Waite Rawls Revels in His Role as the Keeper of the Confederacy’s Complex Legacy
S. Waite Rawls has a name and heritage befitting a Confederate general. A Virginia Military Institute graduate, he’s got so many Rebel ancestors that he has a hard time remembering them all. For three decades he left the South behind, working as an investment banker in New York and Chicago before finally returning to his native Virginia. After lengthy service on the Civil War Preservation Trust’s board, in 2004 Rawls became the Museum of the Confederacy’s president and CEO—a job he says challenges and inspires him daily.
How long have you been interested in the Civil War?
I grew up in the small town of Franklin, Va., which had a Civil War Round Table that I desperately wanted to be a member of. In 1957—when I was 9, and you were required to be 18 to be a member—they said they’d let me in if I could pass a test: to go to the Confederate Museum in Richmond and come back, give them a report and answer their questions.
I remember walking in the front door of the MOC, and there were two old ladies with “white tight” buns and those lace-up shoes. I was scared to death, but I passed the test when I got back.
What’s it like to be president and CEO of the museum years later?
The duty, the responsibility to carry on here is awe-inspiring. I’ve never worked as hard—both in terms of hours or degree of difficulty. When I came here in 2004, I told J.E.B. Stuart IV, the trustee who hired me, that I’d be here until someone carried me out on a stretcher.
What difficulties does the MOC face?
Three things. Number one, despite the Civil War’s continuing popularity, in political and in donor circles it’s almost like an electric third rail. Convincing people that we are a credible educational institution is a much bigger challenge than I anticipated.
Number two, we were in worse financial shape than I anticipated. We’re in much better financial shape today and are growth oriented. All our strategic plans are kept on my computer in a file labeled “Seven Days,” because I said we should be tired of playing defense; let’s play offense for a change. We’ve been playing offense for six years and have made tremendous progress.
The third thing is it’s been an extraordinarily difficult environment in which to raise dollars. But we’ve done it. We’ve got a record this year in membership and annual fund. We’ve raised well over $6 million toward our Appomattox project.
What’s the biggest challenge for the museum in the 21st century?
There are two big challenges. One is to make the Civil War relevant to the 21st century. I get inspired by great quotes from great people like, “You don’t know your future if you don’t know your past.”
The other thing is to convince the general public that the Confederacy and racism are not synonymous terms. In the past 25 years the general public has been putting those two together. When they come here, we tend to open their eyes.
I look at the virtue, the courage, the self-sacrifice of the typical Confederate soldier as inspiring and uplifting. And trying to cram that person into a pigeonhole of racism is just completely wrong.
Explain the plan to develop three additional museum sites.
In Richmond we are “locationally challenged.” Our historic location, at the White House of the Confederacy, has become overshadowed by urban growth, making it difficult for visitors to come to us.
We had an epiphany—we should take the museum to the people. During a trip to Appomattox, they told us how many people come to visit that site. In my mind I said, “Appomattox is in the middle of nowhere.” Yet places like Appomattox are where Civil War Times readers want to go. What better place to show our artifacts than the locations where they were made famous?
When will the Appomattox Court House location open?
In 2012. Following that will be one in the Fredericksburg region, and then Fort Monroe. What is it—30 percent?—of all casualties happened within 20 miles of Fredericksburg. You cannot find a place, particularly from a combat point of view, more appropriate than Fredericksburg.
And there’s so much history in Fort Monroe, before, during and after the war, whether it’s Jefferson Davis’ imprisonment; or the contraband decision; or the fact that Robert E. Lee built the fort; or it was the launching place for the Seven Days’ Campaign.
Did any of your ancestors fight for the Confederacy?
Yes, I can’t count them all, either in Virginia or North Carolina. My great-great-uncle Abner Pease was a captain who ended up commanding the 23rd North Carolina at the surrender at Appomattox.
But my great-grandfather Rawls was a private all four years. He stopped going to the reunions because he said he was convinced that he was the only private in the whole Confederate Army, since during the reunions they would promote everybody—and he never got promoted even at the reunions. He was wounded twice, served through all four years and wrote his memoirs in 1910: three pages long, handwritten.
In May 1862, his unit left Norfolk with 1,015 men; they returned from Sharpsburg with 15. His description: “They got shot to pieces.” From his account of the Sharpsburg Campaign, it’s apparent they were on South Mountain, then in the Bloody Lane, but he just writes: “And then we went to Maryland and had two bloody fights and then we came home.” I just donated the tin cup that he took home from Appomattox to the museum.
What Confederate would you like to spend an hour with?
Jubal Early is a trip. A bad old man cursing a blue streak, hated women, hated the “Buttermilk Cavalry,” never shied away from a fight. What a colorful person he was!
Another one is General William “Little Billy” Mahone. Here’s this scrawny little skinny short guy with so many health problems that he’s carrying chickens and cows with him to all the battlefields—who’s kind of hidden under Lt. Gen. Richard H. Anderson’s hat for two years.
Finally after the Wilderness and into the Overland Campaign for the last year of the war, his is the best fighting unit in the Confederate Army. And the fact that he’s from Franklin, my hometown, he went to VMI and my great- grandfather fought for him doesn’t hurt. Here’s a good story: Once when he was wounded, his wife was informed about his injury but told not to worry because it was only a flesh wound. Her response was, “But Billy has no flesh!”
After the war he was a big railroad consolidator. He put together what became the Norfolk & Western, but he did an amazing job in the 30 years after the war of getting all the railroads in Virginia up. That was at the peak of competition to get coal from the West to ports in the East.
Then there was his role in the Readjustor Party. He became a Republican, he courted black voters, he did a lot for newly freed men—and he was very controversial, because he was no straight-line Democrat like so many of the Southern generals.
Did you think much about the war while you lived in the North?
Yes and no. I’ve always loved books, but for awhile I was reading dumb novels. Then, on a business trip to England, I finished a book in Heathrow Airport, and I said, “I’ll go get a Robert Ludlum novel.” I was on about page 100 when I realized I had read it before.
I was so disgusted that I’d wasted my time, it was like a light went on. I said: “I’m wasting my time reading all this junk. Give me my Civil War books again.” I’ve never looked back.
What item in the museum’s collection inspires you most?
On tough days I go down and watch people look at Robert E. Lee’s uniform. By their facial expressions, I can tell they know they’re in the presence of something important. It gives my life meaning to see that.