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Richmond Re-examines its Confederate Past

  • Susan Logue

Leaders of the Confederacy are memorialized in monuments dominating one of Richmond, Virginia's main boulevards.

Leaders of the Confederacy are memorialized in monuments dominating one of Richmond, Virginia's main boulevards.

Southern capital of the confederacy marks Civil War anniversary

As the United States marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, many Americans are re-examining the conflict, especially in Richmond, Virginia, former capital of the Confederacy.

During the Civil War, which lasted four years, the nation was divided. Eleven states in the southern portion of the country seceded to form a new nation, the Confederate States of America. Determined to preserve the union, President Abraham Lincoln went to war against the rebel states and, ultimately, abolished slavery.

Before the war, Richmond was the capital of Virginia and one of the biggest cities in the south. It was the obvious choice for the capital of the new government, according to S. Waite Rawls III, president of the Museum of the Confederacy.

“Virginia was the most important state in the Confederacy, biggest population, most culture, and also the most industrial of the states in the south.”

Reminders of the past in a modern city

Today, Richmond is still Virginia’s capital. It has a population of more than 200,000 and is home to six Fortune 500 companies. Among the modern office buildings, there are plenty of reminders of its past.

The home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis has been restored as it was when he and his family lived here during the war. He and other leaders of the Confederacy are memorialized in monuments that dominate one of Richmond’s main boulevards.

At the Museum of the Confederacy, founded 25 years after the war to preserve the legacy of the failed nation, visitation is up about 50 percent due to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia (VOA - A. Greenbaum)

A lot of the people who come, says Rawls, are surprised at what they find. “A lot of people expect us to tell quote unquote ‘the Confederate side of the story.’ We try our best to present history in all of its nuance and complication here.”

A permanent exhibit is devoted to the Confederate military, with uniforms and weapons that belonged to generals like Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart. But changing displays explore other themes including, right now, life on the home front.

“During the war, 95 percent of all white men of military age went off into the army," says Rawls. "Who fed the country? How did the economy work? Most of that was on the backs of African-Americans both slave and free.”

Fifty years ago, you would not have seen such an exhibit here. For more than a century, in the South, the Civil War was referred to as the “lost cause.”

“In many ways, the defeat of the Confederacy was dressed up like victory," says Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and a historian who has written extensively on the war. "Giant statues put up everywhere, schools named for the heroes of the lost cause, and a lot of admiration for the way they had fought.”

What was usually omitted from the discussion was the real cause and result of the war.

"There is no doubt the South created a new nation, the Confederacy, in order to create a nation where slavery would be safe," Ayers says. "And, when that was ended, when emancipation came and the United States was unified, world history was changed.”

It changed, he says, because before emancipation, slavery played a vital role in the U.S. and world economy.

“Slavery was worth more than all of the railroads and factories and banks of the north combined, and slavery produced more than 60 percent of all American exports.”

According to Ayers, the north relied on the income that came from producing those exports, mainly cotton. France, England and other European nations were also dependent on the product of that slave labor.

Hidden history revealed

Before the war, Richmond was one of the largest slave trading centers in the United States. But that history was largely unknown by residents of the city today.

“I was very much astonished at the fact that right here in the Richmond area that all of this happened, this very historic and rich history, and we knew nothing about it,” says Virginia State Del. Delores McQuinn, whose great-grandfather was enslaved.

McQuinn led the campaign to bring that hidden history to light. Thanks to her efforts, Richmond now has a Slave Trail, with 17 historic markers to tell the story.

Slave Trail marker in Richmond, Virginia (VOA - A. Greenbaum)

Dedicated this April, it winds through the city from the banks of the James River, which carried slaves farther south, and past old buildings where slaves were auctioned. There are stops at the foundation of a jail where slaves were imprisoned and a cemetery where both enslaved and free African-Americans were interred.

McQuinn believes it is especially important for African-Americans, who make up about 50 percent of the city’s population, to know that history. For years, she says, they dreaded Civil War anniversaries in Richmond.

“There was one side of the story told. With the whole journey of us developing and unearthing the slave trail, now African-Americans feel like we were a part of this history, too.”

Ayers, who was a driving force to make the 150th commemoration of the war this year more inclusive, says Richmond is on the right track.

“It has taken us a long time to acknowledge the full humanity of this struggle, to recognize the role of women as well as men, and African Americans as well as of whites, but we are beginning to do so.”

Rawls agrees. “I think when we can announce a victory, is when - and we are getting to that point today - is when the story of Confederates and slaves can be told together at the same time, because their story is completely intertwined from a history point of view.”

Fifty years ago, he notes, the man who held his position as president of the Museum of the Confederacy would never have made such a statement. Richmond’s perspective on the Civil War has changed indeed.

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