Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Two Civil War Museums for One City?

The capitol of the Confederacy now offers another view of the “War of Northern Aggression.”

For more than a century, the Museum of the Confederacy has called Richmond, Virginia home. The museum features battle flags, uniforms, blood-stained letters, and maps. In addition to celebrating the valor of Confederate soldiers, it also reinforces several aspects of Lost Cause mythology.

A recent visitor summed up the experience for a reporter. He said the museum “presented a great learning opportunity for his children.” While textbooks and teachers focus on slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War, the museum reaffirmed his belief that the war was really about economics. “The South was getting a lot of push from the northern industry and I think it was less about race than it was made out to be,” he explained.

Now the Museum of the Confederacy has some competition.

The American Civil War Center opened nine months ago in Richmond. Combining social, cultural, economic, political, and military history, the museum offers a broader view of America’s greatest tragedy. Visitors are reminded that slavery was indeed at the center of the conflict. Amid bullet-ridden uniforms and period letters, visitors will also find old shackles that were once used to restrain slaves. Interpretative displays depict slave auctions, just as maps explain how the peculiar institution spread across the American South.

The American Civil War Center challenges its visitors to reexamine what they know about the conflict and its leaders.

“I was always raised to believe that the North had always intended to free the slaves and, as you go through here, you realize that wasn’t the case—that it was almost by accident that it happened,” a recent visitor said.

Should the capitol of the Confederacy have two museums devoted to the Civil War? Should these museums offer such different views of the conflict? Absolutely!

Though the physical war ended at Appomattox 142 years ago, the battle for historical memory has never ceased.

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