Time Traveling: The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War

  About 150 years ago, history teacher Ruth Johnson’s great, great grandfather arrived in the United States as one of the many three-hundred dollar soldiers joining the fray during the Civil War. On the boat from Europe, he met the young lady he would eventually fall in love with.

When they arrived in America, the two soul mates parted ways. She went to live with her family in Cincinnati, Ohio, and he went on to Philadelphia to join the Union army to take the place of a man that didn’t wish to fight for the North. He later relocated to Cincinnati where fate took over and he encountered his love once again.

“They were walking on opposite sides of the street along one of the main streets in Cincinnati and they saw each other again…” Johnson said.

Johnson explained that 13 kids and several generations later, she’s working to learn more about her great, great grandfather. Recently, she found his mustering out papers so she hopes that the government will place a tombstone on his unmarked grave.

Not every Civil War story is a love story, but the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission is working to document as many stories from across Virginia during its commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War as possible.  The commission was established in 2006 by the General Assembly of Virginia. The commission is responsible for five different projects within Virginia to commemorate the Civil War. These projects include An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia, which is a gallery exhibit and a panel exhibition; a history mobile; the Civil War 150 Legacy Project, which is a digitization project through the Library of Virginia; conferences travelling to universities across the state; and a Sesquicentennial DVD.

            The digitization project, according to Andy Talkov, the exhibition coordinator for Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial, is attempting to collect documents from across Virginia relating to the Civil War and emancipation. Talkov explained that the goal is to put these documents into a digital format and make them available to the public online.

“I think the thing that’s true about all of these projects is that the project goes to the people as opposed to the people having to come to the project,” Talkov pointed out.

He explained that the exhibit will be travelling to eight regionally diverse museums across the state so most Virginians over the next four years will only be about an hour away from the exhibit.

Dennis Bidwell, a resident of Morgantown, W.Va., came to Richmond for his eldest son’s wedding but he stopped by the Virginia Historical Society to look at the Civil War exhibit. He explained that he grew up in Michigan, so he learned the Union version of Civil War history.

Bidwell said he thought it was important to come to Richmond to see a different perspective on the war. He said that the exhibit made him realize the impact the Civil War had on the country.

The exhibit is divided into two sections, “Surveying War” and “Waging War,” according to Jennifer Guild, senior officer for public relations and marketing at the Virginia Historical Society.  Guild emphasizes that dividing the exhibit into two sections was the best way for the Virginia Historical Society to tell the story of women, enslaved African-Americans, and children who were just as much a part of the war as the men fighting on the front line.

Talkov explained that because the exhibit had to be modular so it could travel around the state, the commission chose to tell the story of the Civil War in a “thematic way.” He said that people usually come to a museum to see the material history or all the “stuff,” but the commission wanted to make the exhibit more about the people associated with the objects.

The commission, Talkov said, came up with criteria for choosing the objects that would be on display. He explained that the commission decided to only display an object if they had a photo or portrait to go with it. Talkov said the commission focused on connecting the objects to a person to tell that person’s story.                       

The watch on display in the exhibit belonged to Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who is best known as “Stonewall Jackson.” Talkov said that it is understood that “Stonewall Jackson” had a system where his troops would march for 50 minutes and then rest for 10 minutes.

Talkov explained that the exhibit is designed to make the audience think about Jackson’s use of the watch.

A Confederate uniform coat is one of the other objects on display in the exhibit. Talkov explained that most exhibits like this one would tell an audience about the man who wore the coat and all the battles he fought. Instead, the commission chose to tell the story of the women who made the uniforms.

Talkov said groups of women came to a Richmond clothing depot where they were given packets to produce the uniforms. The women would sew each stitch by hand and, upon returning the uniform, would receive a payment.

“In a way it’s kind of the Rosie the Riveter version of the Civil War,” Talkov said.

Instead of focusing completely on the men fighting in the Civil War, the commission wanted to bring light to the people on the home front, similar to the way the Rosie the Riveter icon brought attention to women during World War II.

Johnson said she greatly appreciated the fact that the exhibit didn’t tell the story of the Civil War battle by battle. As a former history teacher in Northern Kentucky, Johnson said she focused on the social and intellectual history of the Civil War when she taught. Johnson explained that she, too, focused more on the clothing, hair styles, jewelry, dance and other types of cultural norms when teaching, similar to the way the Virginia Historical Society told the story of the Civil War.

Guild explained that each section of the exhibit poses a question that is meant to get the audience thinking about the Civil War in a different way. The Virginia Historical Society is looking past the usual version of the Civil War to tell the stories of those people whose accounts are not often shared with the public.

Talkov emphasized that he and others on the commission wanted to show how African-Americans were claiming their freedom when the war began.

Unfortunately he, explained there isn’t much material evidence to depict the escape from slavery, so the commission used firsthand accounts to create a simulation. According to Guild, the simulation allows the audience to take on the role of an enslaved African-American on their journey to freedom.

Ultimately, the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission is working to create a better picture of the Civil War for Virginians through the exhibits, conferences, and the history mobile. By travelling around the state, the exhibits will reach a variety of areas that were affected by the Civil War in different ways, and will try to educate the public about the war through the stories unique to those areas.

The gallery exhibit will remain at the Virginia Historical Society until Dec. 30, when it will begin travelling to other parts of the state. In January, half of the exhibit will be on display in Hampton and the other half will be displayed in Winchester.

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