An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia

Virginia Historical Society through December 30, 2011

You are a slave escaping on the Underground Railroad. You approach two African-American men fishing in a stream. You ask for boat passage, but they demand something in return. Do you offer your food or your money? You choose the latter, which they accept. Later you encounter a kindly woman who points out the safest route. You make good progress— until a butternut soldier emerges from the woods and points a gun at your eyes.

This scenario is just one possible outcome in a fascinating interactive simulation, called the “Journey to Freedom,” that is a highlight of the Virginia Historical Society’s new exhibition, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia. Featuring a deft combination of interpretive panels, more than 200 objects and 17 audiovisual programs, the exhibit is one of the first—and may well turn out to be the finest—of many events planned to mark the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

This is no chronological, comprehensive overview of the conflict in Virginia. Instead, it is an almost impressionistic examination of the consequences of war on both the home front and the battle front in this most crucial commonwealth. The exhibit is divided into two sections—“Surviving War” and “Waging War”—although the two sides are often blurred.

Indeed, this is the way it was; the war was cruel in its brutality and proximity. In one notable display, the uniform of a dead soldier is included with a panel stating that his mother’s house was so close that she could hear the battle that killed her son.

Visitors study the war through the experiences of a wide range of mostly lesser-known individuals. Robert E. Lee isn’t prominent here, but George H. Thomas is, he who stayed loyal to the Union and whose handsomely engraved sword is on display. Clara Barton remains unheralded, but we meet Anne Gordon, whose family’s heirloom equestrian statue was purloined during the war (see P. 40).

Historic maps, artwork, flags and other items—even a window from Libby Prison—offer dimension and interest throughout. Graphics and readability are excellent.

Interactive displays amplify the artifacts and wall panels. The “Journey to Freedom” is arguably the most controversial but also the most visceral. It feels, at first glance, like a large video game, which may seem jarringly inappropriate for a piece on entrapment and escape. Yet it is ultimately an edifying exercise, especially for younger visitors. Stepping in front of a large screen, visitors can choose which slave persona they’d like to assume for the journey. They have the option to pick up supplies, such as money, tools and food, or to make decisions about whom to trust, which road to take and whether to make camp. Moving through the sequence, one feels hope rising and freedom at hand. So when those Confederates pull out their guns, it is truly terrifying.

Technology is used to generally good effect in the “Waging War” section as well. One of the best displays allows visitors to find the units mustered from a particular county. Another case tells us about James Hanger, an 18-year-old Confederate who became the war’s first amputee.

Hanger designed his own hinged prosthetic leg, and today Hanger Prosthetics, Inc., is still providing limbs for amputees returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, this section also includes an unfunny video about a “little blue pill” that is modeled after today’s TV commercials, but it is the exhibition’s lone bum note.

The exhibit’s most striking feature is a 36-foot lenticular display that offers the illusion of movement as one moves past it, and which uses photos of reenactors and a soundtrack to depict combat. It provides aural and visual richness to an exhibition that is beautiful, complex and wise. With a long travel schedule after the exhibit closes in Richmond, there is simply no excuse for anyone to miss it.


Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here