Photos by Michael and Dylan Aubrecht (8/06)

The Museum of The Confederacy
Father and Son Road-Trip, August 5, 2006

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of spending a Saturday with my son (age 15) touring the Museum of the Confederacy, as well as Jefferson Davis' wartime residence, the Confederate White House. This was an exceptionally special day for me as I had been on a few Civil War-theme trips earlier in the year with my own father (Harrisonburg, New Market and Gettysburg) and was very eager to share a similar experience with my son. He's a great kid, a periodic honor-roll student, church volunteer, patriot and baseball fan. Unfortunately, he could care less about the Civil War. Still, he has asked to accompany me on some of my upcoming speaking engagements, and my older daughter has requested a personal tour of the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, so maybe - just maybe, one of them will show an interest in the War Between the States.

Back to our trip. Mom was very happy to have the baby (and the pool) to herself for an afternoon, and my older daughter was away, visiting with relatives, so we had no problem disappearing for a few hours instead of cutting the grass. Living in Spotsylvania County, just up the road from Richmond, the drive to the museum was a short, 40-minute jaunt down I-95. By the way, I'd like to thank all of the "Northerners" en-route to the beach and the "too-old-to-still-be-driving" retirees in their 40ft. mobile homes for the death-defying, NASCAR-like experience that they shared with us. I was not aware that my Jeep Cherokee would handle like that and I appreciated the opportunity to repeatedly test my brakes and steering. You'd think that people weaving in and out of traffic, not signaling and cutting you off would get on your nerves, but it really doesn't. You're so busy trying not to die, that you completely forget about your road rage. I would especially like to send a "shout out" to the guy from New York in the cobalt blue Dodge Magnum. Thanks for not hitting me when you flew passed me at 100 mph on the berm of the highway… damn Hemis!

Arriving in Richmond, I had to take a deep breath, as the urban sprawl that has suffocated the immediate blocks around the museum and White House continues to grow by leaps and bounds. The number of construction sites and tower cranes that dot the landscape is astounding and the total disregard for any "breathing space" in the historical district around Clay Street is deplorable. Now, I understand that MCV Hospital does groundbreaking, lifesaving work and I appreciate its contributions to the community. I just don't dig its location and apparent, infinite expansion. In fact, I believe that if the construction continues at the current pace, eventually there will be a MCV wing in my own backyard - that will eventually lead back to the main building. Actually… that might be convenient, as I can simply walk the 40-mile hall from my house to the MOC. That will save a lot of gasoline.

Anyway, that's enough preservationist sarcasm. The rest of the trip was absolutely wonderful and worth every minute of stress that it took in getting there. For those who have never been to the Museum of the Confederacy, I recommend it highly. The collections are second-to-none as far as Confederate artifacts and the personal effects of generals are concerned. The people who work there are among the most knowledgeable and friendly of any museum that I have visited. And, most important of all… they carry my books and have always supported my projects (especially my J.E.B. Stuart book). I am not ashamed to admit how excited I felt when I was first told that "Onward Christian Soldier" had been accepted into the Jackson biography section at the MOC's Haversack Store. Beyond any other bookstore or museum that carries either of my books, the MOC is definitely one of the biggest thrills as far as retailer locations.

The Museum of the Confederacy's mission is to serve as the preeminent world center for the display, study, interpretation, commemoration and preservation of the history and artifacts of the Confederate States of America. Aside from housing some pretty terrific artifacts, the museum also has a lot going on throughout the year for visitors, members and nonmembers alike. Events range from the interesting and educational, such as the annual Teachers' Institute and children's summer camps, to the just plain fun activities, like dancing the Virginia Reel in the lobby during Court End Christmas. The most earnest Civil War buffs never miss the annual lecture/discussions, especially the Evening Lecture Series that always features cutting-edge topics. The museum also boasts one of the largest collections of both Robert E. Lee's and J.E.B. Stuart's personal wartime possessions. The lovely woman at the ticket counter was anxious to point out that most of Jackson's things are kept at VMI and she told me that "They don't share very well, honey."

Now, here is where it helps to travel with a smart kid. Upon entering the museum's foyer, I immediately got in line and purchased tickets for us at the reception desk (which, by the way, is a great deal, with a museum and White House combo pass for only $10 for adults and $5 for students.) As I was gathering together my usual pile of free Civil War brochures and materials, my son drifted off into the gift shop, stopped in the middle of the crowded biography section, pointed at my book and said aloud, "Hey, that Stonewall book by Michael Aubrecht is a great read." Now I didn't have anything to do with that, which made it even better and I did thank him later for his spontaneous salesmanship. In retrospect, I think that may have been the first time that I looked somewhat "cool" to my kid. He isn't too impressed when my name appears in the newspaper anymore and he often likes to tell me that I look "geeky" in my photos. Today, I wasn't "geeky" though. I was "Dad, the celebrity author."

