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See Civil War through new eyes
Mammoth, interactive exhibition takes fresh approach to Civil War, viewing it through the lens of biography

 A Richmonder, she lost her son in the fight at Malvern Hill.
VIRGINIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
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Date published: 2/1/2011

BY CLINT SCHEMMER

One day in May of 1861, Washington County's Ann Catron, 38, wrote her son:

"With all the timidity due to my sex, I am ready to offer you up in defense of your country's rights and honor. and I now offer you, a beardless boy of 17 summers--not with grief, but thanking God that I have a son to offer."

Her letter was published in the Winchester Virginian, whose editors added, "We venture to assert, [that son] will never let a Black Republican emissary of Lincoln's see his back."

So, on May 14--one month and two days after the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor--Andrew Catron went off to war. Enlisting in the 1st Virginia Cavalry, he became one of 280,000 Virginians who fought for the Confederacy.

This week, his story comes out of the shadows, thanks to "An American Turning Point: Virginia in the Civil War," a blockbuster exhibition at the Virginia Historical Society.

It is one of many tales that makes this giant show, which opens Friday, an absolute must-see.

"It's by far the biggest thing we've done, short of building a building. And it's all out on display, it's all got to work right," said Paul Levengood, the society's president and CEO.

"There is more packed into those 3,000-plus square feet than anything else we've ever done. And the level of complexity is far higher in terms of the number of audiovisual stations, and the number of artifacts and other elements."

The exhibition is so large that, when it tours the state, some institutions will have to split it into two parts, shown back to back.

Levengood said he believes "Turning Point" will be without equal nationally during the four-plus years of the sesquicentennial.

"Virginia was the first state to establish a commission to commemorate the Civil War's 150th anniversary, and has also been the most generous state in allocating and appropriating money for it," he said.

"That fact, and the foresight of members of the General Assembly, has allowed us to do what I think will arguably be the most dynamic and sophisticated exhibit launched anywhere for the 150th."

GREAT STORIES


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IF YOU GO

WHAT YOU CAN SEE, DO

WHAT: "An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia."

WHEN, WHERE: Feb. 4 to Dec. 30. Admission is free. Virginia Historical Society, 428 North Boulevard, Richmond. HOURS, CONTACTS: 804/358-4901; vahistori cal.org. Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday 1-5 p.m.

Nearly 1,000 man-hours went into creating just one piece, The Soldier in Virginia Database. From a slew of sources, VHS collected information on more than 1,500 Federal and Confederate regiments that served in the commonwealth. The result is an interactive touch table that lets you see the point of origin for every regiment that participated in 37 Virginia battles, and compare casualties suffered by each state. The database includes unit histories, and is searchable down to each soldier's home county.

Several bits of handiwork seem especially likely to intrigue younger visitors:

A "What Would You Do?" audiovisual program tells the true stories of four young Virginians and the dilemmas that they faced during the war.

A texting-vs.-telegraph competition in which participants match speed and wits with a Civil War telegrapher. (Other exhibits scrutinize two different innovations: the military railroad and aerial reconnaissance, which figured in the Fredericksburg area.)

A multiple-choice exhibit that puts them in the shoes of a surgeon who must make life-and-death decisions about a wounded soldier's medical treatment.

And there is sterner stuff:

"Journey to Freedom," an immersive video piece filmed in Appomattox Court House National Historical Park and Boston, tackles the sensitive and complex subject of how slaves escaped. Participants make on-the-fly decisions, and the results have many thought-provoking permutations.

"The Face of Battle," 3-D theater that lets visitors experience the sound and fury of the Battle of Kernstown, where two Virginia units fighting for the North and the South--collided in combat. (The pristine, 315-acre Shenandoah Valley battlefield is well worth seeing, too.)

"The Arm Needs to Come Off," a video shot at the American Theater in Hampton, simulates a Civil War-period amputation--and is more historically accurate that what you've seen in Hollywood fare. John Pelletier, a Tidewater re-enactor who regularly does programs at Ellwood on the Wilderness battlefield in Orange County, appears as the assistant surgeon.

--Clint Schemmer