May 3, 2024 - Culture

Slavery, not states' rights, caused the Civil War: A Richmond's museum bold new exhibit

A cool glass building in  front of old bricks

The American Civil War Museum in Richmond. Image: Courtesy of The American Civil War Museum

Slavery caused the Civil War — that is the bold, and factual, statement that opens the American Civil War Museum's latest exhibition, "The Impending Crisis: How Slavery Caused the Civil War."

Why it matters: While historians have long agreed that the enslavement of people was the issue that drove the nation to splinter and go to war, some folks — especially in the South — continue to debate the cause. This exhibit aims to put other theories to rest.

  • And the American Civil War Museum is in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy and the current state capital, which just four years ago boasted the highest number of Confederate icons in the nation.

The big picture: "The Impending Crisis," which opened last weekend, is the first of three exhibitions ACWM is planning as part of its multiyear initiative, "The Civil War & Remaking America."

  • The fact that the cause of the war is still controversial and debated more than 160 years later makes it a fitting place to begin the series, ACWM president Rob Havers tells Axios.

What's inside: The exhibition uses historic artifacts and voices to present the lead up to the war from all sides: North, South, enslaved, emancipated, abolitionists and enslavers.

  • The installations take visitors on a journey through diverse perspectives to help them understand how America arrived at a war that tore the nation apart and pitted neighbors against neighbors.
  • And it makes it clear that it all came down to one core issue: slavery.

Yes, but: "The Impending Crisis" also underscores that for most 19th century white Americans, the debate was not about the moral issue of slavery, but the economic, cultural and political factors around it.

A blank wall that says "The Impending Crisis: How Slavery Caused the Civil War."
The exhibition will be open for about a year. Image: Courtesy of The American Civil War Museum

Context: The American Civil War Museum isn't a stranger to controversy. The museum, which opened in 2019, was created through a merger of two Richmond Civil War-focused institutions, The American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy.

  • The Museum of the Confederacy formed in Richmond in 1894, inside the White House of the Confederacy, to present a pro-Confederate version of history.
  • The merger was spearheaded by the museum's inaugural president, Christy Coleman, a Black woman historian who helped shape ACWM's mission to tell the story of the era through all sides and perspectives.
  • Plus, the museum was built atop Historic Tredegar, the factory that produced the Confederacy's munitions.

Zoom in: ​​Like any good 21st century museum exhibition, "The Impending Crisis" wants visitors to be challenged, to think and to engage.

  • Before visitors even step inside, they're invited at the doors to drop a token into a box to say what they think caused the war: states' rights, slavery, cultural differences or taxes.
  • A vote tally by Axios on a recent visit underscored the Civil War's relevance today: 160 years after the war ended, only about half the visitors got the cause right.
Before visitors even step inside, they're invited at the doors to drop a token into a box to say what they think caused the war: states' rights, slavery, cultural differences or taxes.  The vote shows only half the people got it right.
How would you vote? Photo: Karri Peifer/Axios

If you go: The American Civil War Museum is open daily, 10am-5pm at 480 Tredegar St.

  • Adult admission to the museum, which includes the exhibition, is $18.

What's next: "The Impending Crisis" will run for about a year. The next two installments will explore the battles and course of the Civil War, closing with its consequences and legacy.

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