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See Civil War through new eyes page 3
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


Elizabeth T.E. Munford, who was at home in Richmond on July 1, 1862, and could hear cannon fire from the Battle of Malvern Hill. Her son, Lt. Charles Ellis Munford, was fighting in the Letcher Light Artillery. She expected to "hear from Ellis tonight," she wrote her daughters. Late that evening, his comrades brought Munford's body to her doorstep, directly from the battlefield

Henry Van Leuvenigh Bird, a Virginia private who fought in the Battle of the Crater, the Union army's ill-fated attempt to break through at Petersburg by tunneling underneath the Confederate defenses, planting gunpowder and blowing a huge hole in the line. (The chaotic scene was vividly depicted in the movie "Cold Mountain.")


These individuals may not have gained great fame in the war, but their experiences are riveting--and real eye-openers, an early sneak peak at the exhibition reveals.

That's just what the society's curators, archivists and designers aimed for. Using representative individuals and situations, they seek to further people's understanding of the experiences of Virginians, and those who served in Virginia, during the war.

They didn't want to take a top-down approach, the "battles and leaders" theme that's been done for decades, Levengood said. The nonprofit's 2007 "Lee and Grant" show was a fine example of that strategy.

Which is not to say that "American Turning Point" doesn't tackle big themes or ask provocative questions.

Consider one of its opening statements: "From 1861 to 1865, Virginia stood at the center of a military and social revolution. How we define freedom, liberty, patriotism, and nation today is directly related to the experiences of the generation that waged and survived the American Civil War."

The exhibition's creators, Levengood said, are eager to engage new audiences--reaching beyond the history-minded folks and Civil War buffs who would usually come to such a show.

Online, everyone can follow along. "Turning Point" is being blogged, tweeted, broadcast on YouTube, and will have a website for mobile devices.


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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