The following is a partial transcript of an interview conducted by Leila Cartier, on the WEHC 90.7 radio show Artspeak, with Andrew Talkov, VP of programming at the Virginia Historical Society. Talkov is the curator of the traveling exhibit ‘An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia,’ on loan from the Virginia Historical Society. The show had its preview reception last evening at the William King Museum of Art in Abingdon, VA, where it will remain on view until February 1, 2015. Interview questions have been left out.
I got my BA from Rutgers in 1995 in history and secondary education. While at school I had an opportunity to work during a summer as a paid volunteer at Gettysburg National Military Park. It opened an entire world of other options for history majors to me. I spent the next two summers working at the Manassas National Battlefield. The museum world was much more accepting of my education background and my experience than school systems were of my park experience. I took the path of least resistance, as we usually do! While working here at the Virginia Historical Society I recently returned to school to get my MA in history.
This project is the culmination of all my interests. I grew up in MA outside of Boston. I’m a Yankee, yes. The history I grew up with was a lot of Revolutionary War history; that’s what that area of MA is really proud of. At age 10 one of my teachers encouraged me to watch the TV mini-series ‘The Blue & The Grey.’ I was fascinated by the idea that people would fight a war against each other just because they lived in different states. The first ‘civil war’ that I knew was an intergalactic one, since I’d been a huge Star Wars fan from a much younger age.
The Virginia Historical Society is a private non-profit museum and archive in Richmond. Founded in 1831, it’s the 4th oldest historical society in the country. It’s Virginia’s longest, continuing operating civic organization. Chief Justice John Marshall was our first president, and then former president James Madison was our first honorary member.
Since then our mission has been to collect and preserve the Commonwealth’s history. In the last 20 years we’ve opened the doors of the institution to be more accessible the public, so we’ve been a lot more focused on interpreting Virginia’s history, too.
Our collection includes 8 million manuscripts, 200,000 books, 290,000 prints and photographs, and 32,000 museum objects that document the daily lives of all Virginians.
I came to the Historical Society in 2007, and I was specifically hired to help the curators select objects and find stories to tell. Over the course of time I ended up taking more responsibility as a writer and consultant with design, working on audio-visual programs.I’ve been designing a Civil War exhibit in my mind since I was 10! So this project was like being a kid in a candy store. The Historical Society has a great collection of Civil War objects, letters, and diaries.
One of the challenges was that we were charged with creating a display that would be on continual display for the entire 4 year length of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.
As a result, we weren’t able to show some of the best things that we had for that length of time. We ultimately decided that the stories that we could best tell, that our collection supported, were the stories of everyday people. Initially there was this sense that the exhibit would be all of the great Civil War objects of Virginia history collected from institutions all over the country.
Instead, what the exhibit became was an exhibit about ordinary people during extraordinary times doing extraordinary things, as told through relatively simple objects that they left behind.
It’s a little cliché to quote Abraham Lincoln…but I’m gonna go there! Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863 summed up why the Civil War is important. We fought our civil war at a time in world history where we were the only republic — ‘a government of the people’— and many of the countries and kingdoms around the world were watching this experiment with the expectation that we would fail. That ‘a government of the people’ was not possible.
So when Lincoln speaks at Gettysburg he is saying that this war is about whether representative government could survive. The war proved, and 150 years of history after that proved, that it could. Unfortunately, we had to pass through this incredibly tragic crucible to prove that.
No event in Virginia’s history had as much to do with shaping the political, the social, and even the physical landscape that we all live in. I drive down the highway and I see signs for a battlefield, or I see a historic highway marker that identifies the home of some famous person who was related to the Civil War.
The social, economic and political legacy of slavery, and then segregation, absolutely affects us to this day: the fact that Virginia was the most fought over place in America (and still holds that crown); the fact that they had to reconstruct huge portions of the state; that the Valley was burned out of a lot of its economic infrastructure, that Richmond burned at the end of the Civil War, and that affected the physical landscape that came after.
And lastly, Virginia spent many, many decades trying to recover from the loss of its population. It started the American Civil War as the most populous of all of what would become the Confederate states. But due to death and dislocation, Virginia lost a huge portion of its population, and of course your population is the economic engine that makes a state successful.
All of these are reasons why the war is so important to Virginia even today. It’s important to remember that the Civil War is, with a few exceptions, the last event in our history where war happened here. Looking at the experiences of people who lived 150 years ago, who were literally surrounded by the conflict, whose daily lives were ultimately affected by the conflict at both grand and small levels, gives us the opportunity to empathize with people around the world who live in an environment similar to what those Virginians lived in.
Today we can’t even imagine what a foreign army marching down the main street of our towns would be like.
A lot of what we historians do is look backwards, and when the sesquicentennial was being planned, we looked at the last major commemoration of the war, which was in the 1960s. Virginia was a very different place in the early 1960s. We were embroiled in the unanswered question of the Civil War at that time, which was: “What was the status of African Americans going to be in the Republic, and in our state?”
The Centennial, the 100th anniversary, didn’t really try to answer any of those questions. The Centennial celebrated the War, and re-union, by focusing on what I would argue is the easy thing to interpret about the Civil War, which is the battles and the generals. It’s a lot harder to understand the social and political implications of our Civil War, and they were largely ignored in the interpretation and the educational programs of 50 years ago.
Now that we are here in the beginning of the 21st century, the sesquicentennial seemed like an opportunity to use the last 50 years of scholarship to express where we’ve come in our understanding of this event. As a result, our exhibit is very different from an exhibit you would have seen 50 years ago. It focuses on ordinary people. It has expanded the idea of the Civil War in Virginia to include men and women, enslaved people and free people, African Americans, and children. A lot of peoples’ stories that were marginalized in the historiography of the Civil War for 100 years are now being brought to life.
It ultimately is a much more dramatic story because of the inclusion of all these other people and their experiences. The exhibit is about 150 million free Virginians, it’s about almost half a million enslaved Virginians, it’s about 280,000 men who fought for the Confederacy, but it’s also about the 50,000 Virginians who fought for the Union. It includes the story of other people, Union and Confederate, who came to Virginia and experienced their war here. So they’re as much a part of Virginia history as someone who was born in Virginia.
The exhibit focuses both on the battlefield and the home front. We are trying, 150 years after the event, in this exhibit, to get a more complete understanding of the war and the way it affected people.
Virginia’s location as the largest of the northernmost slave states made it a key state during the war. When we look at a map today we see a much smaller Virginia than the people of 1860 would have seen. Virginia at that time went all the way to the Ohio River. It included everything that is today West Virginia. So it was this huge state with this huge population that lived on the border between North and South. It was a very industrialized state, very much like its northern neighbors, but it was also the largest of the slave states, which made it very much like its southern neighbors. Virginia’s economy and population size made it an important place.
The Confederacy would probably not have been able to survive as long as it did had Virginia remained with the Union states in 1861. It was critical to the Confederacy to have Virginia join them in this struggle, and the way they cemented that relationship is that when Virginia seceded from the Union, the Confederacy moved their Capitol here.
Which seems like the dumbest thing that you could do! You’re playing a game of ‘Risk’, putting your capital right next to the other guy’s capital. And what it assured is that Virginia would be the battleground of the war, and Virginians knew it. Historians will argue about it, but I think it’s safe to say that it was the most important battleground. A lot of people will say that the Civil War was won/lost along the Mississippi River, which strategically might be true, but nobody was looking at that. Everybody in Europe, everybody in the country, was looking at the 120 miles between Washington and Richmond.