Over 150 years ago, the Tredegar Iron Works churned out cannons, weaponry, and other iron goods for the Confederate war effort during the Civil War. Located next to the James River, canals connected the factory with avenues through which Tredegar’s goods could traverse the rocky James River. Those goods fed and supplied Confederate troops throughout the south. The factory’s cannon lunged the Confederacy into bloody combat, from the firing at Fort Sumter to the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse and Bennett Place. To many historians, the center of the Confederate industrial complex was in Richmond, Virginia. Fast forward to 2019; the Tredegar complex has set aside its iron manufacturing for a nuanced construction of knowledge around the American Civil War.
A distant relative to the Museum of the Confederacy, the American Civil War Museum strives to follow its motto, “Confederacy, Union, Freedom,” which provides accurate histories and a “preeminent center for the exploration of the American Civil War and its legacies from multiple perspectives.” The former capital of the Confederacy no longer is weighted down by the Lost Cause memory of the Civil War’s southern nostalgia and white supremacy. The American Civil War Museum’s spectacular new exhibit space at Tredegar Iron Works pushes back against old guard interpretations of the Civil War which transforms the commemorative landscape and educational outreach to provide a better-unbiased study of the Civil War.
In May 2019, the American Civil War Museum held their grand opening event which unveiled their new exhibit to the public. This event brought in hundreds of visitors as they explored the new space, listened to the famed BackStory podcast, and sat in on “Emerging Scholars” presentations. These presentations spoke to new avenues of Civil War research, the nuance of the exhibit, and the challenges or triumphs in its construction and interpretations. The BackStory crew talked about one of the critical features of the new exhibit space: the many colorized photographs from the American Civil War.
As guests walk into the exhibit space, they are overwhelmed by large, colorful, and distinct images from the period. Women and men, enslaved and free, Union and Confederate, Native American and Asian American, all colorized to bring those posed in the image alive. Joanne Freeman, a professor from Yale University and member of BackStory, mentioned that the colorization shows guests that the Civil War was not in “black and white”; people lived their lives in color, and these images show a new dimension of that nineteenth-century experience.
The exhibits are interactive, powerful, full of artifacts, and chronologically organized to tell the standard history of the Civil War. There are separate sections based on the year of the war, and each year has a touch-screen device that allows guests to thumb through more intricate information on the Civil War-based timeline and geographical map. The Museum also focuses on the individual stories and experiences of people during the war years. From soldiers to the front lines to women on the homefront, the American Civil War Museum shows us the individuality of the war. The narrative should not be based on large armies but focused in on the individual stories and perspectives which make the history of the Civil War unique. At every corner and section, faces flood the visitor’s view that allows them to look at the anguish and trauma of war—from anyone that participated—right in the eye.
The new exhibit space visually appeals to visitors. The American Civil War Museum has a collection of nearly 15,000 Civil War artifacts—99% of them mainly being of Confederate origin. The new exhibit houses over 500 of the objects. One of the great things about the American Civil War Museum is how they tell new narratives using old artifacts. As the former Museum of the Confederacy, the American Civil War Museum uses stories and perspectives to work around the point that most of their objects are from the Confederacy. The use of images, maps, and narratives help tell the stories of those mostly forgotten in the military study of the Civil War. Sections on African Americans who fought for freedom in the United States Colored Troops or women on the home front allow visitors to think about these unique and diverse topics critically.
As a brand-new exhibit, there is very little to critique. The American Civil War Museum successfully sheds new light on the Civil War era; spanning from the road to war to the lasting legacies. As someone who studies Native American history during the Civil War era, however, I hope that the Museum’s future holds new opportunities to better incorporate and integrate that story into the larger Civil War narrative. By examining the Museum’s tagline, “Freedom,” we must acknowledge that Native peoples also struggled with the concept of freedom. Native Americans served in both official and unofficial capacities during the Civil War. Many Native Americans joined the Union or Confederacy as a way to demonstrate self-determination, to protect their homelands, or achieve recognition from a governing body. For those out West, in particular, freedom stood for their ability to live and thrive on their traditional homelands. Many western conflicts also arose from white encroachments on those lands. There are very few artifacts on the Native American experience; those that are in display cases lack contextual information and seem placed into a larger narrative about the Battle of Pea Ridge. By incorporating and including the stories of Native displacement and participation, the Museum will garner a stronger argument in addressing the varied perspectives of America’s greatest drama.
Besides these critiques, the American Civil War Museum is an outstanding step forward in the Civil War memory debates. It makes a great stand in the former capital of the Confederacy. The Museum will interest military-minded folks, but also grasp the curiosity of those interested in the social and cultural history of the Civil War.
The American Civil War Museum is open to the public seven days a week. The fee schedule can be found here: https://acwm.org/buy-tickets. While the main museum is located at Tredegar, the ACWM also operates the White House of the Confederacy and has a second branch in Appomattox, Virginia a mile from the National Park Service surrender site.
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John R. Legg is a graduate student in the Department of History at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. While working on his M.A. with a Public History Certificate, John has recently interned at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond. His research focuses on the Native American experience during the Civil War, primarily the contested memory of the U.S.-Dakota War in Minnesota. John has worked on exhibit teams at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, Georgia and at the American Civil War Museum’s Appomattox Branch. You can learn more about the Appomattox exhibit here.
Contact John via email on firstname.lastname@example.org