It was a day over five years in the making. Realistically, it was a weekend almost 10 years in the making.
Last week, I traveled to Richmond, Va. to visit my daughter Stephanie Fitzwater-Arduini, the Director of Education at the American Civil War Museum. It was going to be a big weekend for her and for the museum, as they were finally going to open their doors and unveil the brand new American Civil War Museum after planning the project for the last decade.
Over the years, my daughter has discussed the project of the new museum on the phone with me or in-person, and she would enlighten me with how exciting the project was and how awesome the facility would look and what they intended to do with the exhibits once they opened. I was excited for her, but was also enthralled with the concept of a Civil War Museum as I have been interested in the American Civil War all my life. I have done extensive reading and research on the subject and have contemplated doing a book on a specific regimental unit that fought in the war. My kids were “prisoners” of my interest, as they often had to tag along on vacations with me when they were little and had absolutely no interest in the Civil War.
The joke in our family goes something like: (Me) “Where do you all want to go on Spring or Summer vacation this year?” I would ask.
(Them): “Oh Dad, let’s go to Disney World!” or “Let’s go to Universal Studios!”
I took them to Gettysburg. Or Manassas. Or Antietam. Much to their dismay. I even made them walk Pickett’s Charge and watch the movie Gettysburg over and over. They would cringe when I would start reciting the lines of the movie to them.
Don’t get me wrong, we still went on family vacations to Disney World, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain National Park and other adventures, but they always reminded me of how I held them hostage on the trips to the battlefields and historic sites.
It was great irony, then, that my oldest daughter would have a strong love of history and pursue it as a career. When she got the job in Richmond, I was excited for her. But what really got me was her vision of what the American Civil War Museum should look like and what stories and meaning they could present to the public at the new facility. Together with her boss and the board of directors of the museum, they planned an entirely new museum that not only told about the battles, but also about the people and the choices they had to make during those turbulent times. They decided it was time to make all of us think about what it was like to live during the most turbulent and deadly time in American history, and what the people went through, what issues they faced, what decisions they made, and what the effects were on them afterward.
This philosophy is a game-changer in telling the history of the Civil War and may be a game changer in how other museums deal with the subject matter they have before them. While I was there, I got to meet a lot of interesting scholars and historians and spent a lot of time talking to the marvelous staff the museum has put together.
I was enthralled by the amount of new material, and as someone who thought he knew a lot about the Civil War, I had a lot of jaw-dropping experiences and “A-ha!” moments over the weekend. The museum was that well done, that well laid out, and that well planned out.
The historians and scholars who were there were in awe of the new building and raved about the new facility and the new presentation of Civil War history. Media from Smithsonian Magazine to the Washington Post gushed about it. This week, the New York Times is going to be there for a major story on the museum. The story is honest, enlightening, intriguing, thought-provoking and accomplishes its mission of asking guests and patrons to think about the issues that those people faced during the times they lived. It puts a whole different spin on the Civil War, and to me, makes the history come alive in 3-D.
And the artifacts they have there! Robert E. Lee’s uniform, belt, field jacket and field glasses. Diaries of soldiers who fought on both sides of the war. Relics from the battlefields of the civil war, uniforms, testimonials, personal effects, and even a bible that stopped a bullet and saved a soldier’s life.
But the most moving part are the stories and words of the people who lived through those times and the period after the war. There is a judicious use of the quotes, and they all are very powerful.
However, the thing that was most powerful to me was walking into the last exhibit when I first got there. As I walked in, there was the huge and famous painting of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson conversing just before Jackson launched his flank attack at Chancellorsville in the spring of 1863. It was Lee’s most audacious battle tactic, and Jackson was the only general who could have carried it out. The name of the painting is the Lost Cause, and it has come to symbolize what the South wanted to believe it was before and after the war. Right across from that painting was a Ku Klux Klan outfit that symbolized what took place after the war. Both were powerful images, and they made you think and see things in a different light.
I urge all of you who are interested in the Civil War to check out this amazing facility in Richmond, Va. They built the American Civil War Museum around the ruins of the Tredegar Works ruins on the James River. It is a stunning building and the architecture is phenomenal.
I am also proud of my daughter’s role in making this dream a reality. No dad could be prouder. It is something she can proud of for the rest of her lifetime.