S. Waite Rawls, Museum of the Confederacy

S. Waite Rawls, Museum of the Confederacy

By Dana B. Shoaf
10/12/2010 • HistoryNet

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.

20 Responses to S. Waite Rawls, Museum of the Confederacy

  1. michael says:

    I am from and live in Virginia. I might visit the museum some time. But I don’t have any delusions that the Confederacy existed for one reason only — to continue to perpetuate the institution of slavery. Any other reason has been completely debunked by modern historians. Clearly this guy is not a historian.

    • JW says:

      You can’t be from VA. Those of us born and raised for the most part knows that the war was not about ending or keeping slavery from either side. Clearly you don’t know history.

  2. JimmyP says:

    Near my home is a site where Major Andre was captured after leaving Benedict Arnold at West Point. The plaque at the site refers to “Traitor Arnold”, yet for the Civil War we have museums honoring those who fought against their country to perpetuate slavery. I’m sorry but their struggle was wrong and even if they were brave can we at least acknowledge the wrongness of the cause.

  3. Arthur says:

    “Any other reason has been completely debunked by modern historians.”

    Victor’s history.

    • JW says:

      Sure is that! I love how modern historians even over ride the documentation and testimony of eyewitnesses of the day.

  4. Donald E. Collins says:

    I have been on several programs with S. Waite Rawls and with the exception of lacking a Ph.D., he is every bit as good a historian as I am. The three previous comments are examples of “presentism,” interpreting the past as if those who lived at the time had the advantage of the thoughts and arguments of the last 150 years. I am a political and social Liberal with an active Civil Rights background, and I would never presume to use today’s arguments against someone who has not had the benefit of the knowledge I am fortunate enough to possess. And yes, the war was about slavery. But it was equally about states’ rights. Any reading of the political history of the colonies and country prior to 1860 shows that many leading figures of American history argued for the rights of individual states over a national government. It was the “War” that made us indivisible, not the Constitution. If you are not familiar with that history, read my article on the Confederate States in the recently published Encyclopedia of U. S. Political History. Donald E. Collins

    • Susan Kuroski says:

      Thank you Dr. Collins for your rational response to those who insist that the war was fought strictly “to perpetuate the institution of slavery”. Like Mr Rawls, I continue to be fascinated by the war and have read numerous books on the topic. I especially enjoy first person accounts written during the war years. It is obvious from their writings that the vast majority of those involved had many reasons for the hardship and sacrifices they endured. There is no doubt that the institution of slavery was a major issue politically but was not the only issue for those who did the actual fighting.

    • Dean Charles Marshall says:

      We are no doubt kindred souls regarding the history of the Confederacy. Sadly I fear this Sesquicentennial is going to turn into a deplorable “gang rape” of the Confederacy by the despots of political correctness. The early salvos on CNN and the in the New York Times are not encouraging. I like using the analogy of “rattling the chains” of slavery by the PC crowd as their end all be all explanation for the Civil War. There’s never any objective discussion, it always ends up the same; the Union was righteous, the Confederacy was evil. Sometimes I think we’re just becoming a nation of idiot savants immersed in minutiae. If you have any suggestions to help broaden the discussion I’d be appreciative. Thank you.

      Dean Charles Marshall

      • michael hogan says:

        Dear Dean Charles Marshall,
        I have enjoyed your reviews on Amazon and your perceptive comments elsewhere on history. Please send me an email so we can connect. I would like to send you a book. You cnan get my contact information on my webpage.

  5. Terry says:

    I am surprised at anyone claiming the war was over slavery with the abundant evidence to the contrary today. Clearly shows ignorance or bias. I have nine (9) ancestors that fought in the war. Not one of them owned a slave. Facts are that less than five (5) percent of Southerners owned slaves before the war. More Northerners owned slaves than Southerners!!

    For the truth read Thomas DiLorenzo’s “Lincoln Unmasked,” and “The Real Lincoln,” and Joanne Melish’s, “Disowning Slavery.”

