In May, the new American Civil War Museum opened in Richmond, VA. This museum is the culmination of two Richmond Civil War institutions, the American Civil War Center and the Museum of the Confederacy, combining forces and creating a unique museum. Built in the ruins of the Tredegar Iron Works, where much of the artillery used by the Confederacy was created, this new museum is a beautiful structure amidst the ruins and aims to tell the story of the Civil War from multiple perspectives. I love how the museum’s mission is to tell ALL of the stories, not just the men on the battlefield, but the women, children, and enslaved persons’ stories as well. This makes the Civil War a more interesting and relatable story, especially for children.
The building itself is inspiring, right on the banks of the James River. As you walk to the building, your kids can watch kayakers in the river while a train rumbles by overhead. Walk with your children through the remaining arch of the iron works building as you enter the museum, where more of the brick ruins remain.
The gallery space is all on the first floor and tells the story of the war, starting in the lobby with 1860.
Enter the gallery space and begin viewing artifacts from the war years, from Gen. Robert E. Lee’s boots to letters from a couple split apart by the beginning of the war.
The stories about families separated by the new borders are especially poignant. Be sure to read the story about the Petty brothers. This gallery also mentions Mary Bowser, who was a free black woman thought to be a Union spy in the Confederate White House.
You will also notice that large photos of real people on all sides of the conflict are posted in a very fractured way all throughout the exhibit, which is meant to convey the serious fracture that was happening at the national level and even in families.
Your children will love the interactive screens that highlight the statistics of that year of the war and include more information on artifacts.
As you make your way through the 1861 gallery, you will hear the narration of the Battle of Bull Run, the first battle of the war. You can stand in the remains of a blown-up wooden structure and hear about the devastation that came from this beginning battle. Hearing it in first-person accounts really is impactful. Look down and see some items embedded in the floor, as they were when they were excavated from the battlefield.
Continue through the gallery to 1862 where you will come across some interesting artifacts from the intense fighting around Richmond at this time in the war. There is a movie playing here in the structure made out of cloth. The movie is narration of first-person accounts from enslaved persons so may not be suitable for young ears. Hearing the descriptions of the horrors of slavery in their own words is very moving.
Be sure to look at the gallery to your right as you move into 1863. One of my son’s favorite artifacts is the china doll, Nina, that is displayed here. This doll was carried by a young Southern girl through the lines. Unbeknownst to the Union soldiers, this doll’s head contained a secret compartment to carry much needed medicine to the Confederate army!
In the 1863 section, you can go into a theater to watch an 8-minute video on how the homefront became the battlefront. Stories from Richmond, Vicksburg, and other towns are shared, all with first-person accounts and stunning pictures. My son was fascinated to know that New York City had draft riots and that women and children rioted in Richmond for food.
As you come to 1864, don’t miss the gallery on your right, where a rosette formed by two bullets hitting in mid-air is displayed. This amazed my son! It was also fascinating to learn about the resourcefulness that civilians had during these lean years, from the racoon-skin boots to the peach pit buttons, all on display. This gallery also displays a spy code disk and items made out of various animal bones from POW camps that are interesting for kids to see.
As 1864 gives way to 1865, the displays become more somber, as the war reaches Richmond. Some heartbreaking stories are told in the gallery of quick weddings and desperate evacuations from the burning city. However some hopeful stories are told as well, from the POWs released (be sure to see the hard tack biscuit that is over 150 years old!) to the freed slaves’ jubilation at President Lincoln’s visit to Richmond.
The last room is striking, with a celebration of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments alongside the famous painting of Gen. Lee and Gen. Jackson’s last meeting. This room sums up the museum quite well – it tells a very difficult chapter of our nation’s history in a factual yet personal way. By allowing you and your children to step into the shoes of those who lived through it, the museum shows visitors why this murky time period is still one of the most studied and discussed times of history.
