Richmond Virginia, the capital of the Confederate States of America, became famous in the summer of 2020 for protests and the decision to remove the Confederate Monuments. Despite this, Richmond still has a rich history worth exploring. I paid a visit to the White House of the Confederacy, part of the Civil War Museum properties in Richmond. I was nervous as to how the war and the home’s occupants may be romanticized, but what I found was a balanced mix of history about the home and a lesson in the realities of the Civil War and the legacy it carries today.
The Civil War Museum of Richmond has 3 properties. The biggest part of the museum is the Tredegar building, housed in a historical ironworks factory. The White House of the Confederacy is one of the properties that they own. In downtown Richmond, surrounded by the VCU hospital, it is a grey, yes, I said grey, house tucked in between the modern hustle and bustle of Richmond. To visit, you need to buy a timed entry ticket, which comes with a guided tour of the house. The tour starts in a room attached to the gift shop behind the house. Here you learn a bit about the history of the house, the original owners, and builders. Eventually, the house is owned by Louis Crenshaw who realizes that with the capital of the confederacy being in Richmond, he would be better served selling his home to the government, for them to lease to government officials. He convinced all his neighbors around to do it as well.
After that introductions, we are brought to the front of the house, where we learn a bit about the architecture, and how the house ends up in the hands of Jefferson Davis, what happens at the end of the war, and even how it turned into a meeting place for Major General Godfrey Weitzel and Abraham Lincoln as they tried to bring calm back to the city after it was taken by the Union army.
Inside we concentrate on the architecture and the design. The house is beautiful with much of the original furniture and decorations. Post war, much of the furniture was sold at auction, and ended up staying close to home in Virginia. When the Daughters of the Confederate in the early 1900s started the museum, many people still had the pieces and gladly donated them back to the museum. As you walk through, you learn about what each room was used for, and how the home would have been used in that time.
The bottom floor was one of the more surprising and interesting parts of the tour. Up until that point, the tour guide was fairly neutral in his storytelling. There was no glorification of the south, nor damning of the ideals it stood for. That changed in the basement. The Basement was an exhibit on what is called the “Lost Cause”. He started this tour by reading a portion of the Cornerstone Speech. It, in clear language, stated that the Confederacy was founded on the ideals that “the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition”. He talked about how, after the war, there was a desire to change the narrative and to glorify the “heroes” of the confederacy. The exhibit is on what was called the “lost cause”, and how the desire to change the narrative and continue the ideals has caused the systematic racism we continue to see today. After a year of devastating police murders, and four years of a president who encouraged racism, it was heartwarming to see in the heart of the south, people trying to do the right thing, and teach an important lesson of the past and how it led to where we are today. It bothered me a bit it was in the basement, but I am glad that they chose to bring this message, and I can see why leaving it to the end encourages more to come to listen, especially those who may not have listened in the past.
A few tips:
- In the age of COVID, know that masks are required to attend the tour. You need to have them both indoors and outside. Social distancing is encouraged but can be difficult at times inside.
- You will need to buy a timed entry ticket. They are limiting the number of people per tour, so if you want to attend, plan ahead.
- There are a lot of stairs. The stairs to enter the house are worn and uneven. The stairs inside the house can be narrow in places and are deep. My mother was recovering from surgery at the time, and she had a hard time with the stairs. The tour guide was incredibly patient, so if you are up to it, know they will wait for you.
- Flash photography is NOT allowed inside. One flash does the same damage to paintings and textiles as 1,000 days of sun.
As my mom and I left, we had a great conversation about what we just saw, and how we could more clearly see how the Lost Cause has helped shape what is going on today. I am always weary of seeing Civil War Sites in the south, but I am glad I went to see this one. It may have been started by the daughters of the confederacy, but today it is run by historians who are here to teach us the lessons of our past so we may learn from them and do better today.