FOR better or for worse, the Civil War, now more than a century and a half in the rearview mirror, will seemingly be a divisive part of life in our state forever.
Some Virginians want to memorialize those who they see as honorable Confederate leaders, while others are infuriated at reminders of a rebellion that sought to preserve slavery.
From Fredericksburg’s slave auction block to the statues on Richmond’s Monument Avenue to the oversized Confederate battle flags along our interstate highways, every icon or memento of that time is fraught with meaning, grounds for disagreement.
The great-great-grandson of a Confederate private shot dead at Chancellorsville stands alongside the great-great-granddaughter of a woman who was born into slavery.
Among those seeking a middle ground, there are calls for more context, whether that’s explaining an auction block’s significance or giving a more nuanced portrayal of a rebel general.
Response to those calls seems to be slow in coming as we endlessly ponder how to deal with it all. How can we in the 21st century give proper interpretation to a war that was our great national tragedy, but which also led to freedom for millions of enslaved Americans?
Earlier this month, something happened in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, that comes about as close to providing that context as anything so far.
The American Civil War Museum opened on May 4. It is a merger of two other Richmond museums, the Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, and it strives to be something better than either of those institutions.
It seeks to present the war from three viewpoints: Union, Confederate, and free and enslaved African–Americans.
Inside its glass walls alongside the James River, encasing ruined brick archways from the old Tredegar Ironworks, are stories of men and women, black and white, Union and Confederate. Generals, spies, common soldiers, abolitionists, free black Americans and slaves all have their voices heard in this laudable effort to show the Civil War without either demonizing or glorifying the Americans who suffered through it or died during it.
For the most part, the museum’s story stops with the war’s end in 1865, before some white Southerners began rewriting history and putting up monuments. So much of the “Lost Cause” narrative that some now believe in was born in those post-war years.
The American Museum of the Civil War seeks to set the record straight by taking us back to the pre-spin days, to the war itself. And for those looking for context to a war badly in need of some, this museum is a good place to start.