Visiting Richmond’s New American Civil War Museum



Brand new American Civil War Museum, right next door to the National Park Service’s Richmond Battlefield Park Visitor’s Center (building on the left), at Richmond’s historic Tredegar Ironworks.

Back in May, I got to visit the new American Civil War Museum at the Tredegar Iron works. Like many of you, ever since it was announced the Museum of the Confederacy was joining forces and bringing their collection to the project, I’ve eagerly awaited the grand opening. So much so that I got there as soon as my teaching schedule allowed, which thankfully was only two weeks after they first opened the doors.

But really, I’ve been waiting even longer than that.  Fresh out of college I moved to Richmond in 1993 to get a masters degree at VCU and explore all of Virginia’s historic treasures. While the Commonwealth itself did not disappoint (and still doesn’t), I admit Richmond was a let down.

Monument Avenue’s Lost Cause statuary was impressive, of course, as was the White House and Museum of the Confederacy, and Hollywood Cemetery. But beyond that, the pickings were slim for a Civil War buff expecting a lot more, and wanting something that wasn’t steeped in the Lost Cause.


The Lee Statue on the famous (now infamous?) Monument Avenue.

Even the Richmond National Battlefield Park was a disappointment, with its very outdated exhibits at the site of Chimborazo Hospital (and a film focused on the plight of a middle class white Richmond family during the war), and only small bits of preserved battlefield lands scattered around the eastern suburbs with minimal interpretation—-and that interpretation mainly focused on the Confederate perspective.

It was not the Richmond of which I’d daydreamed.

Fortunately, that began to change just as I arrived. I volunteered and then got a summer seasonal job with the park service, and over the next 8 years got to witness exciting and near constant changes at the park, as a really great staff of historians got more funding, installed more interpretive signs and trails in the park, acquired more land (they now have dang near all of Malvern Hill and Glendale, and an ever increasing amount of Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor), restored historic landscapes, and created a beautiful, cutting-edge visitor’s center in one of the remaining buildings of the historic Tredegar Ironworks.

Just as I left the city to return to Alabama to work on a PhD with Dr. George Rable, Richmond itself got in the updating game, cleaning up and restoring the historic canal walk on the river, repurposing crumbling old warehouses into modern apartments, and cleaning up the surrounding areas around the James River. Then the American Civil War Center opened up next door to the NPS visitor’s center at Tredegar.

The city had become much more of what I envisioned before going there, including now even a monument commemorating Lincoln’s triumphant visit to the city with his son just as the Capital of the Confederacy fell to Union forces.


Tad & his dad in Richmond

Monument Avenue still lingers, but more inclusive stories are being told, with less Lost Cause distortions. There’s even interpretation of Richmond’s slave pens and markets.

And yet, something has still seemed missing. While the NPS center at Tredegar is great, it appropriately focuses on Richmond and the battlefields, and while their neighbor, the American Civil War Center, was telling a comprehensive story of the war in general, it was heavy on interpretation and light on relics.

Thus when it was announced that the museum was spending around 25 million to build a new, high tech, 28,500 square facility (much of it underground) in and around the Tredegar site, and that they would be incorporating relics from the Museum of the Confederacy, excitement was high that Richmond would now become THE premiere place for Civil War public history interpretation (as it should be).

So, does the museum live up to the high expectations and hype?

Well, yes, and no. Let’s just say this, it has enormous potential.


Just inside the front doors.

First off, after walking through its beautiful entrance and lobby that encloses Tredegar ruins that were long exposed to the elements, and then past visually stunning enlargements of colorized war-time photographs (featuring a diverse cast of wartime faces), I was ready for an amazing visit.

Because of poor signage, however, it was difficult to figure out which door to walk into for the main exhibit gallery. I started to go in the “out” door, as did many others that I observed. That should be an easy fix though.


Gallery entrance.

Once inside, I was surprised by how small the permanent exhibit space actually is. Having recently visited the two new Revolutionary War museums in Philadelphia and in Yorktown, I was perhaps expecting too much, as those facilities are huge and nicely spread out. This one takes you from 1861-1865 at comparatively warp speed.

Further, there was curiously little interpretation of the causes of the war, which was contrary to everything I expected considering all the hype about taking the war away from Lost Cause interpretation.

But here is the main problem: the museum is making great effort to tell a more inclusive and diverse narrative of the war, and the written interpretation does so. But the artifacts they have now are just not yet helping them tell that story.


Solid interpretation. But unfortunately, few of the relics help tell this story

Yes, you won’t find many Civil War museums with an audio and visual presentation telling the story of an enslaved girl that was brutally whipped for allegedly poisoning her owner, or that displays slave shackles, or that interprets the post-war years by featuring a Reconstruction era KKK hood and garment.


Not exactly a common site in a Civil war museum, though it should be.

The African American story, as well as the Union story, are both featured throughout the exhibits. There is also homefront and gendered history, but with few exceptions (like the ones just mentioned) the artifacts packed behind the glass cases are overwhelmingly the treasures from the old Museum of the Confederacy.

But Oh! What a collection it is! I won’t spoil it for you by naming too much, but you’ll be stunned at the personal wartime possessions on display that were owned by the pantheon of Confederate luminaries, from Jefferson Davis, to Lee, to Stonewall, to Jeb Stuart. (You know, all those dudes out there on Monument Avenue.)

Of course all this was on display at the old Museum of the Confederacy, but it makes it no less amazing to see them again, especially in this more inclusive context and in the new digs.  You’ll find yourself staring in awe at such things, seemingly tucked away in the corners.


