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See Civil War through new eyes page 2
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.
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Date published: 2/1/2011


The big topic demands a big show. Occupying three galleries, "American Turning Point" takes up more than 3,000 square feet, and includes more than 200 artifacts and 17 state-of-the-art audiovisual programs.

Its subject's very scope posed hurdles for the museum's curators and designers: How do you bring home the way this war left no one untouched? How do you avoid making it yet-another retelling of military glory and heroism? How do you appeal to people to whom the word "history" is a turnoff?

Answer: Great stories.

Meet Siah Carter, 22, a slave at Shirley Plantation along the James River east of Richmond. Two months after the first battle of ironclads at Hampton Roads, the USS Monitor lay at anchor in the James. "The Yankees would carry [escaping slaves] out to sea," Carter was told, "tie a piece of iron about their necks and throw them overboard." But he rowed a small boat out to the Monitor, was taken aboard, and became first assistant to the ship's cook. Carter served in the Union navy until May 1865, returning home after war's end to marry Eliza Tarrow, a former slave at Shirley.

You'll also get to know, among others:

Anthony Rosenstock, a Petersburg businessman who, with his family, decided to leave war-torn Virginia and run the blockade.

James E. Hanger, an 18-year-old Confederate private from Churchville in Augusta County. As one of the war's first amputees, he established an artificial-limb company that continues to serve the casualties of 21st-century wars.

Union Lt. Joseph Paradis who, in 1864, survived the maelstrom of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania only to be cut down at Cold Harbor.

Anne Gordon, who became a refugee in the winter of 1862, forced to flee her Fredericksburg home as Northern troops pressed down on the city. (Watch for a story about her later this week in this newspaper.)

Union Lt. Col. Noah Farnham, who took the place of his dead commander--and died of a musket-ball wound to the head--in the war's first large-scale land battle, at Manassas.

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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