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A new visitor center aims to bring together Richmond's many Civil War experiences.

A Civil Action


Sa'ad El-Amin likes it.

The guy who runs the Canal Walk loves it.

And those who have always meant to check out Richmond's many and varied Civil War sites - but just haven't known where to start - are apt to do cartwheels through it.

It is the Civil War Visitor Center, and it's opening Saturday at Tredegar Iron Works.

The center, run by the Richmond National Battlefield Park unit of the National Park Service, is part history museum and part launching pad for other local Civil War destinations - a one-stop shop in its own right, and a starting point for taking in the city's other attractions.

If comments from visitors who have taken sneak-preview tours are any indication, the Civil War Visitor Center also succeeds in presenting a balanced racial view of life and death in the Richmond of 1861 to 1865.

City Councilman El-Amin, who spent four hours touring the center and questioning its curators, says he was "favorably impressed" and that the center strikes a "sensitive balance." While he'd prefer more African-American-related displays, "that's not a criticism … it's an observation."

"I think it's wonderful," says Councilman-elect Manoli Loupassi, another visitor.

Their words, and those of business and civic leaders who have seen the center, are a relief to Cindy MacLeod, superintendent of Richmond National Battlefield Park and the new Visitor Center.

"Actually, a little bit of controversy might not be too bad," she says.

That's if it draws more visitors to the center than came to see the short-lived Valentine Riverside museum here. The Visitor Center occupies the former museum's three-floor building at Tredegar Iron Works and retains some of its indoor and outdoor displays.

But officials have no fear of another flop.

MacLeod says the Visitor Center has advantages Valentine Riverside didn't. Thanks to nearly $3 million from cal corporations, foundations and the federal government, the center won't need to charge admission. Numerous signs will direct visitors from interstates and city streets to the site. And the center will benefit from foot traffic along the nearby Canal Walk.

Actually, it may be more accurate to say the Canal Walk will benefit from the Visitor Center, agrees Jim McCarthy, executive director of Richmond Riverfront Development Corp., which oversees Canal Walk development. McCarthy has been working closely with MacLeod on the Visitor Center, the Canal Walk's first major attraction.

He calls the Civil War Visitor Center "part of the project" and "very important" to further Canal Walk development.

The main entrance to the center is on the second floor, in what seems like the back of the building. Past a gift shop expected to sell books, videos, music and toys, the first area visitors see is the Map Room, which MacLeod says aims "to inform and motivate people about Civil War resources in the area."

The Map Room features large maps of numerous local Civil War sites grouped by subject: battlefields; hospitals and prisons; wartime homes and neighborhoods; the Confederate Capital; churches and cemeteries; museums and collections; and monuments and related sites. Brochures for individual attractions bid visitors to explore them later.

As this is a Richmond National Battlefield Park project, battlefields play a large role. In the middle of the Map Room is a multiscreen electronic map that narrates significant local battles and diagrams their troop movements with impressive special effects. Below, on the first floor of the center, in the War Room, a 23-minute film surveys Richmond-area clashes. The War Room also displays large pieces of military equipment, from a pontoon boat used to support river-crossing bridges to a mammoth 5-ton cannon.

The real spirit of the center seems to reside on the third floor, however. "Richmond Speaks" is the theme here, and the images, voices and objects are those of wartime Richmonders, black and white.

A row of large display cases features a year-by-year review of the war's military and social developments in Richmond. Behind the cases, visitors can sit and listen to voices narrating the city's past. MacLeod says the center's displays, developed by the firm that designed the highly regarded U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, balance war-front and home front.

"We want everybody to feel comfortable, that they can see a part of themselves here," she says. "And we hope people are so excited about what they see here … they will be enticed to the other assets in the area."

"My regiment was among the first that entered Richmond. A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind…. In this mighty consternation I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up.

"Among the many broken-hearted mothers looking for their children was an aged woman, passing through the vast crowd of colored, inquiring for one by the name of Garland H. White, who had been sold from her when a small boy….

"I was questioned as follows: 'What is your name, sir? What was your mother's name? Where was you born? Where was you sold from? What was the name of the man who bought you?'…

"'This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, … who has spent 20 years of grief about her son.'"

(from a letter by Garland H. White, 28th U.S. Colored Troops, in an exhibit at the Civil War Visitor Center)

April 3rd: All Cary St. is burnt and Main is on fire, it is spreading rapidly; almost every minute Flory & I run out to the gate to see if the yankees are coming….
April 4th: The Yankees are behaving very well considering it is them… the Negro soldiers are walking about as free as white soldiers. The Negroes of Richmond are delighted. We have no school now and don't know when we will have any….
April 10th: I went round to Mrs. Hughes this morning and there I heard the dreadful news that General Lee had surrendered and then they told me we were going to have Peace in a very short time. I was pleased but yet I was sad.
April 12th: Papa is talking about taking us down to see the ruins after dinner if it does not rain.

(from the diary of 14-year-old Frances Caldern de la Barca Hunt, in an exhibit at the Civil War Visitor Center)

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