Review of the Museum of the Confederacy – Appomattox

What follows is a guest post by Thom Bassett, who recently took a trip to Virginia to explore Civil War battlefields and other sites.  He took the time to visit the new MOC museum at Appomattox and sent along this review.  Thom teaches at Bryant University in Providence, R.I. He has written numerous essays for the New York Times Disunion blog and is currently working on a novel about William Tecumseh Sherman.

It’s unfortunate that in the minds of many the Museum of the Confederacy’s newly opened branch at Appomattox is associated exclusively with the ginned-up controversy about display there of the Confederate battle flag. For one thing, the museum staff seem heartily sick of the issue and those who protested the museum’s design: As I carefully began to ask about it during my visit this weekend, one of them interrupted me to scoff, “What the hell else did they want? We put the damn state flags outside!”

For another, and more important, the MoC-Appomattox overall is a superb example of sophisticated, accessible, evocative, intellectually honest public narrative about the Civil War. While it’s in some respects still very much a work in progress, the museum nonetheless already meaningfully informs and engages the public about the war and its significance today.

I’ll begin with aspects of the museum that are in my opinion comparatively less successful. The exhibition “Colors of Gray: Consecration and Controversy” is a decidedly uneven exploration of the history and uses of Confederate flags. While the exhibition includes some interesting and surprising information about army and regimental flags (it turns out, for example, that women’s bridal clothes were a popular choice for flag material), it falters on the subject of the national flags.

For one thing, the exhibition includes only the first and second national flags, even though the museum web site displays a picture of the third national flag as well. Moreover, while placards more than once make the salient point that some Southern heritage groups are as critical as civil rights groups of current (mis)uses of Confederate flags, particularly the Army of Northern Virginia’s (incorrectly called) “stars and bars,” the presentation on this issue lacks a clear thematic organization.

Perhaps to some extent my dissatisfaction with the “Colors of Gray” exhibition has to do with the contrasting directness with which the permanent exhibition presents a range of complex and, for some, uncomfortable fundamental truths about the Civil War. This occurs in a number of ways. For example, the opening audio-visual exhibit reminds visitors that white Southerners were not united in their feelings about secession or the resulting  war. This theme of southern disunion is repeated in other ways later, including in the exhibits about the arming of black southerners (which also demolishes, by the way, the lies regarding black Confederate soldiers).

But it’s the museum’s treatment of race and slavery that is most impressive. From the very first placard visitors see until the moment they exit the permanent exhibition, the MoC-Appomattox demonstrates the centrality of slavery and racial dominance to the causes of the war, the investment that virtually all white Southerners—slaveholders or not—had in perpetuating a slavery-based society, the efforts African-Americans made to liberate themselves as well as their contributions to the federal war effort, and the extent to which what followed the war blocked authentic national reconciliation.

The conclusion of the permanent exhibition, in my opinion, also shows forcefully that questions of the meaning of the war remain vitally important today. Visitors are left with an important challenge—to think and rethink their understanding of the war and the nation in its aftermath.

Even for those without a strong taste for questions of the war and public memory, there are other elements of the MoC-Appomattox that make it more than worth their while. The museum has on display items compelling to anyone interested in the war, including Lee’s sword and Patrick Cleburne’s frock coat. There are also many interactive exhibits, including one that allows visitors to look for the parole papers of Confederate ancestors. Finally, the museum’s use of contrasting scale, varied typography, lighting, and dimensionality makes the exhibits consistently engaging, kinetic, and stimulating.

Open only since March, the Appomattox branch of the Museum of the Confederacy still has room for improvement. But it already stands as a remarkable example of what substantive public history, imaginative curatorship, and cutting-edge museum design can achieve in informing and challenging our collective understanding of the Civil War.

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21 comments… add one
  • Wayne Nov 29, 2012 @ 15:51

    Hey Kevin,
    Are you attending the Lee-Jackson Day events in Lexington in January? I believe there will be an opportunity for you to share your views on Friday evening. Here is the advertisement:
    “Lee-Jackson Symposium – (Friday, January 18th)
    Our second annual symposium will return this year which is free and open to the public.
    Holiday Inn Express, Lexington. (1:00-6:00 pm) A variety of speakers will speak on the historical importance and character of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as well as their ongoing significance will tackle the controversial aspects of their legacies.”
    Hope to see you there.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 29, 2012 @ 15:56

      Hi Wayne,

      I would love to, but unfortunately I don’t live in Virginia any more. Have a good time.