    A peacefully negotiated secession was the best way to handle all the problems facing Americans in 1860. A war of coercion was Lincoln’s creation. It sometimes takes a century or more to bring an important historical event into perspective. This study does just that and leaves the reader asking, “Why didn’t we know this before?” Donald Livingston, professor of philosophy, Emory University

    • JW says:

      The war was about revenue. The North needed those high 85%$ tariffs from the South to finance the government. If it was about slavery why did it take 2 years for Lincoln to free them? Oh, but he only freed the ones in the South, when he had no jurisdiction at the time. I get tired of hearing from Northern historians who are Lincolnites and liars. I love the code word, kindred souls….

  6. Rick Wehrheim says:

    I would suggest, as a starting point, that those with such a myopic view of the causes of the Civil War visit the Museum. It’s incredible to me that so many people readily accept the “victors ” interpretation of this part of our history without questioning its origin, accuracy and bias. I know for many it’s easier to see such things in “black and white”, “good and evil”, but it is intellectually lazy and dishonest in regard to the Civil War. For instance, please reference books by Professor Thomas DiLorenzo,”The Real Lincoln”, Jefferson Davis’, ” The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Govenment”, or even, to get you started, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War”. In any event, thank you Mr. Rawls for your hard work and dedication. I would encourage everyone to visit the Museum, ask questions, and LEARN. Sic Semper Tyrannis!

  7. Dean Charles Marshall says:

    To those who insist on rattling the “chains of slavery” as the end all be all for the Civil War ignorance is surely their politically correct bliss. John M. Coski, Director of History at the MOC in his book, “The Confederate Battle Flag”, writes, “The Confederacy was the most important organized and armed dissent in American history since the Revolution”. It’s unmitigated lunacy to think that thousands upon thousands of Confederate soldiers “made the ultimate sacrifice” solely for the expressed purpose of keeping black people in bondage. No doubt the Confederacy was a rebellion, but it was a rebellion conceived by fellow Americans who saw their rights under the Constitution being abrogated out of existence. Instead of submitting to such tyranny they decided to make a stand and fight tp preserve those rights. The Confederacy was not synonymous with slavery, but it was in actuality an expression of the Declaration of Independence.

  8. E. Shonk says:

    When I first became aware that the Museum of the Confederacy was in danger of closing, due to its location and lack of funding, I was concerned that future generations would be denied the opportunity to see, and appreciate, the vast collection of Confederate memorabilia housed there. I am greatly relieved to learn of Mr. Rawls’ leadership in keeping the MOC relevant to today’s generation, and for generations to come, via his plan to relocate the collection to additional strategic locations. I was fortunate to visit the MOC many years ago, and was astounded by the knowledge that the Confederacy was not founded for one purpose only (slavery), but was founded in an attempt to preserve the limited Constitutional government (which was slowly being eroded by Northern interests) as intented by our Founding Fathers. So, in reality, it was the Confederacy, not the Union, that was attempting to support the type of government the Founding Fathers had envisioned…leaving the pro-Unionists the real traitors to the federal Constitution, not the Confederates. JMHO.

  9. Jon says:

    I am honored to state that Waite was a classmate at VMI. Those that rail as to whether t the War Between the States was about slavery or not miss much of the relevance of the MOC and Waite’s work. First the “Civil War” was not a civil war. By definition, a civil war is fought with the express intentent of overthrowing the government. The English Civil War was a true civil war. Our Southern states did not have the objective of overthrowing the Federal government. The value of preserving this heritage, and the value of the MOC is to preserve the lessons of that conflict, and to insure that we always honor, and strive to emulate the high moral values, character, and virtues of the heroes of that conflict, both blue and grey. In many ways our country has lost the principled, disciplined and dedicated values that guided so many from that era. Our heroes today are celebrities and sports figures: not man and women of truly heroic stature. Service to country is not honored or valued as it should be. Few of our politicians have the moral fiber or love of country the men of that era did. I wonder if ancestors who fought and died in this conflict would be happy with the society we live in today. Would they think their sacrifice was worth the price they paid?

