In the former Confederate capital, there’s no longer a Museum of the Confederacy

By: - October 2, 2018 6:20 am

Visitors to the Museum of the Confederacy take a picture of a miniature 1st Texas Infantry flag at an unveiling reception June 5, 2014. (Penelope M. Carrington/The American Civil War Museum)

What’s in a name? In the case of the Museum of the Confederacy, about 40 percent of its membership base.

That’s the chunk of long-term supporters the institution, which opened in 1896 as more of a shrine than a museum, lost after it announced in 2013 that it would merge with the American Civil War Center.

Leaders of the two Richmond-based institutions said they were prepared for the attrition on the Confederate side, where the prospect of a name change faced vehement opposition when it was first broached just over a decade ago.

Unanticipated, though, was the loss of some supporters of the Civil War Center, which opened in 2006 with the mission of telling the story of the war from not just the Confederate perspective, but from the vantage point of the Union and African Americans as well.

“They said, ‘How could you dare allow yourselves to be co-opted by the Museum of the Confederacy,’” said Christy Coleman, the CEO of the combined museum. “There was a presumption that somehow this was a ruse in the works forever for the Museum of the Confederacy to take over.”

Suspicion aside, they’ve pressed on, winning some supporters back in the process, Coleman says. And over the weekend, they took a significant step toward completing their merger when the Museum of the Confederacy closed its doors to the public for good.

In the coming months, its collection of artifacts will be moved from the concrete, 1970s museum building downtown to a new pavilion under construction at the Civil War Center on Richmond’s riverfront at the remains of the historic Tredegar Ironworks, which made Confederate cannon, armor plating and other ordnance during the war.

The combined entity, renamed the American Civil War Museum, will retain the Civil War Center’s original goal of serving less as a site of reverence and more as a site of conscience and understanding, Coleman says.

It’s a moment that rings symbolic: In the former capital of the Confederacy, there is no longer to be a museum dedicated in name to the Confederacy.

And it comes at a time of unprecedented and widespread debate over Confederate symbols and the whitewashed Lost Cause ideology that surrounds them — a national conversation sparked first by the mass murder of black parishioners at a church in Charleston by a Confederate-flag waving white supremacist and reignited last year by the massing of white supremacist groups under a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, which the city had voted to remove.

A rendering of the American Civil War Museum’s new wing. (Courtesy of the American Civil War Museums)

New flashpoints continue to pop up around Virginia.

Major universities are releasing reports on their own roles in slavery and white supremacy and promising changes. School districts from Staunton to Fairfax County are grappling with whether to rename buildings.

Some parents are pushing for Confederate symbols to be banned under school dress codes. Newspapers are re-examining text books used to teach generations of students.

An encyclopedia editor is publicly refusing demands that he remove references to white supremacy from an article about the Daughters of the Confederacy, a heritage group that in a large part was dedicated to seeding Lost Cause myths about happy slaves and states’ rights.

“As a state, we are kind of recovering from a time when decisions about how the Civil War would be remembered were really in the hands of white people — white people who had a strong emotional connection to the Lost Cause narrative of the Confederacy,” says Gabriel Reich, a VCU historian who has studied collective memories of the Civil War.

Rather than being dragged along in the debate, the museum’s leaders and Civil War scholars say the two institutions have been at the forefront. For years, the museum wrestled with the kinds of questions now facing public institutions around the South, drawing ire at various points as it attempted to tell the story of the Confederacy “warts and all.”

Plans for the merger predate the Charleston shooting by two years and the Museum of the Confederacy has long since moved past its early days when it was established by relatives of Confederate veterans, who packed memorabilia into the former White House of the Confederacy, which will remain open to the public under the umbrella of the American Civil War Museum.

A 1991 exhibit titled “Before Freedom Came” and billed as the first ever comprehensive exhibit on the life of enslaved Americans is an oft-cited example of the museum’s solid scholarly work. S. Waite Rawls III, former president and CEO of the museum and now president of the American Civil War Museum Foundation, calls it the moment the institution went from being “a museum for the Confederacy to being a museum about the Confederacy.”

Civil War historian Kevin Levin said the museum has found itself in an increasingly difficult position: taking fire for its scholarship from its core supporters on one side and being written off by others as Lost Cause shrine, in no small part due to the name, which Rawls acknowledges drove away potential corporate donors.

“People who come there, come to see the relics of the South,” said one member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the male counterpart to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, in a 2007 internal survey cited in an article by Levin. “They don’t want another politically correct watered-down museum that does not give hard viewpoints.”

An exhibit at the Museum of the Confederacy. (Penelope M. Carrington/The American Civil War Museum)

In the intervening decade, the organization’s views have not changed. A spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Frank B. Earnest, said the organization considered a legal action to try to regain control of donated artifacts but couldn’t locate descendants of the donors with standing to sue.

“The point is, these items were personal family heirlooms,” he said. “They weren’t put there to tell everybody’s story. They were put there to tell the Confederate story.”

The bigger picture, Rawls says, is an opportunity to for a fresh start. The old building had been surrounded over the years by the growing Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. Parking for visitors was scarce. The building, a state-of-the-art facility when it opened, hasn’t aged gracefully and exhibits of wool coat after flag after wool coat aren’t drawing crowds like they used to.

Modern museums use artifacts to tell stories, he says, and that’s what they’ll do in their new space.

He pulls a revolver out of a creaky drawer in the museum’s vault and tells the story of the former Confederate cavalry general, Joe Wheeler, who wielded it on behalf of the U.S. Army during the subsequent Spanish-American War, reportedly shouting at one point about “damn Yankees” only to be reminded that he was yelling about the wrong war.

“You want to be able to tell stories like that because suddenly they’re human and the audience can identify with them,” Rawls said. “Now, 75 years ago, the audience identified with them because they knew who they were. They might have seen them sitting on the street corner up at the old soldier’s home.”

Likewise, Coleman describes the potential for interpretation around the museum’s unmatched collection of Confederate flags.

“One of the things we discovered is these flags help us tell the story of the United States Colored Troops” who captured one of the flags at Petersburg, she says.

“Yes, if you’re interested in focusing in just on what Confederates did, you can do that; that hasn’t been stripped away,” Coleman says. “However, what has happened is our collective decision to make the story complete, holistic. You can still find your icons, but you’re going to find a hell of a lot more, particularly, you’re going to find yourself in the story.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association. Contact him at [email protected]