This display, for example, is a Stonewall Jackson fan’s dream come true.

Here’s a big tip: DO NOT rush through this museum. Read EVERY description of EVERY relic. What they have will blow your mind. Just one small example: the sword Lewis Armistead used to urge rebel soldiers forward into Union lines just as he was mortally wounded during “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg. But you’ll miss it and other jaw-dropping possessions if you aren’t paying attention.

And yet, as amazing as these things are, they are just not helping the museum to tell the story it strives to tell.

The battles themselves get shunted away to high tech electronic video boards that visitors can interact with, which is fine, I’d rather see visitors get out to the battlefields themselves if that is what they are looking for. But theoretically that means the museum should be focused on social and cultural history, and most of the interpretation is, but yet the most attention-grabbing relics are largely battle-related accouterment from southern soldiers and officers.

My guess is that the museum’s folks are aware of this problem, and that the acquisition of other relics must become their number one goal now that the space has been constructed and the doors open. (I hope they are aware of this auction, for example).  Having such stunning possessions from Lee, Jackson, and et. al, makes it all the more glaring that there is essentially nothing from Grant, Sherman, and Lincoln or etc. on display. What few Union relics are on display are related to POWs that were penned in Richmond’s warehouse prisons.

How nice would it be, for instance, to juxtapose the relics of Robert E. Lee, with those of Union General George Henry Thomas, contrasting the two Virginians and drawing attention to a southern white man that unlike Lee, refused to break his vow to the U.S. military to fight the constitution’s enemies, “both foreign and domestic.”

And there are precious fewer artifacts telling the African American perspective on the war. Don’t expect to see many rifles or other possessions carried by the USCTs that were among the city’s first liberators, for example. If you saw Harriet Tubman’s shawl at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, or Nat Turner’s bible there, you won’t find similar items here, despite the fact that the museum’s objectives and narrative would make those types of relics a perfect fit.

I really don’t want this to sound like a negative review, however. There is so much room for growth in this facility. Over time, I have no doubt that future acquisitions and perhaps loaned items will help the American Civil War Museum tell the story it is telling.

And I especially do not want to discourage anyone from visiting the museum in its current incarnation. On the contrary, go now and ASAP. I promise you will be awed by the facility’s location, design, and the amazing relics on display. And you’ll be impressed by its interpretation.

Let’s please give the American Civil War Museum all the support, encouragement, and positive “word-of-mouth” we can, as they are trying to tell important stories that will move Richmond, and us, even more away from the Lost Cause.


Yes, that’s a rebel flag, but it is one that Tad Lincoln took home with him as a trophy after he and his father visited Richmond. How cool is that? Now THAT is the perfect context for displaying that thing.


On NPS Visitation & that Wall Street Journal article

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So, two weeks ago I was interviewed by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal doing a story on National Park Service visitation at Civil War battlefield sites. As you may know, I was a long-time seasonal ranger for the NPS, and my “former” status means I can talk freely with the press—something that current rangers can’t readily do.

Anyway, the premise of the article, as presented to me, was that in light of declining numbers, what should/could the NPS do to generate more interest in the parks?

During the phone interview, I gave the reporter a little bit of background, explaining that park visitation has spikes and subsequent declines, usually associated with cultural and pop-cultural events—the centennial celebrations in the early 60s, the popularity of Ken Burn’s Civil War series in the 80s, and the release of movies like 1989’s Glory and 1993’s Gettysburg, for examples.

Unfortunately, those spikes came at a time when the park service was still a bit stuck in the rut of “who shot who, and where” interpretation. Further, I theorized that because most of the Civil War parks are in the South, a lot of that surge was from southern whites.

Sadly, for varied and complex reasons, African Americans have been rare visitors to the park battlefield sites, I told the reporter,  not the least of which is because of the legacy of Jim Crow, as public parks in the South have not exactly been seen as welcoming to blacks. That problem persists—-if your parents didn’t take you to the parks, you’re not very likely to take your own kids.

gen-stonewall-jackson-1a.jpgAfrican Americans have also been largely excluded from the narratives told at these sites as well. When they did show up, they faced monuments making the defenders of slavery look like superheroes.

So, I theorized, the “base” (though far from all) of the visitation surges has been white southerners looking to the parks for narratives about where their ancestors fought and where they did sacrificial and glorious deeds.

However, since about the mid 90s, I told the reporter, the NPS has made efforts to broaden the narratives at the parks, telling more inclusive stories and focusing on more than just old school military history. Social, cultural, and political history has slowly but surely begun to be reflected in NPS interpretation, telling richer and more diverse stories that shed light on the war’s causes, contingencies, and enduring legacies. We’re just now reaching a flowering of this at NPS sites, but there’s still a long way to go, especially at those sites down here in the deep south.

The downside, however, is that these changes have been off-putting to many in that “base” of white southerners, who don’t want to come to the parks and be exposed to what they see as the national government’s (the winners) version of the story.

It is uncomfortable and upsetting to them to be told and/or reminded that great, great, grandpa fought for a government founded for the direct purpose of preserving slavery, or that the post-war activities of their ancestors tended to celebrate and rewrite the Confederacy’s struggle and purpose, as a means of recreating and perpetuating slavery and racial barriers in other forms.

8185141_g.jpg“No!” They insist, “States Rights! Heritage, not hate!”