  • Allen Nov 27, 2012 @ 9:43

    That’s all well and good, Mr. Hammer, but the bottom line is that it’s a long step from secession (about which Stephens said “Slavery was without doubt the occasion of
    secession”) to a shooting war. Stephens’ remarks also fail to account for the secession of the 4 states of the upper south. If you’d care to read Stephens’ own interpretation of the “cornerstone” speech, you can find them here: Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens: His Diary kept when a prisoner at Fort Warren, New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1910., pp
    172-174. Entry for 5 June 1866.

    That’s the interesting thing about this war. Even when you think some aspect of it is cut and dried, it isn’t.

    • Jimmy Dick Nov 27, 2012 @ 11:58

      Note the reference is to references written AFTER the war, not before. That’s where the Lost Causers always go because the evidence before the shooting started contradicts the Lost Cause myth.

      • Billy Bearden Nov 27, 2012 @ 13:26

        Yeah! Just like Texas vs White 🙂

        • Jimmy Dick Nov 27, 2012 @ 18:01

          Actually I go to the 1700s for my docs on the issue.

  • The Bigger Hammer Nov 27, 2012 @ 8:38

    Here’s the rest of the excerpt from Stephens speech:

    “The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us [and] the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically…. Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

    • Billy Bearden Nov 27, 2012 @ 13:22

      Well, according to Vice President Dan Quayle, we must all spell a spud’s name “POTATOE”
      And of course, an American’s patriotism is directly related to the amount of taxes they pay, more being the best – according to Vice President Joe Biden.

      My point? A vice president is no more the spokesman for a nation than the next guy. Seriously, you haven’t placed all your secession eggs into the Stephens basket, have you?

      This just came out from Walter Williams, and it offers some really facinating facts I bet you werent taught in school. I know I wasnt.

      • Kevin Levin Nov 27, 2012 @ 13:39

        Ah, Walter Williams. What a surprise.

    • CW Farms Nov 27, 2012 @ 20:27

      The first black democracy was on Jeff Davis’ plantation. Please compare the writings, actions, and speeches of Jeff Davis, Robert E Lee, and Thomas Jackson vs Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a racist, and the most evil man in the history of the United States bar none.

      • Kevin Levin Nov 28, 2012 @ 3:11

        Classic. 🙂

  • The Bigger Hammer Nov 27, 2012 @ 7:18

    I’m glad to hear the deal with the cause of the war honestly. If you read the history leading up to the war, the most obvious fact of all is that the issue of slavery was at the very center of the conflict. Countless letters, congressional debates, elections, and newspapers testify to that fact. Somehow, though, there remains in the minds of some people today a controversy over the centrality of slavery in the causes of the war.

    Those who think the Confederacy was founded on some principle unrelated to the preservation of black slavery should read the “Cornerstone Speech” by Alexander Stephens. Stephens was the Vice President of the Confederacy and perhaps its foremost intellectual leader. On March 21, 1861, he spoke in Savannah, Georgia to lay out the philosophical foundation for session and the establishment of the new Southern government. He said, in part:

    “The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating…”

  • Billy Bearden Nov 27, 2012 @ 5:50

    My dear esteemed friend Kevin,
    Are you as nasty with your charges as you are with those who do not hold your worldview?

    I did take advantage of the free admission during the grand opening. The highlight of my visit was to pose for a picture standing beside the Battleflag of the 41st Ga, the same unit my GGGrandfather served in from from muster to surrender at Bennett Place in NC.

    The touchscreens werent working properly, so I missed out on that part.

    I had first seen the Cleburne frock coat in the basement of MoC in Richmond, but it was good to see it again in the open.

    My first ever visit to MoC was in 1975. I bought a coin with the inscription “Heirlooms of Struggle” which I still have. Thankfully, the Flaggers got the RuPaul standup removed, but the display that showed the more inappropriate uses of the Battleflag in one room kinda conflicts with the trinkets sold in the gift shop, and at the Haversack in Richmond.

