By Christopher Graham
Mellon Guest Curator
To further the American Civil War Museum’s mission to explore the Civil War from multiple perspectives, the Andrew W. Mellon team is traveling around the world! Our second Mellon project uses a Confederate story to explore the global stakes of the American Civil War. I would like to introduce you to Southern Ambitions: War For the Future.
This years’ project features Dr. Adrian Brettle’s research, finished under the supervision of Dr. Gary Gallagher at the Nau Center for Civil War Studies at the University of Virginia. Adrian will introduce his topic in greater detail below.
I’ve been in the Civil War business almost my entire life and I continue to be amazed not only by the volume of things yet to learn, but also by the ways that encountering new history opens up new ways of understanding our world now.
Adrian’s scholarship explores how Confederates anticipated and imagined their place in the international order, and how they adjusted their vision in response to the realities of war. Southern Ambitions offers us a view of the rapidly transforming international community of the mid-19th Century. Through this project I’ve encountered Dom Pedro II and Brazilian emancipation, the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the transformation of the British Empire, Solomon Cosby and the global work of emancipation, as well as transcontinental railroads, submarine telegraphs, and the “annihilation of space and time.”
Asking how did Confederates envision their place in this world after their independence is not a counterfactual fantasy. It helps us see that the outcome of the American Civil War—Confederate defeat and Union victory—was not foreordained, and had far-reaching stakes beyond the borders of the United States.
As the Mellon team has thought through this topic amongst ourselves and with our colleagues and partners, we’ve been surprised by how thinking about the 19th Century international world enables us to think about our world today. We still, after all, ship cotton across oceans, global slavery did, sadly, survive the defeat of the Confederacy, and we all came of age in a global order dominated by the United—not the Confederate—States. Thinking about the American Civil War helps us imagine our own place in this alive and evolving history.
We have found, too, while talking with students at Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Union University that this topic energizes new audiences and suggests that the American Civil War Museum will be an exciting place to see old topics with new eyes.
Over the next few months Mellon team members will invite you inside our project development process and talk about how we are thinking about telling this story. Meika Downey will describe the development of engaging lesson plans for middle and high school students. Ana Edwards will take us to familiar and unexpected places in Richmond to explore ways to tell this story beyond the walls of this museum. I will return to tell you about our planning and prototyping for the temporary exhibition.
You can help! Ask us questions, point us to your international stories of the American Civil War, and help us tell a different story about America’s turning point.