Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Cathy Wright is a curator at the American Civil War Museum. Before that, she curated collections at the Museum of the Confederacy. She gives us a tour of some of the exhibits on display and explains how looking at one item from a different vantage point changes the story it tells.

*This segment features audio produced for the American Civil War Museum.


Autumn Leaves – Podington Bear
Defend the Bastion
Button Mushrooms – Podington Bear
Curious Places – Podington Bear

Portrait of Julia Mitchell, prior to her marriage. Source: American Civil War Museum

Portrait of Julia Mitchell, prior to her marriage. Source: American Civil War Museum

Testimonial marriage certificate for Julia Mitchell of Virginia and Frederick Coggill of New York, who were married in June 1863 after years of separation due to the war. Source: American Civil War Museum

Testimonial marriage certificate for Julia Mitchell of Virginia and Frederick Coggill of New York, who were married in June 1863 after years of separation due to the war. Source: American Civil War Museum

Flag of the 49th North Carolina Infantry, captured at the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864 by 43rd US Colored Troops. Source: American Civil War Museum

Flag of the 49th North Carolina Infantry, captured at the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864 by 43rd US Colored Troops. Source: American Civil War Museum

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

Ed Ayers: As Christy said there, the new museum drew on the collections of two previous institutions. The selection of artifacts in the context they were put in was a vital part of telling the story.

Ed Ayers: Curator Cathy Wright, showed BackStory producer, Melissa Gismondi, around the exhibition some of which was still being unpacked as you may here.

Melissa G.: You’re saying we’re standing in the main gallery?

Cathy Wright: Yeah, we’ve just entered the main gallery and we’re standing in what’s essentially the beginning of the war. This particular area really is trying to get visitors a sense of the creation of the Confederacy, and both the United States and the Confederacy ramping up for a war, and the first battles of the war.

Cathy Wright: We have a large artifact display case on one side that explores real people, and decisions that they made about which side to support and how they did that. We’ve really tried to choose people who are both for the Union and for the Confederacy, and the way that the outbreak of war really impacted their lives. For instance, we have a southern woman and a northern man who were engaged in 1860, and the outbreak of war prevented them getting married for a number of years.

Cathy Wright: She eventually takes a boat of Truce and travels up to New York City during the war and is finally able to marry him, but it took several years to coordinate that.

Melissa G.: Do we know was it kind of a torturous decision for both of them?

Cathy Wright: It was a difficult decision in that, they seem to have been very much in love and they wanted to get married and she wanted her family to be present. She was from Virginia and they wrote letters to each other back and forth, which then had to be delivered through a boat of Truce. She finally made the decision and was able to leave from Norfolk, Virginia, with her mother and travel up to New York in 1863, and that’s when they were finally married.

Cathy Wright: We have a large portrait of her and we’re going to exhibit some reproductions of the letters as well as their marriage certificate.

Melissa G.: Is their story one that’s new to the museum or if I had been … say at the Museum of the Confederacy, would I have heard their story there too?

Cathy Wright: You would not have heard their story before. We had her portrait on display in what was essentially a meeting room, which was only used for various public meetings and programs and things of that sort. But there was no real explanation of who she was, or their lengthy drawn out romance and separation.

Cathy Wright: We’re looking at the second of the media pieces, which is going to be presented to visitors. This is another approximately three minute long audio and video presentation. What we really wanted to show within this space is the way that African Americans had been sort of taking their own steps even before the war began to free themselves, and the way that sort of the evolution of Emancipation and things like the Emancipation Proclamation, influenced their decision about whether to flee to Union Lines or whether to stay where they were. We have selected a number of stories and quotations from real people to highlight the variety of decisions that people made.

Cathy Wright: We start out with a story that was told by a former slave, of a young African American girl being punished and then sold.

Speaker 8: Once Missus was sick and a slave girl named Alice brought her some water and something to eat, Missus got sick to her stomach and she said Alice was trying to poison her. She got out of bed, strips that girl to her waist, and whips her with the cowhide. Alice was chained down by the arms and legs until she got well, then she was carried off to Richmond in chains, and sold.

Cathy Wright: We start out with sort of the worst things which could have happened to a slave, and then we move forward into the story of a man who chose to run away. He was in Louisiana. He hid in the swamps from slave hunters for several months and finally made it to Union Lines where he enlisted as a Union soldier and served for the duration of the war.

Speaker 9: One morning the bell was rung for us to go to work so early that I could not see, and I lay still. For this, the overseer was going to have me whipped.

Speaker 9: I ran away to the woods where I remained for a year and a half. Are they after me? Can I stay free? What’s going to happen to my family? I had to steal my food, I took turkeys, chicken and pigs. We slept on logs and burnt cypress leaves to make a smoke and keep away mosquitoes.

Speaker 9: Eugene [Giardot 00:19:04], master of hounds hunted us for three months. One day, 20 hounds came after me, we killed eight. The dogs followed us into the bayou, and the alligators caught six of them.

Speaker 9: We escaped to Union Lines where I joined the Company C, 15th Regiment Corps du Freak.

Cathy Wright: We conclude with a quotation from a letter that was written by an African American woman in Maryland, which had slaves but as part of the Union, they were not freed as the result of the Emancipation Proclamation. She wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln.

Speaker 10: Mr President, it is my desire to be free, to go to see my people. You will please let me know if we are free?

Cathy Wright: There’s no record of any response to her letter, and she’s writing during the war. We know that the answer to that was that, no, she was not free and therefore had to wait for the 13th amendment to be passed in 1865.

Melissa G.: Do we know what happened to that woman in the years after the war?

Cathy Wright: We do not know what happened to her.

