American Civil War History at the American Civil War Museum

The period of history called the American Civil War was a bloody period in the history of the United States, and the consequences of that war and the aftermath continue to have a hold in our society today.  To learn the lessons of that conflict, the American Civil War Museum has created an interesting and powerful space to teach in a balanced way, lessons so we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.  Come along with us as we explore the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, VA, and learn about our country’s past. 

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The American Civil War Museum is a collection of 3 different sites.  One is the White House of the Confederacy, which I visited in a previous trip to Richmond.  There is also a location at Appomattox, a little less than two hours from Richmond.  But the day we were in town, we decided to visit the Historic Tredegar location, which is housed in the ruins of the Tredegar Iron works Central Foundry, right on the James River. 

Permanent Exhibit

As you enter the museum, on the first level you find the Dominion Energy Gallery which houses the permanent exhibit titled “Struggles for a Nation and Freedom in Civil War America”

This exhibit moves along chronologically covering how the politics of the day played into the development of the war.  You could see multimedia exhibits that tell stories about important political events that lead up to the war, can see the propaganda used by both sides, and tidbits about the life of the people who were just citizens but caught up in this war. 

What I appreciated about the exhibit is that it didn’t shy away from the horrors of war, on both sides.  It talked about the horrors of slavery, the “Lost Cause” leading to the ride of the Ku Klux Klan, but also Sherman’s March to the Sea, and some of the despicable things the Union troops did out in the West such as burn down a town on the suspicion of siding with the Confederacy. 

My daughter and son were most taken by a single graph at the end.  It showed how many people were engaged vs how many deaths there were in the American Civil War, the Vietnam War, World War II and World War I.  While the Civil War, engaged less troops, it had more deaths than the other three wars combined

Temporary Exhibits

At the time of our visit (and as of publication of this blog post) there are two temporary exhibits housed on the second floor. 

Greenback America – This exhibit talked about the history of money in the United States.  From when each state had its own currency, through the idea of having a gold backed currency system, getting people to get behind the idea of a single currency, and to how it works today, simply as a promise in the faith of the US Government.  It’s quite interesting and I suggest going around the room and looking at the timeline, before engaging in the interactive exhibits in the middle. 

Southern Ambitions– This one is a great exhibit to get your and your children’s imaginations with “What If?” Scenarios. Southern Ambitions talked about the world it envisioned, and how it aspired of being a major player on the world stage and spreading its ideas across the globe.  It presents modern aspects of today’s society that are carry overs from the civil war and asks you to think about how it affects you today.  It asks you to think about how your life would be different if the Confederacy had won its independence.  I found it incredibly good at causing you to be reflective and to see some uncomfortable truths in today’s society. 

Outside the Building

Housed in an historic building, the outside of the building is just as interesting and what’s inside.  There is an old water wheel, exposed brick of the original foundry, and a view of the James River.  Just outside the second floor, there is a beautiful courtyard with a statue of Abraham Lincoln with the quote “To bind up the Nation’s Wounds”.  It is debatable if the wounds would ever fully heal, but to move on it’s important to learn and attempt to grown from the experience.  And that’s why museums such as this are so important. 

Costs, Timing, and Tips:

  • You can buy tickets online or in person.  To visit just the Historic Tredegar site, it’s
    • $16 for adults,
    • $14 for Seniors, retired Military, Teachers, and Students,
    • $8 for Youths 6 to 17
    • $10 for Active-Duty Military
    • Free for Members and kids under 5
  • If you plan to visit more than 1 site, it’s worth getting the combination ticket that covers all three at a lower cost than each individual site. 
  • Open Daily from 10 AM – 5 PM
  • This museum needs at least an hour and a half to two hours to do it justice. 
  • This museum is for school aged children, and adults who want to learn.  There are some interactive exhibits and movies, but I think children younger than 7 may get board or scared by some of what they are seeing in the exhibits
  • Don’t miss the gift shop if you like powerful t-shirts!  For my son we got a shirt that says, “I am my ancestors wildest dreams”.  For my husband, he got a shirt that looks like a drawing of Abraham Lincoln but created with the words of the Gettysburg Address.  It also sold a shirt I bought for my son back in March, one that has the Fredrick Douglass Quote “If there is not Struggle, there is not progress”.  They are pricy for t-shirts, but actually really nice quality, and the sale supports the non-profit running the museums. 

Learning about history, especially difficult periods in our history, can be uncomfortable.  But it should be a little uncomfortable, and we need to learn to sit in that discomfort.  We need to learn to allow our children to learn about this, to learn to sit and reflect in the discomfort as well.  Recognize the privilege they have, and how to use it to avoid the mistakes of the past.  It’s a powerful experience, and one worth spending some time on if you are in Richmond

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