The American Civil War Museum’s CEO on the Myths That Persist About Our National Conflict

Watching these unfounded 'truths' play out in politics today, Christy Coleman argues, 'The greatest gift that we could give to our nation is a clearer and better understanding of how the Civil War was actually lived.'

The American Civil War Museum photographed prior to its opening at Historic Tredegar. American Civil War Museum

In Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy and the capital of the state where more than half of all Civil War battles were fought, a new museum that opened on May 4 has set out to speak frankly about the complicated history and legacy of a war the United States is still reverberating from, perhaps never more so than in today’s polarized political climate.

The American Civil War Museum, which was formed out of a merger between the American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy, provides a non-partisan exploration of the Civil War and its effects through multiple perspectives: those of both Union and Confederate soldiers, of enslaved and free African Americans, of immigrants, women and children.

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The new glass-walled institution, designed by 3North, sits on the brick ruins of Tredegar Ironworks, a Confederate war-manufacturing facility and one of the country’s leading iron manufacturers. With a permanent exhibition of over 500 artifacts, a temporary exhibit tracing how the United States paid off the war, and a fully digitized collection in the works, the new museum interweaves civilian testimonies with political and military documents to defy widespread myths surrounding the Civil War, particularly how often narratives strip black people of agency and simplify individuals’ motivations for going to war.

Christy Coleman, who led the American Civil War Center before spearheading the creation of the new institution as CEO, sat down with Observer to discuss her love of storytelling, the problem with segregating history into black versus white and why we are still reeling from the effects of a war that is largely misunderstood.

Can you tell me a little about your experience growing up in the South? Is that where your interest in Civil War History came from?
I grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia and that meant I grew up around the history of the American Revolution and the colonial period, but my direct work with the Civil War did not come until I accepted the position here [at what was the American Civil War Center], in Richmond, in 2008. Clearly, growing up in the South, there is a very different narrative than the national narrative, one that was far more sympathetic to the Confederate cause, and of course, the landscape itself is full of that kind of imagery and suggestion. My elementary school when my family moved to Virginia was named after a Confederate general by the name of Magruder, but I didn’t know that at the time. I had no idea who Magruder was, and they didn’t teach it. But when I was growing up, my parents were also my history teachers. Whenever there was an assignment around history or culture, from elementary to high school, my parents would always encourage me to introduce other voices, like African Americans or women. I had that extra enlightenment, I guess.

One of the American Civil War Museum’s new galleries. American Civil War Museum

Was the merger between the American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy met with resistance on either end of the partnership?
For the first year there was just a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiation and trying to figure out what we wanted to do and why, sort of what’s called the “swat analysis:” what are the strengths and weaknesses of both organizations, where are opportunities if we combine forces, and what were the potential threats. And clearly, as we looked at what the potential threats to the enterprise could be, we certainly had to acknowledge that there would be those who did not think this was a good idea, mostly because of their particular allegiance to one ideology or another. Could we in fact merge not only systems, processes, and people, but culture? That was a potential threat as much as it was an opportunity. So yes, we absolutely looked at all of those and we planned for them as best we could.

What we did not anticipate is that when we did finally start making it known to our personnel under what was supposed to be very strict restrictions on what could and should be said outside of the organization, we did have a staff member who outed us before we were publicly ready to announce. So we had to deal with that as an internal personnel issue as well as the press that hit on that question and we deflected as best we could until we were ready to make that announcement. So it took us a year of active planning before we publicly announced to make sure all the pieces were going to fit.

And I’m sure shaping a certain narrative around what you were trying to do was especially important in a project like this.
Well we had to have a shared vision of what the organization could be and we actually wrote up a memorandum of understanding of what we were hoping to achieve. That was critical. And from that, we were able to build our narrative and build our mission statement, which was met with no resistance. It was the result of shared conversations and things both boards voted on. This was, again, not an overnight thing, but carefully, carefully planned.

Christy S. Coleman. Kim Brundage

Were you skeptical at all going into this?
Initially, absolutely. I didn’t have a great motivation to do it because at the American Civil War Center we had just completed a capital campaign, we were getting ready to build a new facility to expand our temporary gallery space, we were seeing increased visitation year over year for more than five years, we were making connections that were working for us. I initially participated in conversations purely out of respect for my colleague at the Museum of the Confederacy, but then when I got out of my own way, I thought about how if we managed to make this happen, it could be a game-changer for the field. Even during the difficult moments of the negotiation, Waite [S. Waite Rawls III, Executive Director of the Museum of the Confederacy] and I would sit down and I would say, ‘Let’s stop for a minute and breathe. And then tell me what you love as we try to figure this thing out.’ He shared his loves and his hopes and I shared mine and together we crafted what we thought was going to work. That became the basis of the merger.

