GETTYSBURG WAS THE biggest.
Sharpsburg was the bloodiest.
Richmond wants to be the best.
In one month, the nation will begin observing the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a desperate and lengthy struggle that caused the deaths of 620,000 men. Richmond played a critical role in that conflict, as both the Confederate capital and the heart of the Southern domestic slave trade.
Now, a century and a half later, Richmond is fighting a new battle: to be the center of Civil War tourism.
War is hell. But it's also profitable, a U.S. Travel Association white paper notes: “Nearly 150 years after the fact, the four-year epic (1861-1865) that pitted states against states and neighbors against neighbors provides an excellent marketing opportunity to drive domestic and international visitation.”
The Gettysburg area expects $2 billion in tourists' money — yes, billion — to roll in from now until 2015. Seventeen states, along with countless museums, towns and organizations, are busy planning their pieces of the sesquicentennial celebrations. But Virginia, and especially Richmond, wants to become the premier destination for Civil War tourism.
“The return on investment for tourism is immediate and proven,” says a recent report from Gov. Bob McDonnell's Economic Development and Jobs Creation Commission. A study of Virginia's tourism marketing by research company Longwoods International determined that for every dollar spent on advertising, $75 is spent by travelers. In 2009, the commission says, 60 million visitors came to Virginia, spending $19.2 billion and providing $1.28 billion in state and local taxes.
After David Sheatsley, the association's director of marketing research, presented these numbers at an October conference, he was bombarded with calls from states such as Iowa “that all of a sudden realized they had connections to the Civil War,” he says. They wanted to cash in.
But Virginia was way ahead of them.
Statewide planning for the 150th began in 2006. Because Virginia was the first to start, it was able to snag significant funding from external sources, including nearly $1 million from the National Endowment for the Humanities. “Nobody else really has anything,” says Cheryl Jackson, executive director of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission.
Richmond wasn't far behind. In 2008, the city formed a planning committee of history and marketing experts to figure out how best to sell the city for the sesquicentennial.
They soon figured out a few important things. One, “sesquicentennial” was too difficult to spell. Two, Richmond wouldn't turn the Civil War into a party, like Charleston with its hoop-skirted Secession Ball. “We always say ‘commemoration,' not ‘celebration,'” explains Jennifer Carnam, vice president of marketing for the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. And three, emancipation was an essential, equal part of the story.
The committee picked a marketing tag line: the Union battle cry “On To Richmond!” And it set lofty (though preliminary) goals: to bring 25 percent more visitors to the area's Civil War and emancipation-related sites, and to get them to stay longer and spend 10 percent more than they usually do.
Some sites think they'll do even better. Nearly 280,000 people visited the Richmond National Battlefield Park's 13 sites last year, says Superintendent David Ruth. By 2014, he wants to double that.
The American Civil War Center expects to increase paid admissions by 50 percent by 2015.
The entire Richmond region saw 5.7 million visitors last year, who spent almost $2 billion, according to the visitors' bureau. But almost half of those visitors came here to see friends or family, not for the history.
In the tourism industry, there's no consensus yet about who's the No. 1 Civil War destination, Sheatsley says, nor how much money's at stake.
But “the potential is huge,” he says. And the surge in tourism “can be sustained for four years and perhaps even longer.”
The Richmond area doesn't have any of the big celebrity sites, the names everyone associates with the Civil War: Sumter, Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg, Appomattox. Instead, what we have is a plenitude of historic places and battlefields, a bunch of museums, and a tangled, terrible and fascinating story.
Virginia has nearly a third of all Civil War sites, more than any other state — 123, according to a 1997 National Park Service report. The Richmond National Battlefield Park, part of the National Parks, encompasses 13 separate sites, and the Petersburg National Battlefield system has 13 more.
Ruth, superintendent of the Richmond National Battlefield Park and Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, expects heightened interest in Richmond's battlefields for the duration of the sesquicentennial. There are two particular times when they'll be in the spotlight. The first is July 2012, the anniversary of the Seven Days Battles, when a vast Union army was assembled outside Richmond. The really big year for Richmond's battlefields is 2014, the anniversary of the Richmond-Petersburg campaign. Those months of trench warfare were so bloody and desperate that the entire world was shocked, Ruth says.
It's not just about battlefields, though. Another big draw for Richmond is its unique legacy of slavery and emancipation.
Richmond was at the center of domestic slave trading — “slavery at its absolutely most brutal,” Ruth says. It was also where slaves seized the war as an opportunity to claim their freedom, where U.S. Colored Troops won 14 Medals of Honor for their valor at the Battle of New Market Heights in Henrico County, and where blacks built a thriving business district in Jackson Ward after the war. “Richmond can tell that story the way no other destination can,” says Carnam of the visitors' bureau.
