Once I first stepped into the lobby of the model new American Civil War Museum at Historic Tredegar in Richmond, Virginia, I used to be utterly in awe of the stunningly lovely colorized pictures of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. The fashionable museum, which opened its doors on Might four, 2019 and bills itself as providing three perspectives on the warfare—North, South, and the enslaved—sits along the James River on the website of the city’s historic ironworks.
The primary hall of the museum opens into a room surrounded by tall glass instances spanning the length of the wall on each side. A large touchscreen pc labeled with the yr “1861” sits in the middle of the room.
The very first case on the proper accommodates the portrait of a white lady and pictures of handwritten letters with an indication in entrance that says, “Divided Sweethearts.” The story is that of a southern belle, Julia Ann Mitchell, and her northern beau, Frederick Coggill, whose love for one another evidently conquered all, despite the fact that they found themselves on opposite sides of the Civil War. Mitchell was “devoted to the confederacy,” which is to say she was pro-slavery, while Coggill was a Unionist. “Their families’ differing loyalties,” we study, “delayed but did not end their romance, conducted via letters.” The couple ended up marrying in Norfolk, Virginia in 1863.
Once I wandered over to the glass case on the left, I observed a collection of weapons, along with accompanying particulars about their utilization during the struggle, and an extended row of both Accomplice and Union uniforms. As I advanced forward, I walked over more weapons, principally guns, encased in glass on the ground.
I used to be truly visiting the museum with a colleague and good friend, and we both had the feeling that we had jumped into the story of the Civil War in medias res. Actually, each of us, professors of comparative American Research in Virginia, have been positive that we had missed one thing. These were not fairly the objects and tales we have been anticipating to come across at the outset. Then we remembered the words of the very sort man who bought us our tickets: “don’t neglect the touchscreens,” he stated, “a lot of people just pass those by and there is a lot of information on those computers.”
So, we doubled again to the display marked 1861. The primary merchandise on the prolonged and dense timeline had the title “Alexander Stephens’ Speech” and was dated March 21, 1861. It turns out that this slide can be certainly one of the only locations in the museum that immediately acknowledged that the Civil War was about slavery. Earlier than quoting Stephens instantly, the curators wrote that as vice chairman of the Confederacy, Stephens “declared that disagreement over slavery was the reason for [South Carolina] secession.” The remainder of the 1861 slides take guests via a extremely detailed microhistory of Carolina secession—as a narrative that primarily begins in 1861—culminating in the devastating attack on Fort Sumter.
The curators did a superb job displaying the human value of the struggle, as the rooms marked 1862, 1863, and 1864 contained statistics of the lifeless and wounded, in addition to medical instruments, and the stories of the individuals whose lives they saved, or didn’t. There have been also extra touchscreens.
The exhibit took a sort of unusual flip though in projecting some quite critical questions onto the partitions, but offering visitors little steerage in answering them:
“Should voting rights be restricted?” one wall reads.
“What happens when you choose a side?” says another.
In fact the answer to query one is that voting rights have been and are nonetheless restricted, throwing into doubt the which means of the term “democracy” and whether or not the US truly has one. The answer to the second is that selecting the fallacious aspect in this context signifies that lots of people will die.
But perhaps the most complicated query, and the most telling a part of the exhibit, was the slide that contained the phrases, “Did slavery end?” The museum provided little info about what on a regular basis life entailed for actual enslaved individuals, so how might the average visitor adequately examine financial, social, religious, and/or legal circumstances for the (previously) enslaved earlier than and after the War?
The seemingly open-ended questions peppered throughout—“How do you decide who gets a monument?”—coupled with the outright argument made by the curators of the exhibit that the Emancipation Proclamation was what freed the enslaved, although it was issued for pragmatic causes, made it appear to be visitors to the museum are inspired to draw their own conclusions about the causes, implications, meanings, and legacy of the conflict.
