Richmond’s Difficult Legacy

Originally published in The Washington Times – Saturday, May 3, 2008

On April 4, 1865, just two days after Union forces had taken Richmond, President Abraham Lincoln arrived in the Confederate capital with his son Tad. The city’s black residents gave the Great Emancipator a hero’s welcome, while the city’s whites greeted him icily.

Today, a bronze statue of Lincoln and his son sits at the Richmond National Battlefield Park Civil War Visitor Center. The president, who wears a melancholy expression, has his arm wrapped around his 12-year-old boy. Behind him, etched in stone, are the words: “To bind up the nation’s wounds.”

The unveiling of the Lincoln statue in April 2003 marked a turning point in Richmond’s attitude toward the historic conflict. “We in Virginia are glad to claim him as one of our own,” said then-Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine. “Abraham Lincoln is one of us.”

Richmonders, of course, have not always considered Lincoln “one of us.” Any visitor to Richmond recognizes what seems to be the city’s preternatural obsession with its Confederate past. Monument Avenue, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, boasts monuments to four Confederate generals, including Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

However, a new museum in Richmond is taking on the conflict in a different way. The American Civil War Center, which opened in 2006, approaches the conflict from three perspectives: Union, Confederate and black. The museum offers a more balanced interpretation of the war. “No side offered a monopoly on virtue,” a video tells visitors at the beginning of the exhibit.

James M. McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author at Princeton, was one of several historians involved in the planning. Mr. McPherson, whose scholarship has dealt with all three perspectives addressed by the exhibit, says the museum is unique on the national stage. “Most of the other museums that deal with the Civil War have a particular perspective,” he says.

Though the museum opened in 2006, the foundation has been around since 2000. H. Alexander Wise Jr., a former director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, got the ball rolling back in the late ‘70s. Mr. Wise created a national board and enlisted the support of historians from different viewpoints. Those involved collaborated in a “harmonious and creative” manner, Mr. McPherson says.

The center’s founders felt it was important to have the center in Richmond. Also, the center is located on historic ground, atTredegar Iron Works, an iron foundry that was the largest munitions factory for the South during the war. Across the James River is Belle Isle, a former Union prison camp that has become a public park.

At the beginning of the exhibit, visitors have the opportunity to vote on what caused the war. The exhibit concludes with a look at the war’s legacy. Adam Scher, the center’s vice president of operations and interim president, says one of the primary goals is establishing a connection between the war and contemporary life. He adds that the legacy portion of the exhibit strikes the greatest emotional chord.

“We talk about issues that still linger,” he says.

The museum also has worked with several schools in the area as part of an effort to foster civic engagement and explore issues of race and reconciliation.

“Students are our most important audience,” Mr. Scher says, “and in many cases, they have not formulated a perspective about this story. It allows them the opportunity to see the story from different sides.”

Less than 1½ miles away from the American Civil War Center is the Museum of the Confederacy. Founded in 1890, it is one of the oldest museums in the nation, but it has struggled in recent years. Attendance is down, and funding has long been a problem. Not to mention that the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center has practically eaten the museum, making it nearly impossible to locate. Next to the museum stands the White House of the Confederacy, which is open daily for tours.

Waite Rawls, the museum’s president, acknowledges that the museum has suffered an image problem for some time. “There’s a big gap in the reality of what the museum is today and the perception the public has,” he says.

During the 1990s, Mr. Rawls says, the museum began an effort to change its image, offering exhibits on the struggle of blacks for freedom in the South and the role of women in the war.

Mr. Rawls insists that the museum is not in competition with the American Civil War Center. In fact, he says, Richmond as a whole is in competition with other historical cities. However, he thinks his town comes up short when it comes to marketing its historical offerings.

“If you look at Northern cities, particularly modern, progressive cities, they put [historical legacy] at the forefront,” he says, citing Boston, Philadelphia and Washington as examples.

Richmond, Mr. Rawls says, has an advantage in that regard. Cities such as Charlotte, N.C., he says, aren’t so fortunate. Still, Richmond is unique in that its history is sometimes considered an albatross, a fact that is often chalked up to race.

“Twenty-first-century racial politics have used the Civil War as a political football,” Mr. Rawls says. “Blaming that on the Civil War is a peculiarly local phenomenon.”

Nevertheless, the conflict is still a big draw for tourists in the Old Dominion. One out of every 10 visitors goes to some Civil War site, says Richard Lewis of the Virginia Tourism Corp. “There’s so much to see,” he says. “You’d be hard-pressed to do all the Civil War stuff in Virginia in one day.”

There has been a move recently by city officials to pay greater tribute to the role of blacks in the city’s past. Last year, the city unveiled the Slavery Reconciliation Statue in the historic Shockoe Bottom area. Identical statues have been erected in Liverpool, England, and Benin, in West Africa, representing three prominent focal points of the slave trade.

Virginia is planning its Sesquicentennial Commemoration — or 150th anniversary — of the war, beginning in 2011 and running through 2015. That will likely set the tone for Civil War tourism in the former capital of the Confederacy in the 21st century.

“We’re looking at this as an opportunity to improve the way Richmond has been marketed,” says Jeannie Welliver, director of tourism for the city of Richmond.

Author: Caine O'Rear

Caine O'Rear is a writer and editor based in Mobile, Alabama. He is the former editor in chief of American Songwriter Magazine. Follow him at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: