(Photo credit: Tredegar Iron Works commemorative plaque, courtesy Eileen Mundock, Flickr Creative Commons)
Richmond, Virginia was the capital of the Confederacy for most of the duration of the Civil War. The city today has a number of sites to commemorate that conflagration. The other day I posted about the Museum of the American Confederacy, which I said has some serious problems in terms of both its general mission and its presentation of exhibits. Today I’d like to shift attention down to Richmond’s riverfront and a National Park Service site that includes what for my money is one of the better (private) interpretive museums I’ve seen. I’ll come to that in a minute.
A little more than a mile south of the Museum of the Confederacy, on the James River, stands Richmond’s historic Tredegar Iron Works. This place was essentially the main site of munitions production for the South during the Civil War. The site has been run by the park service since 2000.
Tredegar has seen quite a bit of development since the turn of the century. While much of the site is in ruins—albeit very picturesque ruins—the park in 2000 opened the main visitor center for Richmond National Battlefield Park in one of the few original buildings still standing. Originally the Crenshaw Woolen Mill, this site has three floors of exhibits, and though the displays are a little static, they are quite interesting. Artifacts and extensive timelines tell the full story about the run-up to the war and the war itself. And there are staff members on hand to answer questions. When we visited we managed to attend a cool volunteer-led demonstration of how to load and fire one of the larger displays: an original bronze 12-pounder gun that was produced at the works.
Also on the grounds of the site is a statue of President Lincoln and his son Tad Lincoln, placed in 2003. It shows Lincoln and Tad seated on a bench, with Abe’s arm around his young son. The statue commemorates Lincoln’s visit to Richmond on April 4, 1865, just days after the fall of the Confederate capital, and only 10 days before his assassination at Ford’s Theater. It’s interesting to note that, even in 2003, the placement of this statue in a key site representing the Confederacy aroused strong protests (Lincoln Statue, 2003).
A more recent addition to the park, just a few yards away from the visitors’ center, is also housed in an original building, in this case the 1861 Gun Foundry. This is the American Civil War Center, opened in 2006, and in fact it’s a private museum operating on park service grounds (so it remains open during the current shutdown).
This museum is actually very good. Even though you have to pay an admission fee to get in (currently $8, while the park service museum is free), it is worth it. The museum packs a lot into a fairly constricted space, covering just two floors. It makes very good use of interactive displays, both electronic and non-electronic, plus original artifacts. Starting with the engaging introductory video, which asks the audience to consider “What caused the war?” the museum presents its material from three perspectives: the Northern, or Union; the Southern, or War for Home; and the black, or War for Freedom perspective. The operators advertise that their artifacts on display are always changing, and that’s in keeping with the sense of dynamism they wish to convey. Still, the whole thing is self-guided, and I missed having a human being or two to talk to about the exhibits.
This museum operation brings to the fore an issue I’ll have to return to: Whether new technologies can really replace human interpreters in bringing dead artifacts and an old story back to life. I’d say the American Civil War Center takes an able step in that direction, but only a step. It’s worth noting that the museum still has a full schedule of special talks and presentations—things that can only be done with actual people who are expert in their fields.
The last thing I saw there, btw, in a display case of Civil War related pop culture artifacts, was a boxed die-cast model of the General Lee, an orange 1969 Dodge Charger. This is funny because as a child basically the only thing I knew about the South I got from “The Dukes of Hazzard.” I’m a bit embarrassed now to admit the extent to which, when I was a boy, this one show was responsible for providing my main cultural reference point for understanding the American South. Basically, when I thought of the South, I thought of TV’s “Hazzard County,” with its pokey little town where fat little cigar-chomping Boss Hogg ruled in corrupt glory with the connivance of his sheriff, Roscoe P. Coltrane. And I thought of the endless dirt roads where the bridges were always out, thus providing the Duke boys’ General Lee with plenty of creek-jumping opportunities. As a kid I had no real understanding of the Civil War, and no inkling of the divisiveness of the Confederate Battle Flag, the symbol that adorns the General Lee’s roof.
Lincoln Statue Is Unveiled, And Protesters Come Out (2003). New York Times, April 6. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/06/us/lincoln-statue-is-unveiled-and-protesters-come-out.html?pagewanted=1
National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service.
Tredegar Iron Works. National Historic Landmark summary listing, National Park Service.