but also for the African-American slaves and freedmen.

If the tripartite scheme sounds artificial on the page, it’s seamless in the execution. The center is a model of curatorial taste, judgment and skill. Among Civil War buffs, the emphasis on the African-American experience has caused the most comment, but even more striking is the evenhandedness with which the three perspectives — North, Confederate and African-American — are explained.

I would actually like to see evidence of any concerns surrounding the African-American theme from those who have actually visited the museum.  My hope is that the emphasis on the black experience will in fact bring more African Americans to the museum and to a point where they can appreciate that the Civil War is as much their war as it is the descendants of "Johnny Reb" and "Billy Yank."  In fact, if we ever get to the point where we see the war as the death blow to slavery than the black experience will be indispensable to understanding why. 

That’s it for now.  Hopefully I will have a review of the museum up some time next week.

Gay-Straight Alliance on Campus

Not too long ago I commented on homophobia on high school campuses and my own thoughts about how to approach the issue on my own campus.  Well, I am pleased to report that this morning I attended the second meeting of the St. Anne’s – Belfield chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance.  We had ten students and four faculty members in attendance.  The group has already crafted a mission statement and even better, we are working on two programs.   The group is organizing sessions for Middle School students about the language of homophobia and the consequences of its use on campus.  In the Upper School we are planning to use one of our school forums (which take place on Thursdays to discuss issues related to school and world news) to discuss homophobia and the purpose of this new student-led group.

I felt energized sitting there with the students and teachers listening to their concerns and plans for the group.  I view homophobia as on par with the same kind of ignorance and hatred that define racism and working with these young people gives me hope that change is possible. 

One Of Those Nice Surprises

One of the benefits of living and teaching in Charlottesville, Virginia is the contact with people who have a family connection to the Civil War.  Here at my school we have direct descendants of both Generals Robert Rodes and Stephen Dodson Ramseur.  Although Rodes is notorious owing to the burning of his letters by his wife, I was able to spend a few weeks looking through a large scrapbook that was compiled by his sister during and after the war. 

A couple of days ago one of my students in the Civil War class commented that her family had an ancestor who fought with the Army of Northern Virginia, and would I like to see what they have.  I think it’s safe to say that every serious Civil War historian lives to hear those few words.  It conjures up images of untapped primary source material and the possibility that something truly important may be revealed.  Well, yesterday she brought the material in and while it is not going to shake-up the Civil War community it is a nice find nonetheless.  The packet included the muster and parole papers for Private John Y. Reily of Company K, 16th Mississippi Regiment, Harris’s Brigade.  He was wounded three times during the war at Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, and Drewry’s Bluff before being taken prisoner on April 2, 1865. 

In the 1880′s Reily wrote a wonderful account of the Confederate defense of Fort Gregg outside of Petersburg.  The language is vintage Lost Cause:

Of the 250 men of all arms in the fort, less than fifty lined up as prisoners, and only five of those men unwounded.  Talk of Sebastopol, Thermopylae, and Gettysburg, while all were glorious and sublime, yet their luster is paled when compared with the inconceivable courage displayed in the last bloody defense of Fort Gregg.  The proudest heritage that I can hope to leave to my posterity is that I am a Confederate Veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by the immortal Robert E. Lee, and that I was one of the few defenders of Fort Gregg.

In addition to his memoir and papers, Reily left a very short autobiographical account written one year before his death in 1925 and there is a lengthy obituary from a Louisiana newspaper.  I also have a 20-page account of Fort Gregg that Reily’s grandson researched.  All in all a nice find and a worthwhile addition to my own growing collection of primary sources.