    On the side of the building was the Waite Rawls “Appeasement Banner” After all his bluster and bravado about not flying a Confederate flag on a special pole (Had there been a 3rd National as urged by the Flaggers, Thom Bassett wouldnt have wrote the sentences above) a vinyl banner was attached to the side which showed the HQ Flag of Gen Johnston, and 2 other Confederate flags. It was only viewable by going to the most difficult area near the rear of the building. Why go through all that trouble to put pictures of 3 flags on a hard to reach area of the building when 1 on a pole could have stopped all the grief, and been used for educational purposes? I wish to thank Thom Bassett for pointing out the 3rd National issue 🙂

    It is a really nice building, with tons of artifacts and for me, items of my direct and collateral relatives.

    I know the Flaggers have done much, from reclaiming cemeteries from years of neglect and overgrowth, to funding worthy causes, to educating thousands on the history and situation of the Confederate War Memorial Chapel, to bringing attention to numerous issues otherwise unknown, ignored or forgotten. There are more positive things the Flaggers have done and are doing to preserve history and protect heritage, but not everything is in the media or on your blog.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 27, 2012 @ 6:01

      Oh, Billy. You’ve given as good as you get here over the years. Please don’t attempt to give me a lesson on manners. 🙂

      Glad to see you enjoyed the museum. You must be happy that the protests by the Flaggers didn’t do much to keep the public away from also learning about American history at the MOC.

  • Allen Nov 27, 2012 @ 4:17

    Gee, Kevin. Without the internet no one would know you existed either…

    • Kevin Levin Nov 27, 2012 @ 4:38

      Except for the students that have come through my history classroom over the past decade, which is ultimately what matters to me most. 🙂

  • Billy Bearden Nov 26, 2012 @ 22:37

    “What the hell else did they want? We put the damn state flags outside!”

    From numerous conversations with him, that sounds exactly like the word choices and statements that a certain Waite Rawls III would use 🙂

    FYI –
    We, the Virginia Flaggers did not request any state flags be flown, most of which were not even in existance in 1865. That was the “Reunification Plaza” that included a 50 star US flag, which is also historically inaccurate.

    We, the Virginia Flaggers, as well as numerous SCV camps and UDC chapters strongly urged
    that a Confederate flag, be it a 3rd National or a ANV Battle, be placed on a pole somewhere on the grounds, not in the collection of flags in the plaza. The City officials are in agreement with this as well.

    We, the Virginia Flaggers, as well as many SCV camps and UDC chapters are aware the MoC in Richmond used to fly 5 , but now fly 1 Confederate flag outside. The MoC – Appomattox is no different.

    We, the Virginia Flaggers, claim victory over the removal of the RuPaul cardboard figure.

    We, the Virginia Flaggers, claim victory in exposing the lies and subtrafuge used by a MoC Appomattox official to former supportive SCV camps and UDC chapters.

    We, the Virginia Flaggers, claim victory in having numerous SCV camps and UDC chapters join with us in withdrawing support and funding from the MoC because of their stand against the SCV and UDC and Appx City officials.

    In pursuing these serious issues, after exposing the lies, plus with numerous previous years of anti Confederate behaviours (such as the willingness to relocate the White House of the Confederacy and the willingness to rename the Museum of the Confederacy), We, the Virginia Flaggers share in the victory of the National SCV condemnation resolution against SCV member Waite Rawls passed in Murphreesboro in July 2012.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 27, 2012 @ 2:59

      No one cares, Billy. Without the Internet no one would know you our the Virginia Flaggers even exists. Tell me what you think of the actual exhibit assuming you’ve even stepped inside the museum. In the end, the Flaggers have contributed absolutely nothing to the preservation and understanding of the past.

      • Chad Nov 27, 2012 @ 17:28

        Quite dismissive…

  • Pat Young Nov 26, 2012 @ 3:53

    Nice review. With all the cooked up controversy surrounding this museum, has it been successful in getting visitors to come?

    • Kevin Levin Nov 26, 2012 @ 4:06

      So far the numbers look good. Check out this post by Andy Hall. Unfortunately, the article in which he pulled the quotes from has already been deleted.

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