An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia

An exhibition 150 years in the making

Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

Panel from the “An American Turning Point” exhibition

I know what you’re thinking: “In a state with hundreds of Civil War battlefields and museums, why do we need another exhibition about the Civil War?”

Well, “An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia”—a 3,000-square-foot traveling exhibition organized by the Virginia Historical Society—isn’t your typical exhibition about “the War.” In fact, An American Turning Point encourages visitors to consider how an event, separated from us by 150 years, still influences all of us today.

So what makes An American Turing Point so different?

• The exhibition displays more than 200 original objects, including a mustard bottle from the U.S.S. Monitor; Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s door mat; one of the last bullets loaded in anger during the war; Stonewall Jackson’s pocket watch; a window from Libby Prison, a jail for Union officers; and one of abolitionist John Brown’s pikes stockpiled for his planned slave insurrection.

• The exhibition also serves up history using more than seventeen state-of-the-art interactive multimedia programs. You will empathize with the war’s participants as you assume the role of an enslaved African American seeking freedom behind Union lines; when you try to diagnose and treat a sick soldier; when you stand in the center of a simulated battlefield; when you log your vote on whether the government has the right to force you to join the army; or when you witness an arm amputation.

• The exhibition speaks to a broader audience by giving voice to previously marginalized participants—free and enslaved African Americans, Unionists, women, and children. It shows how civil war disrupts society and is experienced by more than just soldiers. It presents real stories about real people who represent a variety of perspectives.

• The exhibition asks visitors questions that may challenge conventional wisdom and allows the people of the past to speak for themselves. It offers an alternative to the traditional narrative of the war that has been handed down to American school children for generations by suggesting that war was not inevitable and that all participants were uncertain of their future once it began.

After An American Turning Point closes at the Virginia Historical Society in December, it travels to eight Virginia museums until 2015. Chances are you’ll be no more than an hour’s drive away from one of the venues.

The Civil War continues to elicit powerful emotions, and the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission hopes the exhibition will encourage people to talk about our shared history and the Civil War in new and personal ways.

We do not expect that An American Turning Point will answer every question or resolve lingering debates that continue even after the passage of 150 years. We do hope, however, that visitors—particularly those who arrive with little or no interest in the subject—leave the exhibition with a desire to learn more about the commonwealth’s rich history and its role in our nation’s past, present, and future.

If you want to learn more about An American Turning Point, watch the introductory video, see images and read stories of Virginians featured in the exhibit, and view the tour schedule, check out the Virginia Historical Society’s website. For more information about the commission’s other projects and sesquicentennial events across Virginia, visit VirginiaCivilWar.org.

Andrew Talkov is the exhibition coordinator for “An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia”. He can be reached at [email protected]

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