We came to Richmond, VA, to learn more about the Civil War. In addition to battle strategies, we wanted details about the lives of those engulfed by the conflict. Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy from 1861 to 1865, didn’t disappoint us. Through 2015 the Richmond region commemorates the 150th anniversaries of the American Civil War and Emancipation.
About 100 miles south of the Washington, D.C., Richmond, the symbol of the Confederacy, served as a major railroad and manufacturing hub. Its industrial jewel: Tredegar Iron Works on the banks of the James River. Established in 1837 to forge rail items, Tredegar grew into one of the U.S.’s largest foundries, producing cannon and more than 900 guns for U.S. forts from 1845 to 1860.
But when war broke out, Tredegar became a key resource as it was one of the few Confederate facilities capable of producing heavy cannon. Along with manufacturing armor plating for naval vessels, Tredegar rolled out 1099 cannon for the Confederacy between 1861-1865.
The Tredegar complex now serves as the Civil War Gateway Visitor’s Center. The red brick buildings house both the Richmond National Battlefield Park Civil War Visitor Center and the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. The Visitor Center, located in the factory’s Pattern building, displays some ammunition, maps and other artifacts.
Exhibits seem a bit sparse, but we liked the second floor children’s area, equipped with uniforms and period dresses for kids to try on, coloring sheets and books, including the American Girl series’ Addy’s World 1864, about a nine-year-old and her mother who escape from slavery to the North.
For us, besides obtaining a map to the area’s 13 preserved battlefields, the highlight was the 22-minute film on the Federal army’s two attempts on Richmond. In 1862 Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee in the Peninsula Campaign repelled Union forces. Richmond did not come under attack again until 1864 when General Ulysses Grant coordinated what turned into a 10 month siege that involved some 25 battles fought in the fields and woods south and east of Richmond.
When nearby Petersburg fell to Federal forces on April 2, 1865, Richmond residents knew the city would be conquered. Residents fled and the last Confederate troops set fire to warehouses. One week later, Lee surrendered to Grant in nearby Appomattox Court House and the war ended.
If the park center provides an outline of Richmond during the Civil War, the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar across the courtyard fills in the details. Allow several hours to browse this museum which interprets the war from three perspectives: Union, Confederate and African American. That’s what makes this museum so important.
Telling three stories simultaneously, however, leads to an almost overload of details. There are maps and an introductory film on the causes of the war (skip this if short on time). More interesting: the computer videos and the “banners,” floor to ceiling placards with photos, quotes and details on how the war shaped people’s lives.
Slavery was an economic essential to the south. In today’s dollars, we learned that the market value of slaves was nearly $3 billion, more than the value of the railroads. Former slaves, we discovered, abandoned by fleeing owners celebrated their freedom on farms in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Union forces recruited 5,000 African Americans to fight.
During the Civil War women worked for the first time outside of the home in factories. African Americans labored in hospitals, toiled as grave diggers and did the more dangerous jobs of loading powder cartridges.
When in Richmond, it’s also worth visiting the Museum and White House of the Confederacy. The facility doesn’t glorify the Confederacy; instead it presents artifacts and a historical perspective. The museum has mostly static displays of uniforms, medals, drums and other items.
Next door, the White House of the Confederacy served as the home and headquarters for Jefferson Davis. Many of the furnishings are original, making the mansion a wonderful example of mid-Victorian style. The guide’s details bring the mansion to life. When Jefferson Davis, Jr. was young, he used to shoot rocks out of a toy cannon he aimed at stick figures of Yankees. Kids even during the Civil War are kids, but they do echo their parents.