To search, type one or more key words below.
Search Search the web.
 Page Bottom 

Museums of Civil War Are Torn by Debate

RICHMOND, Va., Nov. 20 — One hundred thirty-six years after Grant took Richmond, reconciling the bloody shards of the Civil War is not getting any easier.

Ask H. Alexander Wise Jr., president of the Tredegar National Civil War Center Foundation, an attempt to heal some war wounds by presenting Confederate, African-American and Union versions of the War Between the States under one all-inclusive, all-tolerant roof.

"We need a civil discussion of a very uncivil war," said Mr. Wise, a descendant of a Confederate general and a former director of historic preservation for Virginia. "You have to get beyond the symbolism and into the facts."

Mr. Wise's idea is that 21st century history buffs should finally be invited to look beyond old biases and battle flags and delve side by side into the broader, richer truth of the war.

In an instantaneous furor, however, this effort is spurring strong resistance from dedicated Northerners because Mr. Wise negotiated an agreement to receive valuable Union artifacts for the Tredegar project from Philadelphia's Civil War Library and Museum. Defenders suddenly rallied round this 113-year-old institution years after it came upon hard budgetary times and low attendance in the shadow of Philadelphia's more popular offerings on the Revolution.

On another skirmish line, Robin E. Reed, the director here of the Museum of the Confederacy, abruptly resigned his post this month, with supporters contending he was purged because of his enthusiasm for helping the Tredegar's effort at telling a more inclusive story of the war.

"Robin wasn't pro-Southern enough," contended one ranking professional in the museum field who spoke on the condition of not being identified. "His taking a balanced approach in his own exhibits disturbed members of his board," said this historian, speculating the Museum of the Confederacy might become more closely aligned with conservative donors and supporters of the current statehouse fights over the Confederate flag.

But J. E. B. Stuart IV, president of the Museum of the Confederacy, denies that Mr. Reed was forced out and emphasizes that his museum, long a shrine for Confederate die- hards and a peerless resource for scholars, is committed wholeheartedly to lending artifacts to the Tredegar effort.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to tell the Confederate story to a larger audience," said Mr. Stuart, whose downtown museum has become landlocked with the growth of a surrounding hospital. Mr. Wise's project, which he plans to have in place in four years, will be housed in the Tredegar Confederate ironworks and cannon factory on a far more picturesque site on the riverfront.

Mr. Wise hopes to prevail with his Philadelphia exchange and bring in a Union collection that includes memorabilia from such principals as Ulysses S. Grant, not to mention the stuffed head of Gen. George Meade's horse, Old Baldy.

But the opponents, including scholars and Northern war buffs and led by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office, denounce the plan as a violation of the original donors' intention to keep their Union memorabilia in Philadelphia. A decision is expected soon in their challenge in the Pennsylvania courts.

Mr. Wise already has a commitment to root the story of African- Americans, who long have felt slighted in Civil War retellings, in a collection of 3,000 wartime artifacts from John Motley, an African-American insurance executive from Hartford who is a director of the Civil War Preservation Trust.

"That subject is the elephant in the room," said Mr. Wise, keen to end the neglect of Civil War blacks. Here in modern Richmond, the capital of the old Confederacy where the majority of residents now are African-American, a civic brouhaha erupted last year over a waterfront history display that included a pride-tinged banner of Robert E. Lee.

"It caused some good, visceral dialogue," said Cynthia MacLeod, the superintendent of the Richmond National Battlefield Park. This is the federal government's year-old Civil War center directly adjacent to the Tredegar Ironworks.

"One of the reasons to have museums is to make people think about things," said Ms. MacLeod, encouraged by the Lee controversy. Her center, while restricted in size, attracted 60,000 visitors in its first year. The Richmond region offers 43 major battle sites within 30 miles of the city. "We have to talk about history inclusively and respectfully."

But how much museum space and financing this history-steeped city can afford is an open question. Mr. Wise, insisting there is room for his effort and its $13 million fund-raising goal, said the Smithsonian Institution could be an alternative source for Northern artifacts if the Philadelphia offering is blocked.

There is a Black History Museum in Richmond. And 60 miles to the north, in Fredericksburg, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder announced plans last month to build a National Slavery Museum, 30 miles south of Washington.

"This is how we've come to be," said Mr. Wilder, the grandson of slaves who promised a candid and engaging museum for all Americans. "It has nothing to do with guilt or blame. It's to deal with what was and what is."

Whatever comes of the assorted plans and conflicts, Richmond has already been venturing into fresh looks at some controversial aspects of the war.

Mr. Reed in particular is praised by museum professionals for programs he pioneered in his 14 years at the Museum of the Confederacy. These included exhibits on women's shifting views as the war's body count mounted, an extensive depiction of slavery in the South, and what enthusiasts hailed as a cool-headed examination of the Confederate flag as a cultural icon.

"I'm very proud of my body of work," said Mr. Reed.

The Confederacy museum, which includes the restored Southern White House where President Jefferson Davis lived, has a treasure of documents, photographs, maps and artifacts, from Lee's headquarters flag to Gen. J. E. B. Stuart's plumed hat.

Skeptics are watching to see if the Confederacy trustees will truly cooperate with the Tredegar project. But Mr. Stuart, descendant of the bold general, insists a new direction is at hand.

This is seconded by Henry Kidd, state commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the fervid traditionalists lately waging statehouse fights for the Confederate flag. Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Kidd says that an end to mutual stereotyping should be the final armistice in the old war.

"Honoring my ancestors has nothing to do with racism," Mr. Kidd insisted. "It's time to sit down and talk at the same table."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times CompanyPrivacy Information

horizontal line
What's New Page to home page e-mail  Page Top