Due to some of the underlying themes of this hard history, I would recommend this museum for children in upper elementary and older. My son, who was 10 years old when we visited, loves learning about history and knew some of these tough stories from his 4th grade social studies class. While he still had some hard questions, he was old enough to read and process the information that is provided here.
After exiting the gallery, you can head upstairs to the temporary gallery space, which currently has an exhibit on how the Civil War was financed. Don’t miss stepping outside from this 2nd level to see the famous statue of President Lincoln with his son, Tad. You can also get a better view of the grounds behind the museum, where artillery demonstrations are held daily.
Be sure to visit the gift shop before you leave for neat RVA shirts, toys, and books. A few snacks are also sold. As you leave the Tredegar site, take your children across the street to Brown’s Island for some great views of the James River. This is also where you can begin the walk on the Potterfield Memorial Bridge, which is a gorgeous walk over the rapids of the James. Directly in front of the museum is access to the pedestrian bridge to Belle Isle, which was a POW camp for Union soldiers during the Civil War and is now a recreation destination.
Before you head back to your car, cross the street to read about the munitions explosion on Brown’s Island during the Civil War, which was Richmond’s deadliest wartime disaster. There is a historical marker describing this at the corner of S. 5th and Tredegar Streets.
You can also visit the National Park Service Richmond National Battlefield Park Tredegar Visitor Center to get more information about touring the area’s battlefields.
The American Civil War Museum has two other related locations – the White House of the Confederacy in Richmond and the ACWM-Appomattox. The White House tour is a guided tour of the home that Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family called home for the 4 years of the Civil War. This tour lasts 45 minutes and tickets are sold at Tredegar and also at the home at 1201 E. Clay Street, about a 10 minute drive from Tredegar. Free parking is provided at the VCU hospital, which is next-door to the White House. The VCU medical complex now sprawls over this area, called the Court End, so it is hard to imagine what the exterior of the White House was like during Civil War times.
The tour itself is fascinating and the rooms have been restored to what they would have looked like during the time that the Davis family was here.
I am always interested to see how those from history actually lived, from the beds to the dishes to the toys in the nursery, seeing these little domestic items makes it easier to imagine the time period. The nursery in this home is neat to see and kids will be interested to see the toys that the Davis children used. However this tour is not recommended for young children as it is not stroller-friendly. I would recommend this tour for ages 10 and up only. See the museum’s guidelines for tours here.
The American Civil War Museum-Appomattox is a great stop on your way to or from Appomattox Courthouse. This museum is a 1 hour, 45 minute drive from the Richmond museum and will be covered on The History Mom in detail in the upcoming Appomattox Courthouse post.
The new American Civil War Museum is a must-see for any history enthusiast and is a great place for your older children to learn about the daily lives of all US inhabitants during the Civil War. If you are local to the Richmond area, I encourage you to think about joining the museum as a member to get access to the numerous speakers and authors who visit the site. It’s a great way to support the museum and to get free entry!
Cost: $15/adults; $8/youth; additional fee for White House tour; free for members
Recommended: ages 10 and up
Museum tour takes 30-45 minutes; White House tour takes 45 minutes
Gift shops located at Tredegar site and White House entry; NPS Visitor Center at Tredegar also has a gift shop; snacks sold at gift shops
Transportation: The museum is easily located off I-195 and has a parking lot (be sure to take in your ticket to get it validated). On weekends, this lot can get full with those using the recreation spots nearby. There is ample street parking on Browns Island Way, S. 2nd and S. 5th Streets. The White House is located near I-95 and validated parking is provided in the VCU Medical Center garage, located on 12th Street.
Dining options nearby: Many food trucks tend to park near the museum, especially on the weekends. There are not many restaurants within walking distance so bring a picnic and eat by the James! If you are at the White House, walk one block to The Valentine Museum and eat from the Carriage House Cafe in its courtyard (open weekdays only).
Books to read:
14 and up:
10 and up:
6 and up:
Have you been to the new museum? What was your favorite artifact or gallery?Comment below!
(Edited to include new information: February 2020)