Plans are in the works for a downtown heritage district that encompasses Lumpkin's Jail, where slaves were held and sold; the African Burial Ground; a genealogy center where people can learn about their enslaved ancestors; and a national slavery museum. These plans are yet in their infancy; no timeline has been developed, says Janine Bell, director of the Elegba Folklore Society and vice-chairwoman of City Council's Slave Trail Commission.
Visitors who want to explore the legacy of slavery in Richmond can visit the Lumpkin's Jail site and walk the Slave Trail in Manchester (Bell gives frequent tours), where interpretive signs will be unveiled April 3. The African Burial Ground land, now a Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot, will be officially conveyed to the city in July and turned into a memorial park while long-term plans are finalized.
“Richmond is really blessed to have this history. I don't want to take the horror away from it,” Bell says — but the city has an opportunity, she says, to become a model for how to honor and memorialize the history of slavery.
Richmond also has the two classic draws for Civil War tourists: Abraham Lincoln and Confederate generals.
“Why does the Confederacy seem to be more popular than the Union?” asks S. Waite Rawls III, president of the Museum of the Confederacy. “I don't know. But it is.” Instead of backing away from its Monument Avenue figures, he says, the city needs to promote them.
And when it comes to tourism, “any connection you can make to Abraham Lincoln is important,” Carnam says. The president came to Richmond in April 1865, when the city was still smoldering, and visited the White House of the Confederacy.
Lincoln is such a huge draw for Civil War tourists that Ruth has kicked around the idea of bringing all the Lincoln impersonators he can find to Richmond for the 150th anniversary of the 1865 visit. Imagine a flock of black frock coats and stovepipe hats — perfect YouTube fodder. “We're kind of looking for ways to make people freak out,” Ruth says. To still give the sesquicentennial the gravity it deserves, he clarifies, “but to do it in a different way than we've done in the past.”
Gettysburg, a quaint town of about 8,000 people in southern Pennsylvania, is “the 800-pound gorilla” of Civil War destinations, Carnam says.
Its major claim to fame is the Battle of Gettysburg, the most significant battle of the war. On July 1-3, 1863, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia clashed with George G. Meade's Union Army of the Potomac. More than 7,500 men died in the course of three days, and three times as many were wounded. The Confederates were routed, and Lee retreated.
The battle re-enactment is a “must-see, must-be spectacle,” says Linwood Sloan, Pennsylvania's director of cultural and heritage tourism: “If you like to be in the middle of it, you like to get in the dirty of it, July 4, 2013, is going to be a fabulous event.”
Lincoln is also a big draw: He gave his famous (and brief) Gettysburg Address there in November 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery.
Gettysburg hopes to increase its visitors from 3 million each year to a peak of 4 million visitors in 2013, generating a $2 billion economic impact for Adams County during the four and a half years.
To draw in motorists, the state is spending $1.2 million just on signs and stationing 36 costumed actors at various Civil War sites 25 hours a week.
But to stretch one battle into years' worth of tourism, the state is taking an unexpected marketing tack. Rather than go for the ol' guts-and-glory, the Gettysburg area wants to tell the home-front stories, Sloan says, the stories of farmers and fields.
After all, he says, “there's no such thing as battlefields.” They were originally farm fields, or homesteads, or pastures. Lee never even intended to fight there; he was mainly interested in raiding lush little Pennsylvania towns for food and supplies.
Farmers and fields? Whatever, Richmond's boosters say.
Gettysburg has a single strong story, they agree, and not much else to do. “There ain't no Carytown in Gettysburg,” Rawls says.
Richmond's museums are each tackling a different angle — and trying hard not to step on each other's toes. “There's a huge amount of cooperation going on,” says Paul Levengood, executive director of the Virginia Historical Society.
The American Civil War Center at Tredegar wants to be the first stop for visitors.
Someone needs to help people get a grasp on the history and figure out where to go, says its president, Christy Coleman: “We're going to go ahead and claim the mantle and help people understand how Richmond is the epicenter of all of this.”
The Civil War Center, which focuses on the political and social stories of the Civil War, soon will redo its visitor orientation center, working with the state and city tourism boards to become a total “gateway to the Civil War.”
The Richmond National Battlefield Park wants to shed its stodginess.
The system of 13 sites is getting significant funding from the National Park Service to spruce up its offerings in time for the sesquicentennial.
The park is spending $200,000 to produce and install 101 new signs intended to plunge visitors into the action. Some signs include newly unearthed photographs, like one showing both Confederate and Union lines at Fort Harrison, and even specially commissioned paintings.
