Two Virginia Museums Perpetuate Debate Over U.S. Civil War, Edward Rothstein, Herald Tribune/Interrnational New York Times, Septe,ber 3, 2008
For Northerners in the United States, the history of the Civil War seems pretty much settled. We know that from the nation's founding, economic and cultural differences - particularly those surrounding slavery - created tensions between the North and the South; that the elimination of slavery only fitfully became a Union goal during the war; and that it ultimately took a century for black Americans to glimpse the equality guaranteed by the nation's ideals. But for all its bloodshed, we see the Civil War as necessary and Abraham Lincoln as its visionary hero; it was a preamble to the United States becoming what it always should have been.
Things are interpreted more ambiguously here in what once was the capital of the Confederate States of America. Forty-three battles took place within 30 miles, or 48 kilometers, of the "White House of the Confederacy," the mansion where this self-declared nation housed its only president, Jefferson Davis, from 1861 to 1865. And while history may be typically written by the victors, here it seems to shape a looking-glass world in which perspectives are shifted and emphases altered, jarring emotions and assumptions.
In many ways the Civil War still seems to rage. In 2003, when a statue of Lincoln was donated for display outside the Civil War Visitor Center of the National Park Service, in downtown Richmond, immediate protests erupted - not over its maudlin character, but over the very idea of honoring an oppressor. The dedication ceremony was buzzed by a plane trailing a banner proclaiming, "Sic semper tyrannis," which is not only Virginia's motto (meaning "Thus, always, to tyrants"), but also what John Wilkes Booth is said to have called out while assassinating Lincoln.
Is such ugliness, then, what is meant by the "other side" of Civil War history? At times, surely, but institutions here - the Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center - argue that the war should be seen, at least in part, from the perspective of the losing side, and that such understanding need not be completely derailed by the moral outrage of slavery.
The Museum of the Confederacy may be facing the limitations of that position. Annual attendance, from a 1991 peak of 91,000, has been dropping, to about 48,000 in the last year. Its 1976 building, like the adjacent White House, is also hemmed in by a growing hospital complex. So the institution has put together an ambitious $15 million plan to create a system of four museums in historic Virginia areas, increasing display space for its extensive collection. The American Civil War Center, which raised $13.6 million before opening in 2006 to much praise, has fewer apparent problems, though attendance is still low (about 25,000 in the past year). It creates a broader panorama, offering not one perspective but three: those of the Union, the Confederacy and the African-Americans.
An empathetic exposition of the Confederate perspective poses some knotty problems. Confederate symbols are more than mere artifacts. The flag was the badge of segregationists in the civil rights era; it retains that resonance. Sensitivities to such allusions are high: A controversy erupted recently over the American Civil War Center's acceptance of a statue of Davis donated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The Museum of the Confederacy, then, has a daunting task. It was founded in the 1890s by the daughters of Lee and Davis and other women, who solicited memorabilia from Confederate families to create a nostalgic shrine to what was then called the Lost Cause. During the last two decades the museum has been delicately redefining itself. It has an extraordinary collection of 15,000 artifacts and 100,000 manuscripts. It has become a scholarly resource and has published valuable books like "Before Freedom Came: African-American Life in the Antebellum South."
But whiffs of the Old South still emerge here and there, particularly in its main exhibition, "The Confederate Years." For example, in describing the war's opening battle at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, the wall text oddly states that because Lincoln was determined not to begin the war against the seceding South, he "succeeded in maneuvering the Confederacy into firing the first shot of the war."
There is also little discussion of slavery before or during the Confederacy. Instead there is a short display titled "Confederate Preparation for War: Mobilizing the African-American Population." This mobilization called up "tens of thousands of African-American laborers" described as both "enslaved and free." This is so peculiar a reference to a society in which, in 1860, one-third of the South's population - 3,950,511 souls - was enslaved, that it seems deluded or obfuscatory. The exhibition's refusal to illuminate fully the lives of the Confederacy's black inhabitants suggests that an embrace of the Lost Cause has not been fully relinquished.
The other flaw is the museum's almost exclusive attention to the war and the lives of soldiers. But an exhibition on Virginia and the Confederacy on the museum's lower level is far more frank about slavery and demonstrates how powerful a truly complete portrait of Confederate society might one day be, perhaps even showing the strains on the very institutions - plantations and slavery -that secession was meant to protect. Despite such limitations, the museum sheds light on a dark time. Its chronological accounts of battles; its displays of uniforms with faded blood spots, of Lee's battlefield tent, of a blood-stained letter written by a dying soldier to his father - all this reveals something touchingly human. The only problem is that you never come to grasp precisely why these men were sacrificing their lives.
For greater understanding you must go to the American Civil War Center, housed in the historic Tredegar Iron Works that once supplied the Confederacy with much weaponry. A scrupulous time line, along with artifacts (some lent by the Museum of the Confederacy), chronicles the economic impact of slavery, debates about secession, westward expansion, the North's mixed motives, the Emancipation Proclamation, General Sherman's onslaught, the flawed Reconstruction, the evolving modern nation. There are times when the tell-all-sides pose becomes intrusive, particularly since competing ideological positions are strangely called Union, Home and Freedom. Their initials - U, H and F - confusedly dot maps of battles.
But you do get a valuable sense of how differing perspectives intertwine. The evolution of Lincoln's pragmatic stance toward emancipation, for example, is subtly illuminated. If anything, the museum's tale is too sweepingly abstract; it is so preoccupied with multiple perspectives that it does not provide a strong sense of the people who embodied them. And while the framework of multiple poses is intended to reassure local constituencies, the museum works not because it offers different historical narratives but because it creates out of many, one.
Both institutions also inadvertently provide lessons on the limits of relativism. Yes, the Confederacy is a part of American history that needs to be better understood, and slavery and race should not be the only windows through which it is viewed. But another kind of judgment is also needed here. Much depends on whether we view the Civil War as the apocalyptic end of a roseate past or the bloody beginning of a promising future. And that is what contemporary controversies over the Civil War are all about.
Text Source: Herald Tribune, September 3, 2008
Photo: Top--A statue of Abraham Lincoln on the grounds of The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar in Richmond, Virginia. (Andrew Councill for The New York Times)
Middle: Lee statue on Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia
Bottom: Lincoln and Tad statue at Tredegar Museum, Richmond, Virginia