That, I told the reporter, probably helps to explain (to at least some degree) why the numbers are currently down at NPS sites after the surge in the 80s and early 90s. These people are more comfortable visiting privately or locally owned Antebellum homes and sites that tell the story they want to hear—or just staying away from history sites altogether. The current debate over Confederate symbols has only exacerbated this dynamic.

I’ve seen proof of this in two ways recently. While visiting a locally funded battlefield site in North Carolina, I encountered a visitor’s center staffed by a man spewing the Lost Cause, chapter and verse, and criticizing those parks funded by state and federal money “because they want to make everything about slavery.” Secondly, just yesterday I saw a Facebook post in response to the Wall Street Journal article in which the writer declared he’d stopped going to parks “because the liberal academics have re-written the story.” Others shared similar sentiments, but with more vitriol.

So then, what is the solution? Should the parks abandon their new emphasis on telling more honest and inclusive history in order to get this base back to the parks? Heaven forbid!

Instead, I speculated to the reporter, the focus needs to be on broadening the base of people that come to the Civil War battlefield parks. Youth programs need more support and emphasis. The use of technology to enhance the visitor experience must continue to expand (new and high tech museums and apps, etc). Park interpreters must hone their skills and energetically look at different techniques for presenting more engaging tours.  Social media must continue to be utilized (and perhaps traditional advertising) to demonstrate the expanding focus of the parks’ interpretations.

And, I told the reporter, we need NEW monuments and memorials on the battlefields and elsewhere, that celebrate and honor the efforts of the extremely diverse cast of characters that shaped the war and its consequences.

Further, I speculated that we might be on the verge of another surge in visitation caused by pop-culture, as Spielberg and Dicaprio have a movie in the works about U.S. Grant, and other projects are coming (long overdue) that focus on Harriet Tubman and Robert SmallsTubmanMarkerPlantation_54_990x660.jpgThat so many history-related movies have done so well lately, is an indication to me that people are still fascinated and hungry to know more about the past. 

I concluded the interview with a very optimistic tone about the future of the parks, pointing out that I was at that moment sitting at an Antebellum site here in Tuscaloosa (not NPS) where there was an older white gentleman roaming around, but also several kids and two African American women, all of which were reading the interpretive signs.

Almost none of that made it into the article. I asked the reporter who else he’d interviewed, and he indicated he’d spoken with Peter Carmichael, Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. Knowing Pete well (we worked together long ago as seasonal rangers), I said “Oh! I bet he gave you some good stuff.” To which the reporter responded, “well, yeah sort of. He is also optimistic like you about the new technology.”

Pete’s interview didn’t even make it into the article.

I’m not sure why the reporter was focused on such a pessimistic assessment, but as a result the piece has gotten a lot of attention and spawned others with cynical tones, like this one, or this one from the right-wing The Federalist, both of which tie the problem to a decline in the teaching of history in public schools (an assertion that is debatable itself.)

There has also been some pushback from NPS folks. John Hennessy, National Park Service historian, for example, has done a great job on his Facebook page of challenging the very premise that the park’s numbers are down. (And personally, I think if the number of reenactments and reenactors are on the decline, that’s a good thing. But my thoughts on that are a whole other discussion). The awesome folks at Civil War Trails also assure us that “the known and recent stats are encouraging.”

I think we would be better served by articles from such high profile platforms like the Wall Street Journal focusing on the great strides the Park Service has taken and continues to take in broadening the stories they tell. A recent trip I took out to City Point, Virginia (Grant’s Headquarters during the last phase of the war), for example,  focused on the plantation there, its forms of slave resistance, and the very complex master/slave relationship there. Further, a recent trip out to South Carolina’s Fort Moutrie NPS site led to an encounter with this amazing interpretive sign:


Man, I love this interpretation, especially that it concludes on an positive note (the sign is not NPS, but it is on NPS land). The NPS visitor’s center there also included displays on the Middle Passage.

So instead of throwing dirt on the grave of NPS Civil War Battlefield sites and pondering their demise, let’s focus on the transitional phase they are in now and support and champion the fantastic historians and curators they employ that are getting the story right, (especially because they often receive blowback from visitors that resent it).

Let’s also highly resolve to dedicate ourselves to helping the NPS spread the word about their mission in a way that broadens the demographics of their visitation, getting those numbers surging again. Shall we?

What a week! Trump/Putin; Rubio vs Tillerson; Williamsburg drops the axe; Big week for the National Park Service & Public history; Obama’s last act is the history lesson we need


Wow, what a week. Like almost everyone, my head has been spinning by all these events and news stories. From Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech, to an incredible national championship game (congrats to Dabo), to the Russian/Trump bombshell, to Obama’s moving farewell address, to Trump’s attack on the press, to the dramatic confirmation hearings, to the news about all these new National Parks, its been mind boggling. 2017 is getting off to a heck of a start.  Couple the processing of all of that with the beginning of a new semester, and it has been difficult to get on here to post anything.

If we can divorce ourselves from the fact that it is all so scary, we have to acknowledge that from an historian’s point of view, watching all of this play out in real time is fascinating as heck. I still think that the Trump/Russian connection story is going to get bigger and has a chance of leading to impeachment. Now that we have the allegation out there that Trump was colluding with the Russians, and has been involved in covering it up, we are getting more Watergate-like. My sense is that just like then, more and more is going to slowly trickle out after inauguration until it becomes a flood. I really think the story has legs (case in point: this breaking story).  Of course this could change at any moment (which is the problem of trying to interpret current events in real time). But here is where we stand now.

