The American Civil War Museum


The American Civil War Museum, formerly known as the Museum of the Confederacy, opened in the former Confederate capital of Richmond in 1896 as the Confederate Museum. One of Richmond’s oldest museums, it is the only institution in Virginia that began as a Confederate shrine and transformed itself into a modern history museum. The museum was a preservation effort on two levels: it rescued from destruction the former Confederate executive mansion and displayed in the mansion’s rooms the artifacts—”relics” as they were called in the 1890s—of Confederate soldiers and civilians from the American Civil War (1861–1865) and the postwar Lost Cause era. In 2014, the Museum of the Confederacy became the American Civil War Museum.

The museum’s parent organization, the Confederate Memorial Literary Society (CMLS), was an all-female board chartered in May 1890, but descends directly from the Hollywood Memorial Association (HMA), which formed in May 1866 to tend the graves of Confederate soldiers at Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. Early in 1890, the HMA’s new president, Isobel Stewart Bryan, wife of publisher and businessmen Joseph Bryan, suggested that the association petition the City of Richmond for title to the former White House of the Confederacy, which had served as a public school called the Central School since 1871 and which the city planned to replace with a new school building.

Isobel Lamont Stewart Bryan

The CMLS received the deed for the former Confederate White House on June 3, 1894. Meanwhile, a Relics Committee, headed by Mary Maury Werth, daughter of naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury, solicited for donations of objects and documents. By the time the museum opened its doors on February 22, 1896, its collection was already rich.

The museum had many assets. It was the creation of the Confederate generation itself and was located in a city and a building with strong Confederate associations. Although all of its officers were women, it also enjoyed the services of an influential men’s advisory board. The museum assigned rooms to each of the eleven Confederate states, along with Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland; the center parlor of the house was designated the “Solid South Room” and displayed the Great Seal of the Confederate States of America and other artworks and artifacts deemed important to the entire Confederacy. To represent each room, the museum recruited prominent women (often the wives and widows of Confederate generals) as room regents to lend prestige and draw donations of objects and money. The first regent of the Virginia Room, for example, was Mildred Lee, youngest daughter of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Through such associations, the museum received Lee’s effects and those of other famous Confederate civilian and military leaders, notably Jefferson Davis, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart, and John Hunt Morgan.

Maintaining the state rooms were vice-regents who were members of the museum governing board. They were volunteers who worked under the supervision of the house regent, who was the museum’s principal employee. Occupying that position was a succession of unmarried women: Isabel Maury (1896–1912), Susan B. Harrison (1912–1939), and India Thomas (1939–1962). Eleanor Brockenbrough, who became assistant house regent in 1939, later served as acting director under a more modern administrative system.

Virginia Room in The Museum of the Confederacy

The museum’s state rooms appeared to some observers as “an over-crowded hodge-podge”: wood and glass cases packed full of objects and documents, with minimal identification and virtually no didactic labeling. The displays were to speak for themselves and testified primarily to the heroism and sacrifice of the Southern people and soldiers. The CMLS kept separate figures for “northern and foreign” visitors, suggesting that the museum was intended to educate outsiders as well as reinforce the identity of Southerners.

Beyond preserving the former Confederate White House and collecting relics, the CMLS embarked on a series of projects to mark sites (primarily in Richmond) significant to Confederate history, compile a comprehensive biographical record of Confederate service men (the “Roll of Honour”), and publish a catalog of its rich manuscript holdings.

Beset by decades-old financial woes, deteriorating buildings (from 1960 until 1980, the museum also owned and operated the Richmond home of Robert E. Lee and his family), and urban politics, the CMLS underwent a serious self-examination early in the 1960s. It rejected a suggestion to give away its collections and concentrate solely on operating a historic house, but did replace the house regent with a professional executive director, Peter Rippe, a young University of Delaware graduate. He and his successor, Kurt Brandenburg, and the board of trustees resolved to raise funds for a new museum building and to restore the executive mansion to its 1860s appearance.

The new museum building opened in October 1976, and the restored White House opened in June 1988. In 1991, the CMLS board of trustees restructured itself, abolished the men’s advisory board, and elected its first male and African American members.

Before Freedom Came

The decisions made in the face of the 1960s crisis consciously put the museum on the road toward becoming a modern museum and educational institution. To reflect this, in 1970, the institution changed its name to the Museum of the Confederacy. In the 1980s and 1990s, the museum received several sizable grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the White House restoration and for exhibitions, while continuing to acquire and display artifacts of the Confederate military and home front. The 1991 NEH-sponsored exhibition and book project, Before Freedom Came: African-American Life in the Antebellum South, drew international acclaim and resulted in the museum’s highest visitation.

Declines in visitation and financial health and encroachment by the surrounding Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center (formerly the Medical College of Virginia) precipitated a new crisis early in the twenty-first century. In accordance with the results of several institutional studies, in 2007 the museum embarked on a plan to create a “museum system” with several sites across the state, reaching out to more people with more of its collection on display. In January 2014, the Museum of the Confederacy became the American Civil War Museum.

May 1866
The Hollywood Memorial Association is formed to tend the graves of Confederate soldiers at Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery.
The former Confederate White House becomes Central School, a public school in Richmond.
May 1890
The all-female Confederate Memorial Literary Society is chartered after Isobel Stewart Bryan, president of the Hollywood Memorial Association, petitions the City of Richmond for title to the former Confederate White House, which is slated for demolition.
June 3, 1894
The Confederate Memorial Literary Society receives the deed to the former Confederate White House in Richmond.
February 22, 1896
The Confederate Memorial Literary Society opens the Confederate Museum (now the Museum of the Confederacy) in the former Confederate White House in Richmond.
The Confederate Memorial Literary Society, which runs the Confederate Museum (now the Museum of the Confederacy), undergoes a self-examination process. The group resolves to raise funds for a new building and to restore the former Confederate White House to its 1860s appearance.
The Confederate Museum changes its name to the Museum of the Confederacy to reflect its role as a modern museum and educational institution.
October 1976
The Museum of the Confederacy's new museum building opens.
June 1988
The former Confederate White House, restored by the Museum of the Confederacy to its 1860s appearance, opens.
The Confederate Memorial Literary Society board of trustees restructures itself, abolishes the men's advisory board, and elects its first male and African American members.
The Museum of the Confederacy becomes the American Civil War Museum
  • Brundage, W. Fitzhugh. The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2005.
  • Coski, John M. “A Century of Collecting,” The Museum of the Confederacy Journal, No. 74. Richmond: The Museum of the Confederacy, 1996.
  • Coski, John M. and Amy R. Feely. “A Tribute to Southern Womanhood: The Founding Generation of the Confederate Museum,” in A Woman’s War: Southern Women, Civil War, and the Confederate Legacy, edited by Edward D. C. Campbell, Jr., and Kym S. Rice. Richmond and Charlottesville: The Museum of the Confederacy and the University Press of Virginia, 1996.
  • Feely, Amy R. “Southern Lady Meets New Woman: Women of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society and the Lost Cause in Richmond, Virginia,” MA thesis, University of Virginia, 1996.
  • Janney, Caroline E. Burying the Dead But Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2008.
APA Citation:
Coski, John. The American Civil War Museum. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/museum-of-the-confederacy.
MLA Citation:
Coski, John. "The American Civil War Museum" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 12 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2023, June 30
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