Remembering and relearning at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond

Learning and forgetting

In 8th grade, I knew the exact body count at the Battle of Antietam.

On both sides.

Antietam was the bloodiest day of the American Civil War. The body count was the coolest fact I memorized for the test. I aced that test because I knew all the facts. My senior year of high school, I took AP US History and learned even more facts about the Civil War.

But, that’s where my knowledge of the Civil War ended. My high school understanding of the conflict that prioritized military strategies and political impacts didn’t deepen. I avoided the Civil War “like the plague” and studied the actual plague instead. I shifted my focus away from American history and toward medieval Italian social and cultural history. I wrote my master’s thesis on Italian ricordanze, a genre that ranges from informal personal diaries to formal accounting records. My work forced me to think critically about historical memory, and yet when it came to the historical memory of my own country (and my own university), I shied away from it.

Clemson was once the home of Thomas Green Clemson, the son-in-law of John C. Calhoun. Yes, that Calhoun, whose name was removed from a building at Yale. Clemson’s home, Fort Hill, sits at the center of campus. That home, like many in South Carolina, was a plantation home.

When I toured campus during orientation, my guide told everyone that Fort Hill was cursed. According to legend, students who entered the home before graduation did not graduate. My fellow alumni have mixed memories of this story. Some remember it as I did; others never heard it. My sophomore year, I lived in the Shoeboxes and walked by that house every day on my way to the History department. One semester, I took a practicum at Fort Hill. I toured the house and the grounds, including the slave quarters. Yet I chose to study the family’s Huguenot origins, ignoring the obvious, painful history that literally lay at my feet.

As a white person, I could afford to ignore that history. After all, it wasn’t mine. My entire family immigrated to the US in the 20th century. Moreover, by the time I reached college, I had grown weary of hearing the Lost Cause narrative. One college roommate routinely tried to convince me that the war was about states’ rights. My immediate retort was always, “Yeah, states’ rights to *own* PEOPLE!”

Such scintillating discourse (on both sides!) gave way to frustration. I moved on with my life and eventually moved overseas.

Confronting the legacy of historical memory

In 2017, I returned to the US. I was in the country less than six months and still suffering significant culture shock when Charlottesville happened. In the wake of that event, I wrote a Facebook post about how those events didn’t surprise me, how white Americans’ surprise at the events showed how little we were paying attention to racial justice issues.

I was reminded of my Clemson experience. Unlike Yale, Clemson couldn’t merely change the name on a building. To make reparations for the pain caused under our very feet, it would take more than a name change. Slaves worked every acre of what became our campus.

Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the slaves who lived, worked, and died at Fort Hill. In 1849, a visiting reporter noted there were probably about 70 to 80 slaves on the plantation. We know only a few names, including Issey Calhoun, who tried to burn down the house by placing hot coals under a pillow.

I had walked past those slave quarters every day, but I hadn’t considered what it meant for that graduation myth to discourage students from going into the plantation house. That myth kept students away from the history of that house, away from the history of slavery, away from the legacy of black slave labor that made our education possible.

In the days following Charlottesville, I sat in my parents’ living room flipping channels when I stumbled onto C-SPAN. The channel was re-running some programming about how we remember the Civil War. I was particularly impressed by one panelist: Christy Coleman, the CEO of the American Civil War Museum.

Naturally, I googled Coleman and found her Twitter handle. Following her helped me so much in those weeks and months after the violence. She put the current battle over monuments in its proper historical perspective and deepened my understanding of my own ignorance and privilege. I read her feed enthusiastically—and listened.

Visiting the American Civil War Museum

On 26 April, I had an opportunity to listen to Christy Coleman in person at the press preview for the new building at the American Civil War Museum. My whirlwind tour involved two train rides, lots of walking on Richmond’s hills, and even finding myself in the museum.

The American Civil War Museum is located on the James River at the site of the Tredegar (pronounced tread-de-grr) Ironworks, where many weapons were manufactured during the war, including the cannon that fired the first shots at Fort Sumter.

