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See Civil War through new eyes page 4
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


None of this would have been possible, Levengood said, if not for generous support from the General Assembly and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the collaboration of numerous museums and private collectors. Many of the artifacts will be on public display for the first time.

"An American Turning Point" is a signature program of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission. Virginia was the first state to appoint a panel to plan 150th anniversary activities.

The VHS team, working with many outside vendors, has gone to extraordinary efforts to produce the show--as was evident during a tour last week while many components were being installed.

It's been an "all hands on deck" experience for everyone, society spokeswoman Jennifer Guild said.

The exhibition, which is broken into battlefront and home front sections dubbed "Waging War" and "Surviving War," leads off by asking "Why War?" and also explores why the nation's deadliest conflict is considered its first modern war.

Other questions: Who was a traitor, and who was a patriot? Why is there a West Virginia? Who freed the slaves? How did civilians suffer? Why was Richmond so important? Why did people expect a 90-day war? Which is more important--speed or strength, offense or defense? What was the deadliest enemy? Should black men be enlisted as soldiers?

"Turning Point" ends by asking visitors to consider if the Civil War really ended at Appomattox.

Even focusing solely on Virginia, the war's numbers are staggering, notes exhibit coordinator Andrew H. Talkov. The story includes:

1,000,000 free white Virginians.

491,000 enslaved African-Americans.

2,154 military engagements (more than in any other state).

50,000 Virginians who fought for the Union.

Hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers from across the continent who fought, suffered and died in Virginia.

But this show is certainly not about statistics, and it's hardly static. Huge photos, video screens, life-size sculpture, great quotes and cool exhibit "furniture" grab your attention, and keep it.

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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