Sesquicentennial Series: The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War

A new series explores the sesquicentennial of the Civil War in Virginia with first guest blogger S. Waite Rawls III, President and CEO of the Museum of the Confederacy.

As the President of the Museum of the Confederacy, I am often asked the question, “Why should we care about the Civil War?”

Let’s try some historical reasons:

• Virginia was ground zero for the Civil War. Richmond was the Capital of the Confederacy and became the target of four years of war; a war that effectively ended a week after Richmond fell. 60% of all the Civil War’s battles were fought in Virginia. Over half of all Civil War casualties were in Virginia. Virginia was completely devastated with much of it reduced to a wasteland.

• Many of the most famous leaders of the Civil War were Virginians. Lee, Jackson, Stuart, and so many more—the Confederate Hall of Fame would look like the Virginia Hall of Fame. Even on the Union side, Virginian George Thomas would rank only behind Grant and Sherman as generals.

• Many Virginians devoted their lives and fortunes to the Confederacy. Look out of your window anywhere in Virginia. If you do not see a battlefield, you will certainly live within a mile of the home of a Confederate soldier. Over 90% of the white males of military age ended up in the Army or Navy. There has never been a mobilization that matched it—anywhere in world history.

• But many Virginians did not. The whole state of West Virginia “seceded” from Virginia. And many other Virginians stayed loyal to the union and fought for it. You may have heard about Stuart’s “Ride Around McClellan.” Who commanded the Federal cavalry that chased him? His father-in-law, Phillip St. George Cooke, a Virginian.

But, if you prefer the 21st century, try these reasons:

• It’s good business: Virginia’s second biggest industry is tourism. And the Civil War is the biggest part of that. Over six million people a year come to Virginia to see a Civil War site, with one new job supported by every 500 visitors. That’s over 12,000 jobs. And every piece of market research indicates that Civil War tourists top the list of valued visitors, staying almost twice as long and spending almost twice as much as others. And it’s a “green” industry because they come here to spend money, create jobs and pay taxes. Then they go home without requiring schools or hospitals.

• Virginia is finally beginning to talk about slavery. During the 100th anniversary, Virginia’s antebellum status as the country’s biggest slave state and market was the great unmentionable. Now, we are talking about all of our history, not just part of it.

Still not convinced? Let’s try one final reason:

• The whole world will be watching us. Yes, the Civil War is the most popular period of world history, and visitors from all over the globe will come here. They expect us all to care. This expectation applies to those of us Virginians whose great-grandfathers wore gray (or blue) or were enslaved or weren’t in America yet.

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