As for the Trump press conference . . . much has been made about his attack on CNN and Buzzfeed, and justifiably so (although it allows the focus to drift away from the Russian story, which is probably what he was trying to accomplish all along). It is definitely a sign that as president he is going  try to control and suppress the press, which is scary.  We have also heard much about how his plan to divorce himself from his business interest is not at all satisfactory or even ethical. But one thing that I have not heard given enough attention was his statement that it would be a positive thing if he has a good relationship with Putin, because they could help us destroy ISIS, etc. Let’s get one thing straight—Putin is a “BAD HOMBRE” and a war criminal who has the blood of thousands of civilians and his political enemies (including journalists) on his hands. No Donald, it would not be a good thing if the American president got along with this thug. (And Sean Hannity, don’t talk to me about FDR and Stalin. The fact that you tried to make such a connection shows how little you know about WWII and the Cold War, and what a total moron you are).

Which is why I loved Marco Rubio’s drilling of Tillerson the other day during the confirmation hearings (if you didn’t see it, don’t miss watching it here. It was a thing of beauty). “Little Marco” was an attack dog bent on discussing Putin’s crimes against humanity, and was not letting Tillerson dodge the issue. Too bad that Rubio didn’t pursue this line of questioning against Trump during the campaign, or that the press didn’t do so when the president-elect went off on his little rant about how it would be a good thing if he got along with Putin. The ironic good news: Trump’s choice for Secretary of Defense understands that we should not be cozy with a war criminal, and, unlike the president-elect, understands the importance of NATO. Can we keep this guy and dump Trump? (Hmm, maybe).

But let’s move away from all that stuff for now and talk about the incredible public history news that came out this week.

First was some bad news. Colonial Williamsburg dropped a major bombshell early in the week when they laid off (without warning) somewhere between 45 and 75 members of the staff. Budget issues are the culprit, but strangely, the people impacted the most were in middle management, were some of their most senior staff, and were some of their most knowledgeable/professional historians. Obviously there is some restructuring going on, but one has to wonder why the axe fell hardest on this group. We all know that the CWF has made some questionable decisions lately, from an ice rink at Christmas to zombies and sea witches at Halloween, so I have to wonder if these historians were some of the most outspoken and pained by the direction that things have been going in there. I don’t know, I am just purely speculating. As for me, I was there over Christmas and had a great time as usual, and found the ice rink to be rather charming and not really an historical issue given that it it set up in a part of Duke of Gloucester Street that is not in the heart of the colonial area. Yet, in all my years of coming to Williamsburg, I did have my first encounter with an interpreter that was clearly very poorly trained and was not qualified to answer some pretty basic historical questions. That was disheartening. I really pray that this restructuring doesn’t mean we will increasingly see more of this.

But now the good news in public history!

Philadelphia’s soon-to-open Museum of the American Revolution is almost ready to open now that the building work is complete and all that remains is the setting up of the displays. This will be done by their opening in April, but in the meantime, we get a sneak peek inside the building, and it looks like it going to be a beautiful facility!

The site of the Civil War Battle of Ball’s Bluff has officially been given a massive expansion, from 76 acres to more than 3,300 acres on both sides of the Potomac River. This is a little known engagement that occurred early in the war, was a humiliating defeat for General George McClellan, and was one of the main catalysts for the creation of congress’ infamous Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. I have always been curious about this site, so I can’t wait to visit.

The National Park Service also announced the creation of the Harriet Tubman National Historic site in New York state, which includes her home in Fleming. The is the result of legislation worked through Congress by Senator Chuck Schumer. “(Tubman) is a true American hero,” he said at the announcement ceremony this week. “Because she didn’t just secure the blessings of liberty for herself, she risked her life to secure it for others and fought passionately to change her country to secure it for everyone. She gave of herself for others. That’s what it means to be an American hero.” Amen. With WGN’s Underground set to feature Tubman as a main character in the show’s second season (which premiers on March 8), this brave woman is only going to continue to grow in fame. Visitation will likely be brisk!

As I am sure you are aware, as one of his last acts as president, Obama created the first National Park Service site dedicated to Reconstruction. The new park will be around Beaufort, South Carolina, in an area that was at the center of the first efforts at Reconstruction, actually commencing there very early in the war. This is good news, and has justifiably been praised in the historical community, especially because it happened relatively quickly and was the result of the efforts of historians like Kate Masur and Greg Downs. Still, I have mixed feelings about it. Don’t get me wrong, I strongly support the efforts of the Park Service to tell the story of Reconstruction to the larger public, given that it is largely misunderstood, filled with inaccurate legends, and immensely important for understanding the legal, political, and cultural race problems in our country to this very day. It is just that I am a big believer that NPS funds should be spent helping preexisting sites within the park service start to more effectively interpret Reconstruction. Almost every Antebellum/plantation site and/or Civil War site that we have should already be telling this story. Beaufort is a great idea, but hopefully we won’t stop there.

And lastly, and dearest to my heart: Obama also designated sites in Alabama as National Monuments, which will allow the Civil Rights sights in Anniston and especially in my hometown of Birmingham, to get the National Park Service treatment. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has long had an impressive museum, and it sits across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church (where the 1963 marches were organized and which was infamously bombed, killing four children) and Kelly Ingram Park (where the brave young marches were most visibly hammered by fire hoses). Around the corner is the AG Gaston Motel, where the movement’s organizers worked out details,  and which was built as a luxury hotel for African American visitors to Birmingham during the segregation era (Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, Harry Belafonte and Count Basie were all guests at different times). Further, there are already walking trails and interpretive signs in the city that detail the 1963 marches and police clashes that were an immediate impetus for JFK’s proposal of the monumentally important Civil Rights Act. Now, all these sites will become part of the National Park System, ensuring top notch interpretation and preservation, and will help to draw “heritage tourism” to the city. I am super excited about this.