Melissa G.: Is that story … Now, I’m thinking about what this media installation … it’s also next to … there’s a giant colorized photo of two enslaved people picking cotton in a field. How is this different from how the issue of slavery would have been represented at the Museum of the Confederacy?

Cathy Wright: One of the things which we really wanted to do in this new exhibition, which we’d not had the opportunity to do before, was to focus on the African American experience throughout the exhibition, and to really incorporate it and weave it throughout the overall narrative in a way that I think most other exhibitions including our own previously, will talk about African Americans almost as a sideline and you’ll get occasional little mentions of them, but they’re not the main characters. We wanted to make them one of the main characters and put their story and the story of the evolution of Emancipation throughout the war, at the core of all of this.

Cathy Wright: We have lots of flags at our collection, and this is one of my favorites because of the story behind it. I think a lot of people when they see a confederate flag, they have really strong feelings one way or another about it. But this one I think challenges a lot of those preconceptions. It is just a standard Army of Northern Virginia battle flag. It’s a very recognizable red background with white stars on a blue cross. This particular flag was carried, we think based on a research, by the 49th North Carolina Infantry.

Cathy Wright: It was carried during the Petersburg campaign, which was in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1864, at the Battle of the Crater. Also it’s famously where Union and Confederate troops had sort of been in a standoff in Siege Warfare. Union troops had hit upon a plan to dig a tunnel underneath the Confederate Line of Fortifications and to detonate a large amount of black powder. Basically blow a hole in the Confederate Lines and then send in Union troops.

Cathy Wright: This happened … I think it was July 30th, 1864, when this is finally detonated and the resulting crater became known as the Battle of the Crater. African American US colored troops were the first ones sent in, and this really became just a complete scene of chaos and destruction for both sides. You had Confederate soldiers who were trapped in a lot of the dirt and the various debris from the explosion, you had Union troops that are going into that, and a lot of really fierce hand-to-hand combat.

Cathy Wright: The flag of the 49th North Carolina was captured by US colored troops in this battle. Capturing the flag was an enormous honor for any soldier. As far as I know, this is the only flag that is recorded as being captured by the US colored troops. The US army kept very careful records of who captured a flag because they were eligible for a Medal of Honor.

Cathy Wright: This particular flag we have had conserved and we’re really very excited to be able to put it on display and present it with the history of its association with the crater and with the colored troops. It’s an artifact that really bridges both sides of the story and it sort of shows how the military situation had changed so dramatically by 1864, that you have black men in uniform who were able to go in and perform actions that make them eligible to receive medals of honor.

Melissa G.: Was this flag on display at the Museum of the Confederacy?

Cathy Wright: It was on display, but it was kind of in a downstairs gallery that wasn’t part of a cohesive exhibition. It was just sort of a standalone item. But it was one that we’d been really excited to get conserved and now I’m really pleased to see it more integrated and interwoven into the overall story of the war.

Cathy Wright: One of the challenges with any exhibition on the Civil War is you have to get the war started and you also have to end it. The very final gallery of the exhibition focuses on the Post-war period and we’re not defining this and limiting it with any particular year, but we do want to anchor the space with the three amendments to the US Constitution which immediately followed the war.

Cathy Wright: These were tremendous steps forward in the United States, and are all amendments which continue to be discussed and debated and relevant today as we talk about things like voting rights and citizenship. As these rights were given to African Americans, there were also a lot of white supremacists who were looking for ways to reassert their authority. This is an aspect that we also want to not lose sight of as we talk about some of the progress that was made.

Cathy Wright: There’s also this pushback. We do talk about some terror organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, which were established to reassert control by instilling fear in African Americans, as well as more legal and political means which were put forth to discourage African Americans from voting. Things like the poll tax, which was soon adopted in many states, that basically made it financially impossible for the average poor person, white or black, to go to the polls.

Melissa G.: How do you illustrate that with items? What sorts of items will be on displaying that?

Cathy Wright: We’re going to be exhibiting a poll tax receipt. Anyone who paid a poll tax was given a receipt. We have a reproduction of one of those which will be used to help talk about voting rights. A document that we’re using to illustrate African American civil rights, is a marriage certificate.

Cathy Wright: The ability for black couples to be able to formally get married and have a legally recognized partnership was hugely important to many people. The marriage certificate which we’re exhibiting, was issued to a couple who had already been together as a couple for I think about 12 years. They had several children together and they were enormously excited to be able to formally get married and have this document which named them as man and wife.

Melissa G.: Then you talked about, the official war ends, but the violence doesn’t stop for many African Americans. How is your job as a curator … how do you convey that in a way where it sounds like it’s a delicate balance? You need to recognize the progress that’s made, but then as a curator also address the fact that in some cases, in some towns, African Americans are still in danger in many cases.

Cathy Wright: It’s challenging sort of personally and professionally to realize that in many ways some of the lessons of the worst still haven’t been learned today, and that we’re still dealing with some of this. My hope for history and the study of history and coming to museums is that … in learning about the past that we can hope to learn from it and make better choices in the future and not go back and repeat past mistakes.

Cathy Wright: I hope that it teaches people to be more careful thinkers, not only about things that happened in the past, but in looking at issues today. Very upsetting just to see in the news in the past week or so that there are still black churches being targeted and burned. Clearly there are still lessons which we haven’t learned collectively, but I hope that we can see the humanity in people and the enormous struggles that people have made in the past, particularly African Americans.

Cathy Wright: Many of them coming from slavery and having almost nothing and giving up in many cases what very little that they had, in order to become free for themselves, for their children. That this still encourages us to continue to struggle and fight for what is right today.

Nathan Connolly: That’s Cathy Wright, curator at the American Civil War Museum. To see images of some of the items Cathy discussed, head to our website,