First, let me begin my recap of the sights by saying that for me to be at the Museum of the Confederacy is like the most rabid of tacky Elvis fans making a pilgrimage to Graceland. The same giddy emotions that are exhibited by some awkward, middle-aged woman as she enters the King's "Jungle Room" are exactly what I experience when standing before J.E.B. Stuart's field desk and Stonewall Jackson's forage cap. It is weird. I was in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, at the 2006 All-Star Game FanFest and stood inches away from Babe Ruth's bat, Lou Gehrig's jersey and countless other baseball artifacts, yet Stuart's revolver and sword took my breath away. To stand among the personal and wartime possessions of Jackson, Lee, Pickett, Armistead, Morgan, Forrest and others was amazing. In addition, the collection of battle flags, weaponry and handwritten correspondence at this museum is spectacular.

Of course, I have my favorites. And to see such a large collection of Stuart's and Jackson's possessions in one place is a privilege indeed. Their uniforms, field desks, hats, jackets, guns, swords, boots and personal effects are all there. Eventually, as the exhibits go on, it's too much to take in and you find yourself running around and bouncing off the walls like a little kid… "Look there's General Lee's fork that he actually ate with. He ate with that! Man! Look how big Stuart's revolver is. He held that, in his hands! Wow is that Morgan's saddle? Look at that stitching. Look!"

As usual, I deployed with digital camera in hand and took more than 80 photos over the course of 2 hours and 3 floors of exhibits. The tour of the Confederate White House was another hour of bliss, but photographs were strictly prohibited. This restriction is a real shame as the Jefferson Davis residence is an outstanding blend of both original and period pieces that are well worth photographing. It looks exceptionally elegant and stately on the inside, but it is equally impressive to learn how much of the White House's interior appearance was a façade, due to the lack of materials and finances during the war. In fact, what we would probably call cheap today; plaster statues painted like bronze, wood grain contact paper, faked marble patterns on the walls and camouflaged fireplaces, were considered luxuries at the time.

Originally built by a prominent Richmond banker named John Brockenbrough, the property was purchased by the government and used as the CSA's Executive Mansion, the Federal Army headquarters during occupation and reconstruction, a school and later, the first Confederate Museum. Over the years, the White House staff has managed to retrieve and purchase 70% of the items that were auctioned off at the end of the 1800's. In fact, our tour guide told us that they found one of the original beds from the children's nursery on eBay in 2004.

As you walk from room to glorious room, you begin to realize how wonderful it must have been to live in this magnificent house and to meet and greet the legends that visited it. Yet you also find yourself thinking about how sad it must have been to abandon such a palace as your government and your country crumbles all around you. You begin to feel sorry for the Davis family and the countless other casualties of the "Lost Cause." You soon learn that it was not as glamorous as you think to live in the capital of the Confederacy, as the war began to take its toll on everyone. It appeared that even the "Commander in Chief" of the Confederate States of America was sometimes called upon to sacrifice, although he had gas lighting and the first indoor water closet in the city. Eventually he had nothing to offer his guests to drink except water from the James River, (which was begrudgingly referred to as a "Jeff Davis Cocktail.")

Another interesting tidbit the guide shared with us was Jefferson Davis' lack of discipline toward his children. It may seem hard to believe that a man with Davis' dominant personality (and scowl) would be a pushover, but the guide explained that the family went through 6 nannies and eventually had to place anonymous ads in the Richmond papers to fill the position. Tragically, Davis lost his young son, Joseph, "his hope and greatest joy in life," when the five-year old fell from the property's east portico on April 30, 1864 and died within an hour.

J.E.B. Stuart's sidearm

Robert E. Lee's uniform

Stonewall Jackson's cap

After completing our White House tour, we ventured back to the museum to visit the remaining levels and photograph as many items as we could. The Museum of the Confederacy is currently divided into three floors. The top floor is used for special exhibitions and is currently featuring a look at the Confederate Navy. The maritime collection features uniforms, huge flags, ship models and some interesting "prototype weapons" such as the keg torpedo. The ground floor houses the general's collections and has some outstanding exhibits that include Robert E. Lee's entire tent (with original furniture, a complete uniform, mess kit and other accoutrements). The basement level is dedicated to the "everyday" Confederate soldier and also features an art gallery of both period and contemporary CSA pieces. A reenactor from the 21st Virginia Army was also present and was more than happy to pose for photos and answer questions. We listened intently and thanked him for his time. 

As the afternoon began to wind down, we stopped to take some exterior shots of the buildings before jumping back in the Jeep for the short trek home. After all, there were still a few hours of daylight left and that grass still needed trimming. Getting out of Richmond was a little harder than getting in and I only had to turn around once. But the drive home was without incident, as I believe all of the demolition derby drivers, I mean tourists, were still headed like "a bat out of hell" in the other direction. At the end of the day, I was very glad to have taken the time to visit, as unfortunately, the museum has fallen on some hard times. Urban sprawl and financial woes have threatened to swallow the facility and I'm not exactly sure what the future holds for it. I hope and pray that there is a way to keep it open and operating for a long time to come. The Museum of the Confederacy is a treasure and NEEDS to be protected.


For more information, visit the MOC website. And for a great day, go visit them in person.


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