Recently I visited the Tredegar National Civil War museum on the banks of the James River. My homework assignment was to visit and cultural museum and write about what the museum said about well-being. The museum is housed in a beautiful old ironworks building that I have never visited even though it is adjacent to my favorite spot in all of Richmond. The facility originally manufactured railroad and locomotive parts beginning in 1830, but during the Civil War the facility made blankets and stored patterns for casting munitions.
Once I entered the museum, I realized with dismay that a museum about the bloody and acrimonious Civil War would not be an easy study in well-being. The park ranger that chatted with us did not help with my assignment as he focused on the political tension and negative emotions that fueled the start of the conflict. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel that the exhibits, presented in as neutral a political tone as possible, was about post-traumatic growth enabled by focusing on the positive aspects of this bloody and divisive conflict. For example, the exhibits avoided mention of the impact of brother fighting brother, the number of casualties, and the economic devastation of the South. Instead, it showed the brave blacks that fought for the cause, the abolitionists that helped slaves, the hospitals with a high success rate, the artistry of the photos taken at the time, the success of the region prior to the war, the hopes and dreams of each side, and the traditions of the region.
To me, I felt there was much pride displayed regarding the identity of Richmond during this era. I believe the positive explanatory style on display helps us to accept and psychologically manage what was our horrible history, and allows us to move forward and grow from the experience. Indeed, today Richmond is a beautiful and thriving city that is not defined by the mistakes of the past. We still have racial and ethnic tension – we were the capital of the Confederacy after all – but Richmond has largely made peace with our chequered past and managed to retain Southern pride without the angry overtones that accompany the defeated.
Despite having ended more than a century ago, I know the echoes of that terrible conflict still resonate in our region. The symbols of the war are a source of pride for some but a continued source of pain for others. What more can we do to heal those old wounds? How can we find the best route going forward incorporating, not ignoring, the lessons of the past? How do we do so honoring all sides involved?