Creating space

The first thing I noticed as I approached the museum was the glass façade. Even on that overcast and misty afternoon, the glass shimmered, creating this feeling of coolness as if the river had collected into a waterfall on land.

The façade of the American Civil War Museum designed by 3 North, Richmond, Virginia. It really was overcast. This shot was a very lucky one right before the skies opened.

The glass rests atop the remains of the ironworks, creating a fractured feeling as the historic brick gives way to modern metal and glass. The architectural design by 3north grew out of the interior space design by Solid Light. At the ACWM, form follows function.

The ACWM is meant to be a personal experience that helps us understand the American Civil War in a more intimate, more nuanced way. As Stephanie Arduini, Director, Education & Programs noted, the “mission is to tell the stories of the Civil War from multiple perspectives.” Thus, the stories we see and hear are often first-person accounts drawn from letters or other period documents. For historians, such sources can be problematic as they tend to give the audience only one side of the story. Solid Light actively worked to diminish this challenge by presenting many, often conflicting, perspectives on a topic.

Helping the public and scholars tell their own stories

The Artifact Examination Room shows how seriously the museum takes its educational mission.

The Artifact Examination room at the American Civil War Museum enables scholars and other visitors to have better access to its collection.

This brightly lit, publicly viewable space is designed to give the public opportunities to connect to the museum’s collection of more than 15,000 artifacts (only 500 of which are currently on display). Normally, these rooms are shoved into a corner or dark hallway somewhere. I was thrilled to see it right at the top of the staircase. Whether researching family history, or participating in a curator-led demonstration, I would have the opportunity to interact with the materials like never before. It reminded me of my time at the Archivio Di Stato in Florence, where I saw a real ricordanze—not a printed copy—for the first time. But, that’s another story.

Telling the story of the Civil War not from both sides but from multiple sides

You might have noticed my use of “on both sides” earlier. This binary represents the traditional way the public (including myself) thinks about the Civil War. Throughout the space, I got the sense that each object was challenging me to replace “both sides” with “many sides.” When I used the “both sides” term, Waite Rawls, Foundation President took the opportunity to correct this misrepresentation.

“The way the story of the Civil War was told for a hundred years was two sides. North vs. South. The American Civil War Center, one of our predecessor organizations, broke new ground over a dozen years ago and said three sides. How about the African Americans? We got rid of “both” and “three” because you can’t get 30 million people to fit in one of three buckets.”

–Waite Rawls

He called the storytelling approach a “kaleidoscope” of experience.

Telling cutting-edge stories faster

Traditionally, the historical scholarship pipeline is long and slow. By the time a historian researches, writes, and publishes a book, five or more years might have passed. By the time that scholarship makes its way to the public as a museum exhibit, even more time has elapsed. The disconnect between how historians view their field and how the public views it makes communication between scholars and the public challenging. You need only look at the Twitter furor over Robert E. Lee on the day of my visit as an example of how wide that communication gap can be.

Since Coleman and I had connected on Twitter, I asked how she viewed the platform. She noted that for all the challenges, Twitter allows her to learn about new scholarship much faster than the traditional pipeline because she learns about other scholars’ work before it reaches bookshelves.

Getting historical scholarship in front of the public faster is the primary goal of the rotating exhibit on the second floor. The Greenback America exhibit funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation tells the story of the creation of the US dollar or greenback.

A cartoon illustrates the American sentiment about US greenbacks. Life-size, color images bring the period to life for visitors.

The project was designed to turn current post-doctoral or graduate student scholarship into a museum experience. This highly experimental approach rapidly turns research into real visitor experiences.

What drew me in were the cartoons, what kept me were the brief descriptions. Discussing inflation and monetary policy risks boring visitors. But, this exhibit was engaging. I had never seen inflation described like a steam engine before. Suddenly, a complex economic indicator made sense.

Later this year, the space adjacent to the Greenback America exhibit will house Southern Ambitions, a cultural examination of the Confederacy and how it constructed its collective identity inside and outside its boundaries.