American Civil War Museum, Richmond, Virginia (Marlene L. Daut)
Notably, the one room dedicated to slavery and to the story of enslaved individuals—the indisputable purpose for the War—was the one room at the museum and not using a touchscreen. The gadgets contained on this room—slave shackles, handcuffs, and extra colorized pictures, along with remoted quotes from enslaved individuals—have been far too decontextualized to offer readers a true sense of the brutal and dehumanizing circumstances of enslavement on American plantations.
There was also a invoice of sale for an enslaved individual, in addition to a Commonplace Ebook, which is the place enslavers, we study, detailed their observations about life on the plantation. But what about the observations of the enslaved and formerly enslaved themselves? Though the tales of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman are readily available in the present shop, testimonies of life underneath enslavement have been principally relegated to loud voiceovers in a room that intermittently projected ruddy photographs of the stories of varied enslaved individuals onto what seemed like a big burlap sack.
Subsequent, in the 1865 room the slide referred to as “Struggle for Freedom” noticed that “Emancipation was a struggle, not a single event.” Indeed.
Yet the exhibit appeared to contradict this attitude at many turns, since this very slide went on to recommend that it was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, fairly than the longstanding pressures put on the US government by abolitionists (which took on many types), that brought the question of slavery and freedom to its end result.
One wishes the curators at the museum, to that end, would have showcased the publications of northern Blacks in the first African American owned newspaper Freedom’s Journal, or the formerly-enslaved abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s publication The North Star, together with the crucial position played by William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. This may have careworn the significance of long-term political organization in the deeply violent history of the battle to deliver about emancipation in the US. The story of the tragic and mysterious demise of the militant abolitionist David Walker, whose body was present in 1830 after a bounty was placed on his head as a result of he circulated an anti-slavery pamphlet calling for slave insurrection, for example, would certainly have driven residence the level that preventing for the end of slavery was a dangerous affair long earlier than the Civil War. The exhibit might have at the least additionally given a nod to Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, or John Brown, and to the many risks undertaken by organizers of the Underground Railroad.
After visiting this new museum, a merger between Richmond’s former Museum of the Confederacy and its American Civil War Middle, which was so controversial that the new director acquired dying threats over it, all I can conclude is that we in all probability don’t need another museum devoted to the Civil War. What we’d like as an alternative are more museums about slavery and abolition, of which the US Civil War and the Confederacy have been only brief, although incredibly essential elements.
The history of the Civil War must be folded into museums about the for much longer, more capacious historical past of North American slavery, which begins right here in Virginia in the 17th century, and the story of the transatlantic abolitionist motion, which saw its trendy beginnings in the 18th century. After the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), the US Civil War turned both the subsequent and the final time that the battle to finish (or to uphold) slavery in the Americas would tackle such intensity. However its story should not be understood in isolation from the sorts of slave revolts and revolt that led to Haiti’s independence from France and to southern secession in the United States.
In the finish, I was grateful to see that the museum acknowledged that racism and colour prejudice did not disappear after the War. The truth is, both had turn into more ensconced by 1896 when the Supreme Courtroom’s “separate but equal decision” was handed down throughout Plessy v. Ferguson.
But even in the try and element the terrorism white supremacist teams perpetrated towards Black individuals in the US throughout Reconstruction, and that led to the Supreme Courtroom’s choice, the curator’s careful selection of phrases appeared designed to attenuate and mitigate, and finally, to make its guests really feel less discomfort about the ongoing violence of white supremacy. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist terrorist organizations did excess of merely to intimidate “freedmen,” as one display learn. In 1868 alone, they have been answerable for a minimum of 336 deaths.
The US has over 100 Civil War Museums, but we’ve got solely a handful of historical websites devoted to the history of slavery, and none, so far as I know, devoted to the long historical past of its abolition, or to the history of racism and white supremacy. So long as this imbalance continues to exist, lawmakers, educators, and peculiar citizens of the United States alike will possible proceed to say that slavery wasn’t actually that dangerous, that the Civil War was not about slavery anyway, and that racism does not even exist.
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