By Apple Lee
On October 11, Sewanee hosted Christy S. Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum, and S. Waite Rawls III, president of the American Civil War Museum Foundation, to provide insight on the nation’s first museum that explores the Civil War in multiple perspectives.
Before becoming CEO of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar––later the CEO of the American Civil War Museum––Coleman had no particular interest in the Civil War. When she visited a Civil War museum, however, she was impressed by the assembled people and was eager to learn more about the Civil War through readings.
Coleman first read James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, commenting, “While I was going through it, I was like, ‘I didn’t know that! What, what?’ and I was drawn in. From that moment on, I held every scholar, every conversation, and every visitor reaction to help improve upon the museum.”
The majority of people see no difference in this museum from other Civil War museums, but Coleman points towards their mission “of being the preeminent center for the exploration of the American Civil War in multiple perspectives: Union, Confederacy, men, women, soldiers, blacks, whites, enslaved, and free.”
She added, “We look within that multiple view of voices and stories that are often not heard before, and we accomplish that across the three locations: the White House of the Confederacy, our Historic Tredegar campus, and our Appomattox.”
Throughout the nation, this is the first museum that explores the war from different mindsets, and it took almost 150 years to form one.
With the Civil War being a fascinating period in American history, Rawls examines it through memoirs as proof of the great American experiment and democratic republic. Of course, the war can’t just be subjected to one viewpoint, for “if you look at the way people today normally look at the Civil War, one would look all military, the next person all economics, all home-front, or all political,” Rawls said. “But what we also find is that they’re inextricably intertwined and everybody is affected.”
With all subjects and views connected, people are pushed to not only care but to understand the war from all sides and keep the conversation open to those who were affected. Bringing up the subject of the American Civil Museum and its legacy, Coleman said, “we’re talking about multiple perspectives. Which is a different way of saying get a large group of people who think differently about something and engage them in civil discourse.”
While the majority of the students today consider may history boring, Coleman said that “they haven’t found their own voices within it. Whether you major in history or not isn’t the issue. The fact that you really began to understand what it can mean begins to impact all of your work.”
Coleman identified history as not for the dead, but as the story of humanity with ideas and lessons––not always good lessons––that help us understand one another. In Coleman’s words, “you can’t say you’re being diverse if you have everybody that thinks the same thing regardless of what they look like. That’s not diversity, that’s just shading.”