With all these new sites, it should be yet another reminder to history departments across the country (which continue to see a sharp drop in history majors) that we need to start focusing on preparing students for careers in public history, and not just academic careers in which there is an ever-dwindling amount of jobs available.

But back to those new Civil Rights sites: In an age in which our next president is more than likely about to spawn many large protest demonstrations and rallies (starting right on inauguration day), it is all the more important for us to recall the role that such incidences of civil unrest, resistance, and protests have played in forcing our nation to live up to and expand its ideals of equality. Condemned by a large number of Americans at the time as whiners,  thugs, communists and criminals, the efforts and battlefields of the brave civil rights protestors are now being enshrined and preserved by the National Park Service as monuments of America’s democracy.  In his farewell address, Obama once again affirmed his belief that our arc of history still bends toward justice, despite our regressive moments. As his last acts in office, his creation of these sites is perhaps the perfect ending to his presidency, because they provide exactly the history lesson we need as we head into the Trump years.

Preserving sacred land in Virginia, but not in North Dakota; Yorktown’s New American Revolution museum; Miranda on Drunk History; A Civil War comedy?

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More great National Park Service news: The other day we learned about the impending creation of a Civil Rights National Monument in Birmingham, as well as the potential saving of almost all of the Malvern Hill Battlefield in Virginia. Now, we learn that a bill that has long been in the works is close to approval that would triple the size of the Petersburg National Battlefield, making it the largest Civil War park in the nation. Virginia’s senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have been working on this for a long while, picking up where others before them left off.

And yet while we are protecting all this land that has been deemed sacred to U.S. history, the protests continue in North Dakota to preserve land sacred to Native Americans. Now we get news that some 2,000 US military veterans are starting to arrive at the Standing Rock site, dedicated to creating a human wall around the protestors to protect them in the event of a forced removal (just think of the historical ironies of that for a second). North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple has ordered the protestors to leave, though noting that force would not be used to make them comply. Hiding behind feigned concern for the protestors (which reminds one of actions taken by certain officials during the Civil Rights movement), he insists that the order is meant to protect them from some rapidly approaching severe winter weather. I love the response of the Standing Rock Sioux to the governor. In a statement on Wednesday, they said that because “the Governor of North Dakota and Sheriff of Morton County are relative newcomers” to the land, “it is understandable they would be concerned about severe winter weather.” Further, the Great Sioux Nation has survived “in this region for millennia without the concerns of state or county governments.” Nice. Let’s hope this situation does not get any uglier, but with the veterans arriving, I think it is quickly reaching a boiling point. Our nation does have a history of dealing harshly with protestors like this (even when they include veterans), and I fear for what kinds of things can happen in Trump’s America. (Too bad that North Dakota does not seem to be represented by men like Warner and Kaine).

And while we are on Standing Rock, I highly encourage you to take he time to read the blog post of Wisconsin basketball player Bronson Koenig about his experiences at the protest site, his recent delvings into Native American history, and the impact it all has had on his ongoing personal self discovery.  It is a great read that will take you much deeper into what is going on out there than we see in the headlines.

Well we know about the new American Revolution museum soon opening in Philadelphia, but there is also a new one already open in Yorktown, Virginia. According to the Virginia Gazette, the new facility is heavy on technology designed to draw visitors into an immersive experience (and includes battle simulation games). “You never want to do technology just to do technology,” one of the institution’s media managers said. “So we didn’t just do something because it looked cool or because it was a big wow, but rather, does it present the content in the way that is going to mean the most to the visitor who’s interacting with it?” As a result, the new $50 million museum has 22,000-square-foot gallery that, in addition to 500 artifacts, contains four film experiences, six computer interactives, projections, audio wands and more. I’ll be in the area in just a few weeks, so I can’t wait to drop by and see the new place. I’ll let you know what I think! Stay tuned.

Did you catch Lin-Manuel Miranda on Drunk History the other night? It was pretty funny, although I think it did not completely live up to the hype. It was most successful at painting the lead up to the Hamilton/Burr duel as all very high school-ish (if that is possible), but clearly Miranda knows Hamilton’s story so well that he can tell it pretty adeptly even while drunk. That mutes the comedic aspects of the show, though Drunk History was able to compensate for it pretty well with their always hilarious renditions of the story-teller’s words. If you missed it, you can watch it here at the Comedy Central website. (You’ll need to sign in by using your cable/satellite account info). I love that Miranda concludes by noting that although he was killed by Burr, Hamilton won in the end because someone eventually made an amazing Broadway show about how great he was. Indeed!

Looking for a good history movie on Netflix? How about a Civil War comedy? Not sure how it is possible to make a good comedy out of such a tragic event, but over on Civil War Pop, Christian McWhirter lets us know that an independent film called Men Go to Battle somewhat pulls it off, and manages to be historically accurate. I think I’ll check it out.

And while we’re back on the Civil War: there is apparently a new mini-series set to air in a couple of weeks called Blood and Fury: America’s Civil War. The rather hyperbolic title of the show does not inspire much confidence that this thing will be any good, nor does its description that tells us that the “war’s most significant battles” were “Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettsyburg, Nashville, and Petersburg.” What, no Vicksburg? How does Fredericksburg make that list but not Vicksburg? Or Atlanta, for that matter? I’ll try not to pre-judge though, so lets see how this thing turns out. It premieres Dec 14 on The American Heroes Channel.  (What the heck is that? I’ll have to check to see if I even have that!)

