Look Away, Dixieland

Richmond's Museum of the Confederacy Struggles to Survive


Dwarfed by high-rises, the 1818 White House of the Confederacy may be relocated.

Credit: Museum of the Confederacy

Almost broke and very controversial, Virginia's Museum of the Confederacy announced a new battle plan last month for staying relevant—and in business. Formed in the 1890s, in the last decade the Richmond-based museum has teetered toward financial collapse, endangering its research archive, artifact collection, and its home, the 1818 mansion known as the White House of the Confederacy. With an emergency room as a next-door neighbor, the museum, claiming that the downtown medical complex had made its location untenable for visitors, has begun floating a plan to build a satellite system of museums at the battlegrounds of Appomattox, Chancellorsville, Fort Monroe, and a fourth naval site near Hampton, Va.

"Moving some of the museum's collection—for example, [Robert E.] Lee's boots, tent, and sword—to Appomattox, there they would be appropriate and well displayed," says Nicholas Muller, former National Trust trustee. "This may be a clever plan." Muller led a review that told the beleaguered organization it had little time and room to maneuver if it wanted to survive.

What the museum's new plan fails to address is whether its continued existence will generate controversy. The organization that manages an historical monument of national interest to preservationists and a research archive of international importance is also a magnet for neo-confederates, a name that encompasses a diffuse set of associations sometimes labeled as hate groups.

Rear view of the White House of the Confederacy

Credit: Museum of the Confederacy

At the center of the museum is the neoclassical mansion Jefferson Davis resided in during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln famously toured the house with his son, Tad, after the fall of Richmond. When the city slated the house for destruction in 1889, wives, widows, and daughters of Confederate veterans first rallied to save the house and then made it a repository for each Confederate state's memorabilia. In each former Confederate state, efforts were spearheaded to archive and memorialize all aspects of the Confederacy. Both Robert E. Lee's daughter and Jefferson Davis's daughter approached donors as if the creation of an archive was the South's collective duty. Depositing family documents and artifacts in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, become a pilgrimage that many undertook. While the collection is a rich archive, making it the center of important historical research, the museum was, and is, perceived as a shrine for the Confederacy.

And here the controversy really begins.

As recently as 1999, the Museum of the Confederacy has been called neo-confederate, a label for those accused of encouraging a historical memory of the South that emphasizes a glory-and-honor interpretation of the Confederacy while de-emphasizing, if not denying, its association with slavery. While no one denies the historical importance of the White House and the museum's archive, the museum is a magnet for neo-confederates, who generally support the idea that succession was and is a viable political alternative.

At stake is more than an interpretation of American history. What the Confederate flag means in the contemporary cultural landscape is inextricably linked to a museum dedicated to the South's wartime history.

Princess Anne flag

Credit: Museum of the Confederacy

"The museum struggles with a legitimate exercise in preservation and an appropriate way of providing context and understanding of the Confederacy," says James Cobb, professor of Southern history at the University of Georgia and author of Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity. But the museum struggles, he adds, with a following of re-enactor types and League of the South types that want to give succession one more go.

"Despite [the museum's] intellectual soundness and appropriateness, you can't separate the Confederate flag from the fact the Ku Klux Klan waved it," Cobb says.

Whether a town would want the Confederate flag flying on its main street is a question that the museum's move has raised in one Virginia community. During the winter of 2007, Lexington, Va., (the home of Stonewall Jackson), began a public debate over hosting the museum. With its courthouse empty, the town and tourist board began courting the museum to relocate to its downtown. According to Ted Delaney, a resident of Lexington and a historian at Washington and Lee University, a group of people ran with the idea without consulting the black community.

"People don't even sense the extent of injury caused by the public exercise of enhancing tourism by inviting the museum," Delaney says. Several years ago, he He had spoken at a museum colloquium on Confederate monuments. When he told his audience that municipalities with a largely black population were not interested in maintaining memorials to Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan, he endured a backlash of comments.

While Lexington's black community stated it didn't want the Confederate flag on Main Street, Lexington offered its real estate and a tax exemption to the museum. Lexington's city councilor, Mimi Elrod, voted against the plan and spoke publicly of what the Confederate flag means today. "The Confederate flag equates with black oppression. It's even being waved at anti-gay events. It's not identified with causes I'd support." As a result of her public stance, "I got overwhelming, vicious hate mail."

Elrod learned from a news report that the city's offer had been refused.

Since 2004 the museum's executive director, S. Waite Rawls III, has been leading the organization from its old honor-and-glory mythology. He says its mission is "not to deny controversy, but to elevate it to honest learning. Our approach is that controversy should attract public intellectual interest." Otherwise, he adds: "you leave it to the nuts to have the public debate."

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