Reading this week:
- Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James
Look, loyal reader(s), I feel kinda bad. I feel like whenever I talk about an art museum, as I did just last week, I leave on a total downer about the injustices of the world. There are many injustices, and none should be glossed over, but still, I feel bad about leaving you on a downer. This week I shall try to do better with a subject that will lift all of us up: civil war.
As previewed in my Richmond post, one of the things my super amazing girlfriend and I did was visit the American Civil War Museum. I was worried. I was wary. I didn’t know what kind of museum we would find. Back when I lived in Charleston I visited Fort Sumter and look the museum didn’t go out of its way to paint slavery as all that unpleasant nor did it point out while The Citadel is very proud of the fact they fired the first shots in the Civil War (on the wrong side, to be clear) they really shouldn’t be. Jeez I hate The Citadel (look at that “War Between the States” bs). So being a Civil War Museum in the capital of the Confederacy, I didn’t quite know what to expect.
All that to say the American Civil War Museum was really good! I have a few quibbles. They bother to go into the whole “Lee couldn’t decide which side to fight on” thing, which as I have discussed here I think is absolutely a ludicrous way to frame a betrayal of your country in order to uphold the institution of slavery. There was also a concerning placard mentioning that Black soldiers fought on both sides of the war, but pleasingly they have a much more nuanced blog post about the issue. Though honestly it seems like the bedrock and raison d’etre of the ACWM is to house some really old food:
Of all the things in the museum this is the thing that stuck out to me the most, just the astonishingly high amount of old food on display. In the above photo, clockwise from top left we have: a piece of hardtack provided to Pvt. Thomas Penn (CS) upon his release from Point Lookout prison camp in 1865, a piece of bread given to a Confederate soldier when discharged from Fort Delaware in 1865 (along with bread plate wielded by Emily H. Booton), coffee beans (and sack) exchanged for tobacco by Lt. Joseph R. Taylor (CS) in 1863, and biscuits left over from the siege of Vicksburg in 1863. I suppose at some point you can’t get rid of this stuff and it makes you wonder how many old chunks of food they have not on display. How much of the museum’s budget is spent on climate control to keep this stuff from disintegrating? I mean probably not a big part but makes you think.
But back to the museum being good (besides as a sort of historical larder). They had a range of interesting (again, non-food) artifacts on display, like the pocket telegraph unit and telegraph wire above. Given the carnage and senseless bloodshed of the Civil War it is easy to forget how modern the whole affair was (I don’t know why carnage and senseless bloodshed makes that easy, now that I type that out). They also had on display a chunk of a balloon used for spotting over enemy lines. They tell a really good overall narrative of the Civil War and make sure to highlight plenty of the horrors and depravations it entailed. The path they had you wind through the exhibits wasn’t miles long so there was only so much of the story they could tell, but still it was pretty good. I appreciated that at the very end of the narrative portion of the museum they close out with the sign that reads “Did slavery end?” just to make sure you don’t walk out of there with the Civil War tied in a pretty little bow.
However, I thought the best part of the museum was actually upstairs. I think they’re temporary exhibits, but they had two very interesting sections on the war’s effect on U.S. money and monetary policy, and another section on the Confederacy’s foreign policy. The stuff on money was interesting because it is another avenue to explain how the Civil War impacts us even today (besides, like, the obvious). The section on the Confederacy’s foreign policy was even more important I think because it really puts a light on their ideology. For all the talk of them more or less just wanting to be left alone to treat Black people as something other than human, turns out they also wanted other people to betray the natural rights of those of African descent as well. It details how they searched for allies in Brazil and Spain and wanted to expand slavery back into Mexico and other Caribbean countries, and actively too. Tell you what man, good thing the right side one. And too bad we haven’t been more forceful in remembering that.