by Elizabeth Mejía-Ricart
What is it like to be part of the losing side? For the German nation, for instance, it means conciliating with its problematic past and honoring those that were hurt by their actions in the wake of WWII. However, in other communities, like Richmond, having a controversial history still presents a challenge, which in most cases leads to defensiveness and denial. In particular, this inquiry guided me throughout the exhibit of the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar during my visit on Wednesday, June 21. In a chronologically organized presentation, the institution displayed the evolution of the Civil War, giving a particular emphasis to the significance and strategic use of slavery throughout the process. Still, the overarching theme displayed a rather interesting comparison between the North and the South, emphasizing non-apparent similarities between both sides of the dispute.
In terms of space, the exhibit consists of a self-guided tour along a two-story building in which a variety of interactive and informative materials are displayed. A great range of objects can be manipulated by the spectators, helping the public establish a closer connection with the narrative. Moreover, three brief films are provided which summarize the information that the museum considers most relevant for the public to grasp and understand. My only concern regarding the means of presentation is the lack of proper illumination in most of the exhibit, making the space very dim in general. Additionally, some of the text displayed has been erased over time, making it hard to read.
What was more fascinating to me, however, was the content of the exhibit. I noticed there was an explicit and an implicit argument that prevailed throughout the presentation. The explicit contention was expressed very carefully in one of the museum’s short films, which asserted that “slavery by itself did not cause the Civil War, but without slavery, the Civil War would not have taken place at all.” This statement resonated with the whole exhibit, which put slavery at the center, constantly reminding the public of the relationship between the events and the enslaved individuals. Nevertheless, the display emphasized that the abolition of the institution of slavery was a byproduct, used as a strategy to win the war rather than a genuine concern to remain true to the ideal of freedom of the Union.
Following this line of thought, I noticed that there was an interest on behalf of the display to undermine the wrongdoings of the Confederacy by pointing out the true motives and the faults of the Union. In this sense, the exhibit enforced the idea that “there was not a good or bad side in the Civil War,” which illustrates the effort to present the events from a neutral stance. One of the videos makes the case that although the South used enslaved people to perform the agricultural work, the North used children and immigrants under deplorable conditions, which made it no better than slavery. At the same time, the exhibit pointed out that the Union was not really interested in abolishing slavery. Instead, it highlighted that Abraham Lincoln freed enslaved persons in order to weaken the South, given that enslaved persons were a key input in the South’s economy.
Additionally, I was very pleased with the representation of marginalized people in the museum. Even though widely recognized black Americans, such as Frederick Douglas, were constantly portrayed, I still could notice the depiction of different voices of enslaved and free black people, who struggled during the period of time. Indeed, there was a great variety of points of views regarding the Civil War that were presented in the exhibit, ranging from children who had lost their fathers, to women who had to take charge of the households and claim their authority over enslaved people.
Ultimately, the visit to the American Civil War Museum left me with more questions than I had before. I entered the institution thinking that the Union fought unselfishly for the abolition of slavery. However, the exhibit challenged my previous beliefs regarding the true motives of the Civil War, portraying the abolition of slavery as a positive externality or byproduct of the war, instead of being the purpose of the latter. The presentation certainly gave the institution of slavery a marked relevance in the conflict, however, it did so indirectly, asserting that slavery was a key ingredient that led to war, but not in itself the cause of the armed conflict. More importantly, it challenged my previous regards of the winning side as the positive side, given that the exhibit made a strong case that both sides responded to their self-interests, as opposed to altruism. This point of view made me wonder if the history of the Civil War is told differently in the North, and if for them, a good side in the dispute truly exists.
Elizabeth Mejía-Ricart is from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. She is a rising sophomore at the University of Richmond who is planning to major in Economics and minor in Mathematics. Elizabeth is a Boatwright and Oliver Hill Scholar, who is part of the University Dancers Company on campus. This is Elizabeth’s first experience as an A&S Summer Fellow, however, she is excited to discover more about the University of Richmond’s history and about the city itself through Untold RVA and her collaboration with Free Egunfemi.