John Coski is the historian and library director at the Museum of the Confederacy. He is the author of The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem — Interview by Tamela Baker
Describe the museum’s expansion to Appomattox, Fredericksburg and Fort Monroe.
We are preparing to expand into a museum “system,” which is sort of uncharted territory for a lot of us; that’s exciting in its own right. Our offices will remain in Richmond, the research library will remain here…the other sites will have gallery space—a lot more gallery space—so much more of our collection will be on display, as well as putting the museum in front of a lot more people. We are going to places that are already known as Civil War sites, and where people are already coming. Our mission is to use our collection to educate people, and the more people we reach,
the more we’re succeeding in our mission. We’re going to have an opportunity to start from scratch and design exhibits without any [size] constraints at all.
How will the museum divide the collection?
Each of the sites will have a site-specific focus. We have an interpretive plan for the entire system that is a continually evolving document and will be in draft form until all the sites are done. The specialties for the sites, it’s the big stories of the war that are the stories of the sites—for Appomattox, it’s the ending of the war and the beginning of reunification. At Fredericksburg, it’s the
horribly bloody, costly war… that is the bloodiest ground of the American Civil War. For Fort Monroe, it’s the story of emancipation and African-American freedom; it’s where freedom was realized de facto, long before there was an official proclamation. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy and the center of the Confederate war effort, but it’s also the story of the effort to realize a Confederate nation. We want each site to be complete enough in itself that someone can visit just that site and not feel cheated.
Do you have a favorite Confederate personality?
By God, I should say Jefferson Davis—I’ve been living with him all these years; he has a disproportionate presence in my life…and Varina Davis—certainly she, probably more than he, is a favorite character. Their relationship fascinates me. Lee looms large; that sort of unexpected quality of Lee. What I like about human characters in general is when people defy the image we have of them; when they transcend the limits that we set for them.
What are the challenges of interpreting Confederate history in 21st-century America?
Relevance is an issue—there’s a diminishing number of people who have ancestors who fought this war as the American population changes. Discovering ancestors’ participation has been a rite of passage for a large number of people. That’s not true anymore for a greater percentage of the population. How to interest those people—part of it is the need to interest people with history regardless—in the stories, the larger than life figures, the “Homeric” age that Robert Penn Warren refers to when talking about the Civil War…the importance of the issues of the Civil War that continue to be issues today.
How will America observe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War?
The sesquicentennial is going to be very different from the centennial, and the tendency will be more “politically correct”—I don’t use that term loosely as a lot of people do— but it will be done with a sensitivity and a consciousness not only not to “celebrate” the war, but to give an emphasis to the issues of race and equality because they were excluded or almost excluded the last time around. Of course there will be a certain amount of people who will think the Confederacy will get short shrift. You’ll have the same kind of interest groups that have been contending over the memory of the war in our lifetime—that has not changed.