That All Important Personal Connection To The Past

Many of you know that my Civil War elective is structured in part as a research seminar.  In addition to reading a wide range of secondary sources on important interpretive debates my students write research papers using the Valley of the Shadow.  We are just beginning the process of narrowing topics and formulating questions that will guide each student through the collection of primary sources.  One of my students lives in Augusta County and has the last name of Hanger.  I’ve come across the name before in the course of my own research on the Valley, and was pleased to learn that this student is connected to that larger family which traces their history back into the antebellum period.  Family members have been politically active at both the county and state levels throughout much of Virginia’s history.  When we started this student thought that she might research her family, but was unsure as to whether the amount of information on the family would be sufficient for a research essay.  Well, we did a few searches and the results are truly amazing.  Here is the census report and slave census report for 1860.  Here is just a small sample of the letters authored by Hangers plus a diary by Michael Reid Hanger. There are many more letters which mention various Hangers both during and after the war.  Finally, here are the soldier’s records for the Hanger family.

This student has decided to focus on James Edward Hanger who lost his leg in July at Phillipi and is reportedly the first amputation of the war.  Here is his service record and report in the Staunton Vindicator of his wounding.  Within three months he had invented the first artifical limb modeled on the human leg and hinged at the knee. Hanger constructed factories in Staunton and Richmond, and after WWI he built branches in France and England. On 15 June 1919 he died and was buried in Washington, D.C., his home since 1906.  Today Hanger Prosthetics continues the work begun by James Edward Hanger.

I guess you can sense that I am very excited about this student’s project.  We were both surprised by the amount of information we found; what is presented above is a small sample.  At one point I was tempted to ask the class if they would be interested in focusing on the Hanger family, but soon realized that this was more about my own interests rather than any concern for what they might be interested in researching.  Luckily this is a student who has a very serious interest in the Civil War and now in her own family’s role in that war.  I can’t wait to see what she comes up with.

Understanding the Confederate Soldier

With little time to do any serious blogging today I thought I would extend yesterday’s theme, this time in reference to understanding the Confederate soldier.  Our friendly blogger at has provided an overview of what made the Confederate soldier tick.  Yes, we’ve had studies by Wiley, McPherson, Hess, Linderman, Berry, Manning, Carmichael, etc., but none of them really gets to the core of the issue.  Here are some of the salient points to ponder:

That warrior ethic, which would carry the outnumbered and outgunned Confederacy a very long way, came from long traditions of service that had begun so many centuries before in Scotland and the north of Britain.

But not only the Revolutionary War spirit drove them. As I wrote of the Scots-Irish tradition in my novel Fields of Fire, the culture even to this day is viscerally fired by “that one continuous linking that had bound father to son from the first wild resolute angry beaten Celt who tromped into the hills rather than bend a knee to Rome two thousand years ago, who would…chew the bark off a tree, fill his belly with wood rather than surrender from starvation and admit defeat to an advancing civilization. That same emotion passing with the blood: a fierce resolution that found itself always in a pitch against death, that somehow, over the centuries came to accept the fight as a birthright, even as some kind of proof of life.  [Now who can argue with that.]

…The Confederate Army rose like a sudden wind out of the little towns and scattered farms of a still unconquered wilderness……….the Great Captains called, as they had at Bannockburn and King’s Mountain, and the able-bodied men were quick to answer.

…..the Confederate soldier fought because, on the one hand, in his view he was provoked, intimidated, and ultimately invaded, and, on the other, his leaders had convinced him that his was a war of independence in the same sense as the Revolutionary War…..This was not so much a learned response to historical events as it was a cultural approach that had been refined by centuries of similar experiences. The tendency to resist outside aggression was bred deeply into every heart—and still is today.

The end result was that on the battlefield the Confederacy, whose culture had been shaped by the clannish, leader-worshipping, militaristic Scots-Irish, fought a Celtic war while the Union, whose culture had been most affected by intellectual, mercantile English settlers, fought and entirely different manner. At bottom, the northern army was driven from the top like a machine… contrast, the Southern army was a living thing emanating from the spirit of its soldiers – …The Southern Army was run like a family, confronting a human crisis.

I think it’s safe to say that Grady McWhiney is resting well.