The Hamilton electors; Preserving Malvern Hill Battlefield; Black history tourism and a National Monument for Birmingham; Miranda on Drunk History TONIGHT!

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Hopefully by now you have heard about the so-called “Hamilton Electors,” a group of electoral college members that are trying to sway other members into denying Trump the presidency. Citing Alexander Hamilton’s explanation of the electoral college, they argue that the institution was created for just this very purpose—to protect us from having an unqualified demagogue that swayed the masses from actually obtaining the presidency. “We honor Alexander Hamilton’s vision,” their new website proclaims, “that the Electoral College should, when necessary, act as a Constitutional failsafe against those lacking the qualifications from becoming President. In 2016 we’re dedicated to putting political parties aside and putting America first.” I believe they are correct in their interpretation, at least in how Hamilton explained it in the Federalist Papers, and I love that they have invoked his name for their cause (which is all the more apropos given Trump’s ridiculous feud with the Broadway cast of Hamilton. Oh, and did you see that they just broke a box office record?). The movement seems to be slowly growing among the electors.  Will it work? Doubtful, but at the very least it sure would be interesting to see them get this thing thrown into the House of Representatives and then to watch and see what House Republicans would do. I’ve seen commentators (like here in The Atlantic,  and from the opposite end of the political spectrum,  The American Conservative) argue that there is no way they can (or should) be able to get electors to switch their vote to Clinton because she won the popular vote. Yet while that is what some petitioners are going for,  that is not what the Hamilton Electors are trying to do. They are very aware that the only hope is to convince Republican and Democrat electors to support a compromise Republican candidate. Of course this would send the country into even more chaos, but there is a viable scenario where this could happen (although it is more likely that they could get it thrown into the House by denying Trump the 270 he needs to win). There is historical precedence for “rogue electors,” as the mayor of Charlottesville, Va., Michael Signer, points out in his interesting and somewhat persuasive post for Vox, calling on us to “make the Electoral College great again.” Frustrated by the election results, many people have called for an end to the electoral college (and Trump supporters were doing so before the election), so wouldn’t it be ironic if in the end it became the thing that denied a Trump presidency? The chances are slim, especially because an elector revolt would likely create some major legal battles, but if this year has shown us anything, it is that anything is possible. Right? At the very least, a revolt of the electors might create the groundswell of public opinion needed to finally do away with the Electoral College altogether.

The Hamilton Electors have created a nice succinct video to explain and support their cause:

Oh, and then there is this guy: an elector from Texas has decided to resign his position rather than vote for Trump. Doing so, he insists, would “bring dishonor to God.”

Here is the best history news I have heard for a while: a deal is in the works that would result in the protection of about 90-95% of the Malvern Hill battlefield in Virginia. Hurrah! My beloved Richmond National Battlefield Park would then be able to ensure that the site (which is almost untouched by modern development) would stay that way. Anyone that has been to the site can testify to what a special place it is, so this is great news. I have a strong personal connection to it, as I have given many tours there , including one that helped inspire my book.

Great to see this National Park Service news too: As the overwhelming crowds at the Smithsonian‘s new museum reveal, there is a growing interest in the African American aspects of United States history.  As a Birmingham, Alabama, native, I am proud to see that President Obama is set to turn areas of downtown into a “national monument.” These sites were central to the 1963 protests that played a pivotal role in pushing JFK into proposing the Civil Rights Act. Legislation to turn these areas into a National Park is now stalled in congressional committee, but in the meantime, the NPS treats “monuments,” and “parks” pretty much the same. I was a young man in college in the early 90s when the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute first opened a museum and began interpreting the sites, so it is really amazing and exciting to see the area on the verge of getting the NPS treatment.

Related to that is this story from the Washington Post about the growing interest in touring sites related to black history. The article focuses on a new company in Alexandria, Virginia called “Manumission Tours,” and I for one am really interested in taking one of their tours next time I am in the area. While these types of historical tours and sites are growing rapidly in number (that new Nat Turner trail can’t get here fast enough), and other historical sites are increasingly adding black history to their interpretations, I hope we do not begin to pigeonhole these places as “African American” sites. These are US history sites that are relevant to us all and tell the story of America. Period.

Lastly for today, don’t forget that TONIGHT is the premiere of the Drunk History episode featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda’s drunken telling of the Hamilton/Burr story. Set your DVRs!

PBS’s documentary on Hamilton (the musical), the value of historic sites, and being a Hamiltonian when Hamilton wasn’t cool


I finally got around to watching that PBS documentary on the making of Broadway’s Hamilton (which premiered last week to an audience of 3.6 million viewers), so I thought I would share a few thoughts on it. When I first started teaching back in the late 1990s, I was at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond. Most of my students were Virginia natives and had grown up with teachers that loved Thomas Jefferson and vilified Alexander Hamilton. They almost always expressed some surprise when I complicated that picture by giving a more sympathetic depiction of Hamilton, and, in fact, I embraced a more Hamiltonian point of view when discussing the Early Republic. I took great glee in this, as it not only got students to see that history is contested, but also because I was (and am) an avowed Hamilton fan.

