Richmond Celebrates Civil War and Emancipation Day

Holly Prestridge for Richmond Times Despatch, April 4, 2013:

Richmond lives and breathes history and for those who are curious about the past — or are full-blown history buffs — Saturday is when the city comes alive.

More than 25 activity centers will be open to the public, featuring walking tours, dramatic readings, lectures and more during the fourth annual Civil War & Emancipation Day.

Hear about Richmond’s 1863 Bread Riot or walk its Slave Trail at dusk by torchlight from Ancarrow’s Landing to Lumpkin’s Jail.

Witness dramatic monologues at the Maggie L. Walker National Historic site or learn about Mary Bowser, a free black woman who served as a spy for the Union Army.

Know what a Civil War Zouave uniform looks like? The Virginia Historical Society recently acquired one of these rare uniforms and it’ll be on display for the first — and only — time this year on Saturday.

The day’s festivities are put on by The Future of Richmond’s Past, a collaborative effort among local historical societies, museums, colleges and universities, and cultural and tourism organizations to promote the anniversaries of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

The day is “a great opportunity for Richmonders to be tourists in their own city,” said Jennifer Guild, senior officer for public relations and marketing at the Virginia Historical Society. “This event shows not only the collaborative partnerships that exist within the cultural community, but also their deep desire to make stories from the past accessible to everyone.”

Organizers said more than 5,200 people visited sites last year.

Andy Talkov, Virginia Historical Society’s head of program development, said the organization tries to find unique exhibits or programs for Civil War & Emancipation Day and this year’s will be hard to top.

In December, it acquired a one-of-a-kind collection that includes a complete Zouave uniform with leather leggings, a fez (a felt hat with a tassel), bright red pants and even a revolver.

The Zouave was a militia soldier who served in Northern Africa with the French Army during the 1800s. Nearly 240 organizations in America in the 1800s adopted the Zouave uniforms and fierce military styles.

The uniform obtained by the historical society belonged to a soldier in the 5th New York Infantry. Supporting documentation shows that he was issued the uniform in September 1861 and died eight months later in Virginia. He was buried in Hampton.

“His experience in the Civil War was in Virginia,” Talkov said, “and he’s still on Virginia soil.”

The uniform has never been on display. Saturday’s exhibit, called “Who Are You Wearing?: The Civil War Zouave Fever,” is the only day this year that the society has plans to show it to the public.

Some of the new events planned this year include several activities at the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site such as a guided tour of her home, a walking tour of Historic Jackson Ward and a special exhibit called “Lifting as We Climb: Maggie Walker’s Workforce.”

Anyone with historic family documents can bring them to the Library of Virginia to be scanned as part of the Civil War 150 Legacy Project. While the Confederate Memorial Chapel, near the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, was open to the public last year, this year includes a tour of the former grounds of Robert E. Lee’s Camp #1.

One of the unique things about Civil War & Emancipation Day, said University of Richmond President Edward Ayers, is that it’s all about commemorating two distinct concepts at the same time: the Civil War, and all of the darkness that came with it, as well as freedom.

Ayers will moderate a panel discussion at the Museum of the Confederacy called “Union Spies in Richmond, the Difference Between Fact and Fiction.”

The panelists include Dr. Elizabeth Varon, author of “Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy,” and novelist Lois Leveen, who wrote “The Secrets of Mary Bowser,” about the life and legend of the woman thought to be a Union spy planted in the Confederate White House.

Ayers said that in a city like Richmond that’s full of history, folks often take for granted what they think they know. They pass by statues on Monument Avenue or historical markers in Shockoe Bottom and become desensitized to the significance of those people and places.

But Ayers said organizers of Civil War & Emancipation Day hope their efforts will open Richmond residents’ eyes to what lies, sometimes literally, beneath their feet.

More than just a day to attract tourists, “this is for ourselves,” Ayers said, referring to Richmond residents, “to open the city (and) make history resonate.”

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