What are some of the things you love about this project?
I really love the storytelling. I really love the opportunity we had to bring the narrative back to a really rich American story and all the variant players, that was important to me. It was important to me to have an environment that would be not just inclusive in terms of saying who we were, but actually made an intentional action of the organization by making the people we hoped to reach part of [the] organization at every level. Those are the kinds of things that drove me. And Waite, of course, also loves stories, though slightly different ones, [and] loves the collection of the archives. Having a financial background, he was really interested in developing financial models that were sustainable. So we just took what we loved and what our strengths were and developed an organizational structure around that.

In the overwhelmingly white south, it seems like you came into this project with the mentality that changing people’s minds around the Civil War is a bit of a lost cause in itself. Can you tell me about the Museum’s aim to offer multiple and inclusive perspectives surrounding this moment in history rather than changing the narrative that exists around it?
Well it wasn’t just a matter of doing this in the South. I can’t stress that enough. This is about an American story. Yes, we are absolutely in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, there’s no ifs, ands, or buts. But we are also living in a very modern city that is increasingly diverse, a very modern nation that is grappling with some of these unfounded ‘truths’ that play out in our political life. The greatest gift that we could give to our nation is a clearer and better understanding of how the Civil War was actually lived. These myths are equally persistent in the North, they may be slightly different, but they’re equally persistent.

To me, it’s of particular importance that a museum of this nature coexists with some of the South’s highly contested Confederate monuments. How did you go about reconciling the many fragmented and divided legacies of the Civil War that existed in America?
We’d never be able to include every single thing that happened to every single person that lived through this experience, but we certainly can spark the appetite and give you the basis to consider and then move through. That’s when museums do their best work, in my view. People come through and they may learn, for example, just how invested Wall Street was in the Confederacy because their financial interests were tied to the slave trade. People may learn how even New Yorkers would don Confederate uniforms. And then there’s some quirky characters, like Loretta Velázquez: a Cuban woman who aligned herself with the South and at different points in time would dress as a man or serve as a spy. Or Varina Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis, who moved to New York City and lived out the rest of her days there operating a magazine. My point is that we’ve had this tendency to make the war into north versus south, but individuals’ motivations were far more complex and history is not black and white.

Dr. David Blight wrote so beautifully, as have others, about the reunion of the United States, but this idea of reunification and reconciliation is something that occurred with white people. It did not occur with everyone else and it was much easier to take race out of the equation i.e. eliminating all other groups, the largest one being African Americans. It was much easier to come up with a narrative that others could embrace. So the South becomes this sort of fantasy place and with popular culture in the mix of it, it’s no wonder we haven’t gotten it right. Northerners tend to dismiss the conflict into this sort of, ‘We won and we’re done and we freed the slaves.’ Really? Did you? Where’s the black agency? The South absolutely went to war to preserve slavery, but the North didn’t go to war to end slavery. It was the actions of black people and their allies that would change the war’s aim and we miss it because it’s never been presented to us this way.

Exhibits offer information on, for example, just how invested Wall Street was in the Confederacy. American Civil War Museum

How do you believe the museum is being perceived locally?
So far, so good! We haven’t done any formal evaluations yet but we intend to, to make sure visitors are getting what we want them to get. But the anecdotal is coming through really well. As far as I know, we’ve only had one person who was a little upset by something that he saw. He was upset to see that we had an early Klan robe in the gallery that introduces the postwar and reconstruction era. He was like, ‘Why is that here?’ And the answer is really quite simple: because in 1866 the Ku Klux Klan is formed immediately after the war by a former Confederate general with the intent to control the newly free black population.

What do you think is the Museum’s resonance at this particular moment in history?
You can’t deny the fact that these conversations about the reemergence of white supremacy, or rather the reemergence of overt white supremacy, are taking place and their connection to a lot of these images and symbols are undeniable. What we hope is that the public that comes through wanting to understand things in their fuller context will be able to do so. We are active in our immediate community as well as our national community without being activists. There is a difference. If we have the resources and the materials in our collection, which we do, to help communities navigate these questions for themselves then we feel compelled to be a part of that. That’s why the digitization project has been so important to us and that’s why the permanent as well as temporary exhibition programs have been so important to us. History is there for the living, it is about helping us navigate the place in space and time where we are by bridging that gap between public perception and academic work. That’s what museums do.

The American Civil War Museum’s CEO on the Myths That Persist About Our National Conflict