When I moved back to my home state of Alabama for grad school and also began teaching here, I found much less resistance from students that had not grown up in the shadow of Monticello. But what I did find was graduate courses with the eminent historian Forrest McDonald, and he was obviously a fervent defender of Hamilton. I came to appreciate the least-celebrated of the Founders even more, and over the years have engaged in debates with fellow grad students and now colleagues over the whole Jefferson/Hamilton divide (which are all the more fun in casual conversations).  My undergrad courses in US History to 1877 have always incorporated that division in some way in the final exam, with students always pretty much aware of where I stand. So yes, what I am trying to point out is that I was Hamiltonian when Hamilton wasn’t cool.

But now he is cool.  Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical (which was inspired by Ron Chernow’s exhaustive and exhausting biography), Hamilton is now the hippest of all the Founders and Jefferson is the villain of the story. The PBS documentary does an exceptional job of showing the very personal reasons why Miranda became obsessed with Hamilton, and gives some interesting insights into the process of writing a musical. The generous helpings of performance clips were also mesmerizing (especially for someone that has not seen the show yet), and offered a broad outline of how the musical translates the main events of Hamilton’s life for the stage. Along the way, the documentary provides commentary from cast members (including Miranda himself), celebrities and politicians (including Jimmy Fallon, who admits that he had barely even heard of Hamilton before seeing the show, and George W. Bush–strangely enough),  but also from several nicely chosen historians. The result is a pretty good mini-biography of Alexander Hamilton which offers a sympathetic rendering of his life.

It also indirectly promotes historic tourism.  I loved that the documentary featured scenes of cast members visiting historic sites associated with Alexander and Elizabeth Hamilton’s lives (as well as George Washington’s), as they learned from museum curators, historic home tour guides, and National Park Service rangers. The experiences were clearly inspirational for the cast members (especially for Miranda and Christopher Jackson–who portrays Washington in the musical) and helped them to feel more connected to their roles.  As a big believer in the value of historic sites as teaching tools, I am hopeful that the many people that have fallen in love with the musical might be inspired by the documentary to seek out these sites, and from there begin to look for other historic sites around them and while traveling.

And yet, even as a Hamilton fan, I was a little annoyed by the hero-making aspects of both the musical and the documentary. Jefferson’s objections to Hamilton’s policies and character definitely do not get much treatment, and this is despite the fact that Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed was one of the documentary’s talking heads. I’m more than certain that she offered her interviewers commentary that provided a more complicated view of both Jefferson and Hamilton, but most of it must have been left on the proverbial cutting room floor. I won’t complain too much about this, but it does leave me wondering if the pop cultural power of the musical (which will soon be traveling the country and will no doubt eventually get turned into a movie) will soon have such an impact that future teachers will find students are stunned when they offer a sympathetic treatment of Jefferson!

Bottom line: if you have it recorded or want to stream it online (which you can do with the link below), be sure to catch the documentary. It will make you hunger to see the musical and inspire you while watching Miranda’s passion and his creative process (He is a very interesting artist). It also provides a nice little history lesson, although not a very objective one.

I guess I will just have to accept that being a Hamilton fan no longer places me in an exclusive club.

Using “enslaved people” instead of “slaves”& those folks that yell about “political correctness”; New African American History Museum’s intriguing cuisine; In defense of Broadway’s Hamilton; Jimmy Stewart’s Civil War

I am always interested in hearing about the frontline experiences of folks that work as public historians, and I have yet to find a better blog from one of them than that of Nick Sacco. As many of you probably know, the term “slave” has come into disfavor lately, as many argue that it takes away the basic humanity of the peculiar institution’s victims. Using the adjective “enslaved” when discussing these individuals restores their humanity and more accurately conveys that slave status was something forced upon them, not something that was inherit to their humanity. While still using “slave” from time-to-time for the sake of avoiding repetitiveness, I’ve tried to use “enslaved” more frequently in my writing and lectures than in the past, because I believe the argument for its use is very valid. Today on his blog, Nick discusses his use of the word while on the job at a public history site. Most people seem to be welcoming of it (or just keep their dissent to themselves), but he has gotten some blow-back from the type of folks that are prone to yelling about “political correctness” whenever efforts are made to make our history more honest/culturally diverse. As a former park ranger, I know these people well, and as Nick so accurately puts it, their protestations are usually the product of “personal sensitivity, anger, and defensiveness,” which is all the more ironic because those are the very things for which they criticize the “PC crowd.” These are the same people that recently got mad about the decision to put Harriet Tubman on our currency, and yelled about Michele Obama’s daring to mention that the White House was built by slaves. We often hear these folks complain about how people are too sensitive these days and need to stop being offended by everything. Yet, if they are offended by inclusive language and more honest and culturally diverse history, one has to wonder who the overly-sensitive people truly are.

As if I were not already excited enough about the soon-to-open African American History Museum in DC: the cafeteria at the new Smithsonian will be a delicious learning experience of its own, highlighting the role that African Americans have played in the development of American cuisine. Time reports that the cafeteria “is divided geographically, with stations carrying cuisine from the agricultural south, the Creole coast, the northern states and the western range. Each station’s entrées speak to the particular flavors of the region, from the Caribbean-style pepperpot and oyster pan roast to fried catfish po’boy and shrimp and grits.” Oh man, get out of my way.

And speaking of the new museum: The Washington Post has a really good essay from Ken Burns today in which he argues that the new African American history museum “belongs to all of us.” In making his point, he nicely digs a bit into the history of jazz and of baseball, concluding “that we must recognize that the greatest accomplishments of a people have a direct correlation to the life experiences of many, many others.”