  10. E. Shonk says:

    I must concur with Jon’s comments re: the fact that the ACW was not really a civil war or even a “rebellion,” since the Southern States never had the intention of destroying the federal government of the United States, but did intend to re-establish a limited constitutional government as originally envisioned by the Founding Fathers. I believe that the incorrect usage of specific words like “rebellion” when referring to the War for Southern Independence, has caused more misunderstanding of what the conflict was really about, than all the other inaccurate information that is bandied about concerning the war era. I also have come to believe that the usage of the slavery issue (by contemporary historians) as the one and only reason for both secession and war, has done more harm than good to the average American’s understanding of the long-standing divisive issues between the North and the South that really led to the decision of the Southern States to secede in the first place. And, in addition, I believe that the use of the freeing of the slaves as the major reason for the North to go to war, is only a “feel-good” effort to assuage the conscience of Northerners, for the horrific destruction of the Southern economy and culture that they inflicted on the Confederacy. Finally, I don’t believe that our ancestors would be happy to realize that the goal of re-establishing a limited constitutional government, as was the intention of founding the Confederate States of America, has been lost to a more all-encompassing federal government, to the detriment of State’s rights (which had been a cornerstone in the foundation of the United States of America in the first place). JMHO.

  11. Elijah says:

    I have never been to this musuem, but I sure hope to one day!!! It’s sad how today many people have been denied the knowledge of all the happenings of the War, such as the “slavery being the only cause” issue. I believe that the only way people will ever know the War as it happened is those of us who study it nonstop and have a passion for it.

    I have seen what is taught about the War in schools today and it really annoys me what I have read. For instance, I read one paragraph in an elementry history book about States’ Rights (and it was a very small paragraph) and three whole pages solely on slavery!!! Slavery was not the main cause of the War. As has been said before me, a small percentage of the Southern army fought to keep slavery. Whenever I am asked what the War was fought over, I always reply “First, to protect their homes and families from the invanding Northerners and Second, for State’s Rights.”

    It also annoys me how very little the fact that many fought to protect their homes and families ever comes up. In so many letters from Confederate soldiers, they say that they are fighting for home and family. True, the Confederacy fired the first shots, but the War itself did not hit full force (I think) until Lincoln called for volunteers. Many believed that they were being invaded and that if they didn’t join then their families were in danger.

    Of course, Southern Independance (States’ Rights) was a big issue too. As a soldier in the Confederate army said: “I was a soldier in Virginia in the campaigns of Lee and Jackson, and I declare I never met a Southern soldier who had drawn his sword to perpetuate slavery…What he had chiefly at heart was the preservation of the supreme and sacred right of self-goverment…it was a very small minority of the men who fought in the Southern armies who were financially interested in the institution of slavery.” Coming from the writings of a soldier who fought and knew better then we what they fought for.

    Now, I’m not a historian, but I am passionate about the War and feel that I should share my thoughts. So much has happened in the last 150 years and times have drastically changed, as has been mentioned before me, and we can not really know how it was then. Now, I just want to make one thing straight. I have shared my thoughts like this before and I have been called racist and that I want slavery and I just want to make it clear that I believe slavery was a horrible instituion and I am glad that it is no longer around. I believe that everyone was created equal, no matter what they look like, sound like, are from, ect. All I am saying above is that slavery was not “THE” reason for the War. A reason, yes, but not the sole reason.

  12. E. Shonk says:

    Elijah (and anyone interested in joining a forum of people who share a passion for the War for Southern Independence),

    The forum I am referring to is the Mason-Dixon Chat Forum, which can be found on Multiply.com. We discuss the various issues involved in antebellum America that led to both secession and war. Most of the members are “moderates” and refrain from “attacking” one another when they have a difference of opinion. (Of course there are exceptions to this general rule from time to time, but we really do try to be respectful of one another). Please feel free to join us sometime, and see if you like what you discover.

  13. Michael says:

    There is no greater enemy of Confederate Heritage and History than S. Waite Rawls! He refuses to allow the Confederate Battleflag to fly from the Museum. He even went as far as to display a cut out of famous transvestite, Ru-Paul at the museum. He is a joke, and a smear on the memory of his ancestors!

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