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(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.
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. Through such associations, the museum received Lee’s effects and those of other famous Confederate civilian and military leaders, notably , , , 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.
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.
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.