History grad students’ Civil War research will be on display at American Civil War Museum’s grand opening

When the new American Civil War Museum at Historic Tredegar officially opens its doors on Saturday, May 4, visitors will have an opportunity to check out new scholarly research conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University history graduate students about the Civil War and how it is remembered.
American Civil War Museum

As part of the class, Research Seminar in American History: The Civil War Era in History and Memory, students have undertaken historical research this semester related to Richmond’s Monument Avenue, the story of an enslaved woman who gave birth to seven children fathered by a Richmond slave trader, the impact of telegraph technology on the war, and more.

The students’ research will be displayed at the opening of the new 28,500-square-foot facility that features exhibits designed to engage visitors about the experiences of Union and Confederate soldiers and civilians, free and enslaved African Americans, and men and women. The students will be on hand to answer questions about their research between noon and 1 p.m. in the museum’s pavilion building.

“The museum not only showcases the latest scholarship from established historians and researchers about the Civil War era and its legacies, but also strongly believes in both showcasing and supporting the next generation of scholars,” said Stephanie Arduini, director of education and programs at the American Civil War Museum.

The VCU students’ scholarship is part of the museum’s efforts to partner with university faculty and students to provide them with an opportunity to work on real-world projects that use historical research and communication skills.

“These students all demonstrated that they thought creatively about our needs, researched the documents and images, and then persuasively communicated their content and connection to the theme,” Arduini said. “We were impressed with the results of their work.”

Civil War historian Kathryn Shively, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has served as a faculty adviser for the museum for several years and is teaching the research seminar.

The students’ research, she said, is in line with the museum’s goal of providing the public with a much broader, deeper and inclusive understanding of the Civil War.

“Too often in the past, people have viewed the Civil War as something for military buffs, for white men,” she said. “But you can’t understand Emancipation, you can’t understand why slavery ended in this country, unless you understand that it took the bloodshed of 750,000 people dying in order to achieve that. [Emancipation] was something that this country was not on the road to achieve, except it unfolded through various people’s actions during the Civil War.”

So the story of the Civil War has to be inclusive, Shively said. Otherwise, American history doesn’t make any sense.

“What the museum is really doing is good history and I’m excited for my students that they get to be a part of this,” she said. “It’s a historic moment when we start to value, as a society, the diversity that our country has and has always had. … My students get to be a part of that. And, I think, on this day, when all these people come flooding in, they’re going to feel exhilarated that they get to participate in this kind of good historical research.”

Monument Avenue: Past and present

One student, Jennifer Tennison, did research that addresses how public perception of monuments to Confederate figures on Richmond's Monument Avenue has changed from the civil rights era to modern day.

“In 1965, the city created a Monument Avenue Richmond City Planning Commission to make recommendations on preserving and making additions to the street,” Tennison said. “They recommended that seven additional monuments be added to the then existing five, continuing the theme of honoring the Confederacy. There was some outcry on this from prominent African Americans in Richmond, and the plan was obviously never executed, but it was something that had a lot of support, especially from Richmond's white residents.”

Fast forward to July 2018, when a similar Monument Avenue Commission, charged with the task of determining what to do with the Confederate monuments, put out its report recommending that Richmond add signage to explain their context and to remove the Jefferson Davis monument, viewing that as most representative of the Lost Cause.

“In only 53 years, the city's recommendations for what to do with Monument Avenue did a total 180,” Tennison said. “I thought this change was really interesting and wanted to investigate further. Overall, I found that due to the increasing political power of African Americans in Richmond since the civil rights era, African Americans were able to voice their opinions on the public landscape in a way that they were unable to do so previously.”

Tennison said she is excited to share her research at the museum’s grand opening.

“It’s a great opportunity,” she said. “I think it is so important to interact with the public on history, especially on a topic like Confederate monuments, which is so relevant to Richmond and the conversation on Civil War memory today. I can’t wait to hear what people will have to say about my research and especially what longtime residents of Richmond will be able to share about their experiences in witnessing changes to Monument Avenue over the years.”

Telecommunications during the war

Another student, Kyle Rogers, is conducting research on how the military application of the telegraph impacted Lincoln’s administration and the top generals directing the Union war effort. Rogers’ research paper for the class will also discuss the effect that those actors’ control of information through the telegraph had on the northern news media and public perception of the war effort.

“I found that, throughout the four years of the war, the telegraph was vital to the coordination of the U.S. military,” he said. “Generals in the field used it to relay orders to their subordinates and stay in contact across great distances and multiple fronts. For instance, while Ulysses S. Grant’s army was fighting Robert E. Lee’s in the Virginia wilderness during the 1864 Overland Campaign, the telegraph was the only way for Grant to keep track of his forces due to the lack of visibility. Grant also kept in touch over the telegraph with Gen. William T. Sherman, who was operating independently in Georgia during his ‘March to the Sea.’”

Union generals would telegraph daily reports to the War Department in Washington, and Lincoln spent countless hours in Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s telegraph office overseeing the war effort, Rogers said. 

“Lincoln was highly involved in the war and often offered advice and encouragement to his generals through the telegraph,” Rogers said. “In August 1864, at the beginning of Grant's Siege of Petersburg, Lincoln sent Grant this message: ‘I have seen your dispatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are [Petersburg]. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke.’ Probably my favorite telegram is Gen. William T. Sherman’s message to Lincoln on 22 December 1864, presenting the president with the captured city of Savannah, Georgia, as a ‘Christmas gift.’”

Rogers said he is both nervous and excited to share his findings at the museum’s opening.

“This will be my first time speaking about my research to a public audience, but I’m very passionate about this project and looking forward to sharing my conclusions,” he said. “Dr. Shively is pushing me and my classmates outside our comfort zones, but I’m grateful to her for it.”

Discussing history in a more engaging way

Yet another student, Mason Little, researched an enslaved woman, Corinna, who gave birth to seven children fathered by slave trader Silas Omohundro and helped him run his business.

“I had originally thought that a slave trader having a family with an enslaved woman, who was treated like a member of high society by [Omohundro], was an outlier in the equation of slave trader/enslaved person relations. However, after researching other slave traders for context, I have found this was a common pattern among Richmond slave traders,” Little said.

Corinna’s story, he said, is interesting with respect to the history of racial identities.

“Although her and her children were listed as enslaved in 1860, by 1870 they are listed as free whites and were living up north,” he said. “This iota of information served as proof to me how malleable racial identities could be in a post-emancipation world.”

The VCU students also contributed research for a project in which families visiting the museum will be able to check out backpacks that will serve as tools for conversation, exploration and some playful learning together in a way that complements the exhibits and historic buildings at Tredegar.

“Each pack will have items related to a universal human theme — community, friendship, leadership or innovation — possibly including replica primary source documents and images, picture books, replica artifacts to examine, and suggested conversation prompts and questions for families to discuss the history in age-appropriate, engaging and meaningful ways,” Arduini said.

“The VCU students identified some primary sources that they felt related to the provided themes, and even drafted some preliminary historical context and questions that our museum educators could use to create the final versions for backpacks,” she said. “We're still developing the packs and fleshing out their contents, but these documents and images that the students provided are excellent suggestions for consideration."

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