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History With a Bang

Tredegar hosts six lectures by an explosive historian.



Style: How did you first become interested in the Civil War?

Emory Thomas: Well, I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. (laughs). … And so I just assumed that everyone lived within about a quarter-mile of the intermediate lines of defense highway marker. However, I will say that growing up in Richmond, I became convinced that the Civil War was really the province of little old ladies in flowered dresses and big broad-brimmed hats who told sad stories. And I had an adverse reaction. And thus I had to go 1,500 miles away to Rice University. …[before I] said, There's some intellectual viability associated with this war and this experience. And that really began my excitement.

How do you take your new lecture series out of the realm of little old ladies and their big hats? How is this going to be telling the story in a new way?

I think the Tredegar idea, the concept, is the notion of the Civil War as three stories; it's the Confederate states, the United States and the African-American people, who are all intermingled and enmeshed in this experience. And you can't tell one story without telling all three. … In the course of this, if there's a theme song to my presentations it's, of all people, Elvis Presley's American Trilogy, in which he sings "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and "Dixie," and "All My Trials."

What local myths or misconceptions about the Civil War have you come across?

One is that all southerners were rabid, whole-soul Confederate patriots. Richmond had a very, very active band of Unionists, a network of spies, the most famous being Elizabeth Van Lew, who masqueraded as this eccentric old white lady — Crazy Bet, she was known as. But beneath this fa‚Ä°ade, she conducted a ring of Union spies and sent messages out to Union commanders fairly regularly and even chalked, during the peninsula campaign in 1862, sort of a crude version of 19th-century graffiti. They couldn't spray paint, but they either chalked or painted on fences and walls, "The Union Forever" and other slogans that indicated they wanted the United States to win.

Can you describe how you're going to demonstrate the battle of the Crater?

Actually, I can understand military history best when I can see it in three dimensions. And consequently, I have used a sandbox with little H/O scale soldiers, which particularly lends itself to an explanation of trench warfare, which was crucial to the experience in Richmond really in the last full year of the war. Probably the most dramatic example of that was the attempt on the part of the United States to blow up a section of Confederate earthworks with gunpowder, 8,000 pounds of it, resulting in the Battle of the Crater. … The Battle of the Crater I can illustrate in the sandbox with firecrackers and things. And it's fairly dramatic. S

The Civil War Visitor Center at Tredegar Iron Works is at Fifth and Tredegar streets on the Canal Walk. For more information, call 771-2145.

The class, "Richmond at War: Hues of Gray, Black and Blue, 1861-1865," starts Oct. 6 and runs from 7-9 p.m. each Wednesday through Nov. 10. Slots for the $100 series are still available. For more information, or to register, call (804) 788-6487.

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