Exploring the permanent collection

Color was the first thing that grabbed me as I entered the permanent collection. Color on the faces of historical actors. Color on the flat-panel monitors. And even the absence of color in one part of the exhibit. The permanent exhibit has four timeline screens, each representing a year of the war (1861 to 1865). Major battles, political developments, and economic milestones are all there. But so are details I’ve never seen up close before.

Curator Cathy Wright demonstrates one of four large timeline screens. The screens enable visitors to interact with digital images of documents and other objects.

As a member of the Museum of the American Revolution here in Philly, I have very high standards for tech in museums. While the AmRev museum does similar things with its screens, the ACWM experience dazzled me. The museum didn’t just include documents, but physical objects that I would never be allowed to touch for preservation reasons. But, there they were on the screen! I could make an image as large as I needed—a great accessibility feature. Most visitors will take about 1 to 3 hours to tour the museum. Honestly, I could have spent an hour looking through this single timeline screen.

Using technology to reimagine the battle of Gettysburg

When you think about Gettysburg, what images come to mind? What facts? Do you imagine Grant and Lee on the battlefield surrounded by their soldiers? Do you think about casualties and military strategy? Can you recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg address?

Do you have those images in your mind?

Good.

Now watch this 1-minute video.

  • Whose voices did you hear?
  • What did they say?
  • What did you learn from them?
  • How did it change your understanding of the battle?
  • Why?

Was it the story you expected to hear? Probably not. And that’s what the museum does at every turn. I saw a Confederate battle flag, but its story isn’t the one that’s been told for more than a century. The story made me question everything I knew. And, no, I am not telling that story. You have to experience it for yourself when you visit the ACWM.

Finding yourself in a museum

During the panel discussion, Coleman mentioned that she hoped visitors would “find yourself” in the exhibits. During our one-on-one discussion, I asked what she found. Her answer was profound: a legacy of black agency.

“We didn’t wait for stuff to happen to us. But that story is rarely told. And so, for me, that’s an amazing story of men and women and children who seized their moment out of nothing.”

–Christy Coleman

Agency is something we have denied to so many people for so long. Historical scholarship has wrestled with that issue for a long time. At Clemson, I took one upper-level US History course called Race, Class, and Gender in US Social History. When I was in grad school, we didn’t use words like “intersectionality.” That word hadn’t quite come into our vocabulary yet. An intersectional approach to history interrogates how race, class, and gender impact a historical actor’s experience. The idea being that each point has a different weight. A person’s race might have a deeper impact for some, while gender or class might inform others’ experiences more deeply. Ideally, intersectionality resides at the center of that kaleidoscope of storytelling that the museum promotes.

Intersectionality and black agency reside within the eyes of this black soldier. Of all the images I captured that day, his eyes still haunt me. If I could choose one image that told an unexpected story, it would be this one. Maybe it’s because there’s a mix of defiance and determination in his eyes. Maybe it’s because Twitter historians routinely bust myths about black Confederate soldiers. To see this Union soldier is to see his own personal truth and connect that truth to the historical facts of his existence. For as Coleman reminded us during the panel, “We can’t get right with each other until we get the history right.”

This black US soldier is pictured next to a discussion of the Overland Campaign. Colorizing historical photos is a controversial decision, but as recent work on Maori tattoos has shown, sometimes color returns dignity and identity when another method obliterates it.

Remembering and relearning

Popular music often informs our historical memory more deeply than it probably should. We seemed to have learned too much modern US History from Don McLean.

While looking for a Richmond-related song, I ran across this one from Justin Johnson.

The song tells the story of a Confederate soldier trying to get “back home to Richmond.” The story is a romantic Lost Cause narrative. A narrative that the American Civil War Museum in Richmond does not tell. A narrative the ACWM counters with each turn of its storytelling kaleidoscope.

As Christy Coleman said in a recent tweet:

“Let me be clear. We’ve brought political, social, and military history together to tell the HISTORY of the Civil War thru those who lived it.

No Lost Cause propaganda here!”

— Christy Coleman

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