When I first stepped into the foyer of the brand new American Civil War Museum at Historic Tredegar in Richmond, Virginia, I was completely in awe of the stunningly beautiful colorized photographs of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. The modern museum, which opened its doors on May 4, 2019 and bills itself as offering three perspectives on the war—North, South, and the enslaved—sits along the James River on the site of the city’s historical ironworks.
The main hall of the museum opens into a room surrounded by tall glass cases spanning the length of the wall on both sides. A large touchscreen computer labeled with the year “1861” sits in the center of the room.
The very first case on the right contains the portrait of a white woman and images of handwritten letters with a sign in front 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, even though 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 learn, “delayed but did not end their romance, conducted via letters.” The couple ended up marrying in Norfolk, Virginia in 1863.
When I wandered over to the glass case on the left, I noticed a series of weapons, along with accompanying details about their usage during the war, and a long row of both Confederate and Union uniforms. As I advanced forward, I walked over more weapons, mostly guns, encased in glass on the ground.
I was actually visiting the museum with a colleague and friend, and we both had the feeling that we had jumped into the story of the Civil War in medias res. In fact, both of us, professors of comparative American Studies in Virginia, were sure that we had missed something. These were not quite the objects and stories we were expecting to encounter at the outset. Then we remembered the words of the very kind man who sold us our tickets: “don’t neglect the touchscreens,” he said, “a lot of people just pass those by and there is a lot of information on those computers.”
So, we doubled back to the screen marked 1861. The first item on the lengthy and dense timeline had the title “Alexander Stephens’ Speech” and was dated March 21, 1861. It turns out that this slide would be one of the only places in the museum that directly acknowledged that the Civil War was about slavery. Before quoting Stephens directly, the curators wrote that as vice president of the Confederacy, Stephens “declared that disagreement over slavery was the reason for [South Carolina] secession.” The rest of the 1861 slides take visitors through a highly detailed microhistory of Carolina secession—as a story that primarily begins in 1861—culminating in the devastating attack on Fort Sumter.
The curators did an excellent job showing the human cost of the war, as the rooms marked 1862, 1863, and 1864 contained statistics of the dead and wounded, as well as medical instruments, and the stories of the individuals whose lives they saved, or did not. There were also more touchscreens.
The exhibit took a kind of strange turn though in projecting some rather serious questions onto the walls, but offering visitors little guidance in answering them:
“Should voting rights be restricted?” one wall reads.
“What happens when you choose a side?” says another.
Of course the answer to question one is that voting rights were and are still restricted, throwing into doubt the meaning of the term “democracy” and whether or not the US actually has one. The answer to the second is that choosing the wrong side in this context means that a lot of people will die.
Yet perhaps the most confusing question, and the most telling part of the exhibit, was the slide that contained the words, “Did slavery end?” The museum offered little information about what everyday life entailed for actual enslaved people, so how could the average visitor adequately compare economic, social, spiritual, and/or legal conditions for the (formerly) enslaved before 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, even though it was issued for pragmatic reasons, made it seem like visitors to the museum are encouraged to draw their own conclusions about the causes, implications, meanings, and legacy of the war.
Notably, the one room devoted to slavery and to the story of enslaved people—the indisputable reason for the War—was the one room at the museum without a touchscreen. The items contained in this room—slave shackles, handcuffs, and more colorized images, along with isolated quotes from enslaved people—were far too decontextualized to give readers a true sense of the brutal and dehumanizing conditions of enslavement on American plantations.
There was also a bill of sale for an enslaved person, as well as a Commonplace Book, which is where enslavers, we learn, detailed their observations about life on the plantation. But what about the observations of the enslaved and formerly enslaved themselves? Although the stories of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman are readily available in the gift shop, testimonies of life under enslavement were mostly relegated to loud voiceovers in a room that intermittently projected ruddy images of the stories of various enslaved people onto what looked like a large burlap sack.
Next, in the 1865 room the slide called “Struggle for Freedom” observed that “Emancipation was a struggle, not a single event.” Indeed.
Yet the exhibit seemed to contradict this perspective at many turns, since this very slide went on to suggest that it was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, rather than the longstanding pressures put on the US government by abolitionists (which took on many forms), that brought the question of slavery and freedom to its culmination.
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, along with the crucial role played by William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. This would have stressed the importance of long-term political organization in the deeply violent history of the fight to bring about emancipation in the US. The story of the tragic and mysterious death of the militant abolitionist David Walker, whose body was found in 1830 after a bounty was put on his head because he circulated an anti-slavery pamphlet calling for slave rebellion, for example, would surely have driven home the point that fighting for the end of slavery was a dangerous affair long before the Civil War. The exhibit could have at least also 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 Center, which was so controversial that the new director received death threats over it, all I can conclude is that we probably don’t need another museum devoted to the Civil War. What we need instead are more museums about slavery and abolition, of which the US Civil War and the Confederacy were only short, though incredibly important parts.
The history of the Civil War should be folded into museums about the much longer, more capacious history of North American slavery, which begins right here in Virginia in the 17th century, and the story of the transatlantic abolitionist movement, which saw its modern beginnings in the 18th century. After the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), the US Civil War became both the next and the last time that the fight to end (or to uphold) slavery in the Americas would take on such intensity. But its story should not be understood in isolation from the kinds of slave revolts and rebellion that led to Haiti’s independence from France and to southern secession in the United States.
In the end, I was grateful to see that the museum acknowledged that racism and color prejudice did not disappear after the War. In fact, both had become more ensconced by 1896 when the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal decision” was handed down during Plessy v. Ferguson.
Yet even in the attempt to detail the terrorism white supremacist groups perpetrated against Black people in the US during Reconstruction, and that led to the Supreme Court’s decision, the curator’s careful choice of words seemed designed to minimize and mitigate, and ultimately, to make its visitors feel less discomfort about the ongoing violence of white supremacy. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist terrorist organizations did far more than merely to intimidate “freedmen,” as one display read. In 1868 alone, they were responsible for at least 336 deaths.
The US has over 100 Civil War Museums, yet we have only a handful of historical sites devoted to the history of slavery, and none, as far as I know, devoted to the long history of its abolition, or to the history of racism and white supremacy. As long as this imbalance continues to exist, lawmakers, educators, and ordinary citizens of the United States alike will likely continue to assert that slavery wasn’t really that bad, that the Civil War was not about slavery anyway, and that racism does not even exist.