The park is spending another $220,000 to redo the visitor centers at Cold Harbor and Fort Harrison, a project that should be completed by June. And it's seeking more funds to open up a new, little-known battle site in Hanover County called Totopotomoy Creek or Rural Plains. The 124-acre site includes the battle-damaged house, built around 1723, where Patrick Henry was married.
The park system also is creating electronic maps that will help visitors find the exact spot where an ancestor's regiment fought. “The battlefield will light up and the dot will be there,” superintendent Ruth explains. The first map, for Beaverdam Creek, is nearly done.
The Virginia Historical Society wants to have the must-see exhibit.
“An American Turning Point,” which opened Feb. 4, is the first time the historical society has sought to examine the Civil War in its entirety, says its president, Paul Levengood. That is, not only soldiers, spies and generals but also the “average people who are swept up in a conflict that's not of their own making,” he says.
The exhibit's opening weekend set an attendance record. Levengood says he hesitates to predict how many people will come, but expects 2011 to bring double-digit increases over last year. In 2012, the exhibit will begin traveling to other Virginia institutions, and the historical society will show other, smaller, Civil War-related exhibits.
The Museum of the Confederacy wants to regain its glory.
It has struggled financially during the last few years, as visitation declined and the ever-growing VCU Medical Center overshadowed the museum and its White House of the Confederacy. Things are looking better for the museum, Rawls says. January saw about 15 percent more visitors compared with last year, he says, and inquiries from tour groups are up 50 percent.
Two new exhibits just opened: one about life on the home front and one displaying curiosities from the collections. The provisional Confederate Constitution is on display until March 11. In September, the museum broke ground on a $7.5 million building in Appomattox, where it will be able to display hundreds of artifacts and documents it's now forced to keep in storage.
The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia wants to get past the war.
The Jackson Ward museum, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, secured a major exhibit from the Smithsonian that opens in July. It's a collection of portraits of notable African Americans called “Let Your Motto Be Resistance.”
The Civil War is “a tough topic,” says Director Maureen Elgersman-Lee, and not one that's particularly popular among the museum's audience. Nevertheless, the 150th anniversary of emancipation in 2013 is “going to be very exciting,” she says.
The Valentine Richmond History Center wants to get people talking.
Interestingly, the city's own museum isn't planning any special sesquicentennial exhibit. There are a few reasons for this, director Bill Martin says. One, the Valentine will be doing some serious renovations during the next few years, and may close for a time. Two, he says, “there are other institutions that are really focused on that single story.”
Instead, the Valentine is stepping up its programming. It's adding more walking tours and Civil War bus tours to sites around Richmond. And it's holding a series of community conversations in which local historians and museum leaders speak about the city's history and invite public discussion.
From these conversations, Martin says, the Valentine will be able to gauge what Richmonders know, and what they don't know, about their own history. Then, after the Civil War hoopla is over, the Valentine intends to open an exhibit that tells Richmond's story in an entirely new way.
But will they come? Is Richmond successfully marketing itself as the must-see destination?
“I think so,” says Coleman, of the American Civil War Center. She's seen encouraging signs, like the 24 bus tours booked by one Connecticut operator, each of which will bring people to Richmond for three days in the fall.
Other museum leaders think Richmond needs to try harder.
“I hope Richmonders don't have to explain after the sesquicentennial why we didn't do more,” Rawls says.
A year ago, Richmond's convention and visitors' bureau surveyed people who had inquired about visiting the city in the past. The survey found that about half were aware that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War was coming up, and 40 percent said they were likely to visit Richmond during that time. But just 14 percent recalled seeing any information about specific commemoration events. The implication, the bureau's survey found, was that “additional promotion may be necessary to raise recall and timely interest in visiting.”
With $97,000 budgeted for online and traditional marketing this year, the visitors' bureau is taking out ads in USA Today next month, as well as focusing its marketing efforts on the places from whence visitors already come: Raleigh, Atlanta and Washington. The Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station will be plastered in Richmond tourism ads in April, Carnam says. Last weekend, she traveled to the United Kingdom to hype Richmond overseas.
While the state Civil War commission is spending $2 million each year of the sesquicentennial, most of that money is going to educational exhibits and opportunities for Virginians, not to draw non-Virginians here. Rawls calls the effort shortsighted. “They should have spent more,” he says.
The real key to making the sesquicentennial a success, Levengood says, is “for Richmonders themselves to learn a little more about what lies around them and what lies underfoot.” Promoting Richmond's charms by word of mouth will always be more powerful than an ad campaign on the History Channel, he says.
“Every day here is a destination,” Rawls says. “It's our contention that the best event during the whole four-year period is any day in Richmond.”
Take that, Gettysburg. S