A slave’s doll cradle, a raccoon-skin shoe and buttons made from persimmon seeds are among the items on display at the Museum of the Confederacy to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s first battle.
The sesquicentennial exhibits in Richmond, Virginia, focus on the impact the bloodiest war in American history had on non-combatants, including the 3.6 million slaves who lived in the South at the time.
“It’s not just about white guys fighting,” says Vickie Yates, head of the museum’s marketing and public relations department.
The war began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces attacked a U.S. military base at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. It ended on April 9, 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union commander Ulysses S. Grant at Virginia’s Appomattox Court House.
Waite Rawls III, the museum’s president and chief executive, said interest in the Civil War remains high not only in the U.S. but overseas.
Twenty percent of museum visitors in January were from the U.K., he said. Rawls recalled the day he was summoned to the museum’s front desk to meet a group of battle re-enactors from Stuttgart, Germany.
“They said they have a hard time doing re-enactments in Germany because no one wants to play the part of the Yankees,” said Rawls, a former banker in New York who was wearing his customary bow tie.
Lee’s Horse, Hair
The anniversary exhibit, which runs all year, includes such oddities as a dinner plate a woman used to bang a foraging Union soldier over the head and a textbook that includes this math problem: “If one Confederate soldier kills 90 Yankees, how many Yankees can 10 Confederate soldiers kill?”
Visitors also can see a lock of Lee’s hair, a watch chain made from his horse’s hair and the uniform he wore while surrendering at Appomattox.
Those items join permanent displays, such as paperwork for the 1842 sale of a Georgia slave and 1772 correspondence “concerning the capture and confinement of a runaway slave” named Jacob. Plus a handkerchief purportedly stained with the blood of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson.
The museum, which is 115 years old, has attracted celebrity visitors such as Ken Burns, who used its artifacts in his sprawling Civil War documentary. Film director Steven Spielberg visited the adjacent White House of the Confederacy in November while preparing for a movie on Abraham Lincoln.
The tone of the sesquicentennial observations isn’t going over well with everyone.
Roger McCredie, executive director of the Southern Legal Resource Center, worries that it’s “going to be the apogee of of South-bashing.”
Yet a guide at the White House of the Confederacy points out that even some of the best-known Confederates, including Jefferson Davis’ widow Varina, managed to put the war behind them.
Varina Davis moved to New York after her husband’s death in 1889 and wrote newspaper columns for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. She became a pariah to some Southerners after befriending Grant’s widow and greeting the famous black educator, Booker T. Washington.
(Dave Shiflett is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions are his own.)