I missed this one a few days ago: We’re History has a piece by PhD student Michael McLean in which he defends the Broadway musical Hamilton from the attacks it has received from a few notable historians. I’m a fan of our first treasury secretary, so I’m prone to seeing the author’s point of view, but I think he makes a good case, especially when pointing out that despite its historical inaccuracies and glossings,  the musical confronts slavery in a much more honest way than previous pop cultural depictions of the revolution. (McClean also earns my affinity when he blasts that mess of a film, Mel Gibson’s The Patriot).

And speaking of pop culture: My buddy Christian McWhirter is back on his game over on Civil War Pop, as he dissects the classic James Stewart film, Shenandoah. The movie feels a bit dated now, but, as McWhirter points out, when it came out in 1965 in was actually pretty progressive for its time (in a few different ways). I’ve never been a big fan of the movie, but it is a lot better than other Civil War films prior to Glory, (and many of them after!), if for no other reason than that it acknowledged the Confederacy’s true cause and portrayed black Union soldiers. Oh no! American conservative icon Jimmy Stewart was hashing out leftist “politically correct” propaganda in 1965! Imagine that.

The NPS’s history of historical sites; History of humans and their dogs; U of Texas deals yet another blow to the Lost Cause

Happy 100 to the NPS!! (Be sure to go full screen when you watch this video!):

As a follow up to yesterday’s article from We’re History in which NPS ranger Benjamin T. Arrington discussed the founding of the NPS, today they have another essay by him in which he turns the focus on the agency’s preservation of historic sites. “Many more citizens learn history from rangers at national historic sites than from college history textbooks,” he notes. (Indeed, and there are still days when I wish I could put the uniform back on and lead a battlefield tour.) The National Park Service serves “as the nation’s storyteller,” and those stories become so much more powerful when you’re standing on the spot in which they happened. I said it before, and I’ll say it again, the parks are our best teaching tool.

August 26th is National Dog Day, and all you fellow dog lovers will enjoy this short piece from Time that provides a short history of how and why dogs became our pets. Researchers disagree about much of our history with dogs, but it seems that man and canines have been pals dating back to 15,000 years ago.  Did you know that 44% of US households have dogs? Nice.

Ah, another blow to the Lost Cause crowd: the University of Texas has decided to remove a large inscription on their campus that memorialized and praised the folks that fought for “states rights” by serving the Confederacy. The president decided that such a memorial was “inappropriate for our goal of diversity and inclusion on campus.”

Happy Birthday, NPS! (And thank you);Why the Smithsonian will display Emmett Till’s casket; the UDC is still in the education business; uncovering WWII aircraft carriers and a huge T-Rex skull!


This year the National Park Service has been celebrating its 100th anniversary, but tomorrow (Thursday) is the actual date of its creation. Over on We’re History, NPS historian Benjamin Todd Arrington has a good succinct history of the federal agency. While this is the 100th anniversary, he nicely shows that the history of America’s parks goes back further than that. (On a personal note: We all love our National Parks, and we history lovers can all attest to how special it is to be able to visit so many well preserved historical sites. There is something indefinably special about them, and I am a big believer that they are our best teaching tools. But those of us that have worked, or still work, for the NPS have an even deeper affection for it. Personally, it saved me from a miserable job at a bookstore chain, gave me my first job for which my undergraduate history degree prepared me, and then later saved me from having to substitute teach high school classes when I first started looking for teaching jobs. Many of the things that I researched and learned while working for the NPS helped to shape and inform my book. The agency played an enormous role in creating the historian that I am now, and I can’t even begin to express my sincere appreciation for the National Park Service). Happy 100!!!

We have seen many stories lately that have given us a preview of what to expect from the Smithsonian’s soon-to-open African American History Museum, but this one from the Washington Post really caught my attention. It focuses on the institution’s determination to not only be celebratory (there will be a lot of that), but to also not hide from the uglier parts of America’s history.  Founding director Lonnie G. Bunch remarked, “You couldn’t tell the story of the African American experience without wrestling with difficult issues, without creating those moments where people have to ponder the pain of slavery, segregation or racial violence.” As a result, visitors will encounter some objects that will be difficult to view, especially those connected to racial violence. I was stunned to learn, for example, that the museum houses Emmett Till’s casket—yes, the one his body was in when his mother shocked America by having an open casket funeral so that the world could see what was done to her child. Wow. Honestly, I’m not sure I could deal with seeing that and imagine that it will stir some very powerful emotions. Which is exactly what it and other displays will be designed to do. As such, there will also be a healthy dose of slave history, but I really appreciate what Bunch had to say about their slavery interpretations: “Slavery is this horribly painful moment,” he said, “but it is also a moment when people were strong and lived a life that many of us would emulate if we could in terms of trying to keep family together despite everything.” Amen. As you know, I wish that our current pop cultural depictions of slavery would focus on this fact more than they do. Can’t wait to visit this museum when it opens.

Call this next article the flip side to the story above, as well as to Vanderbilt’s decision to remove “Confederate” from the name of their memorial hall. As you know, the University is having to pay the Daughters of the Confederacy over a million dollars in order to change the name. Not sure how they will spend it, but if you think the UDC is no longer in the business of trying to educate our young, think again.

Out in the pacific, underwater researchers are using robotic subs to explore the WWII era aircraft carrier “Independence.” It not only saw action in the war, but was used in atomic blast experiments after the war. Be sure to check out the video that accompanies this story. 

Meanwhile, out in Montana, paleontologists have discovered one of the best preserved T-Rex skeletons ever found. But what has them really excited is the beast’s skull. It is one of the largest and best-preserved specimens ever dug up. Cool!