“A deepened pride in our nation’s history “: Crafting Exhibits in a Modern Park


From Beth Parnicza:

This post continues the story of park infrastructure expansion during the Mission 66 period, introduced here.

Two movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s captured Americans on a global and local level: the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement. As tensions mounted at home and abroad, the National Park Service prepared to turn 50 years old. As part of the NPS anniversary “Mission 66” initiative, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP seized the opportunity to craft new exhibits in the old museum space at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Museum and Administration Building (now known as the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center), and at the new Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center.

The challenge was high. The park’s small staff of historians faced the greatest expansion of interpretation since the park’s creation. Staff had to balance their understanding of the past with the conflicts and societal understandings of the present. Our past defines us and provides us with an identity, but we can only understand the past through our own experiences. In this sense, the past becomes another layer of the present that manifests in history books, exhibits, and storytelling. To help visitors connect with the war, the new exhibits needed to fit a modern generation’s understanding of the Civil War as the conflict neared its centennial anniversary.

1937 view of Fredericksburg Battlefield museum and administrative building exhibits. Two chairs, a diorama of destruction downtown, four exhibit cases, and a large map.

The exhibit space in the Fredericksburg Battlefield Museum and Administration Building in 1937, shortly after it opened. This room looked much the same 20 years later, as the park prepared for new exhibits to occupy this space.

Looking around the existing gallery space, the park’s historian staff must have been both dazzled by the possibilities and alarmed at the open-ended questions they confronted. How broad in scope should the new exhibits be? How do we fit such a vast and compelling story into a compact space? How do we teach visitors with an increasingly distant view of the war? Which stories of the Civil War should we tell? Continue reading

“To so develop and staff these priceless possessions of the American people”: Building a Modern Park


From Beth Parnicza:

Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center Today

The Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center stands today as the park’s best model of the wave of modernism that swept the National Park Service in preparation for its 50th anniversary in 1966.

It’s with a touch of nostalgia and a great desire to better understand previous park historians that park staff recently spent several days dismantling the last large-scale vestiges of a critical period in the park’s history: the “Mission 66” exhibits at the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center and the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. If you have set foot in the park over the last 50 years, your experience has been primarily shaped by two dramatic efforts to mold the park: the War Department and Civilian Conservation Corps period and the Mission 66 initiative. As a new park in the 1930s, much of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP’s lasting infrastructure—roads, trails, and several buildings—dates back to War Department planning and the CCC’s extensive work. With the dissolution of the CCC and the end of World War II, however, increased visitation demands and a changing society soon rendered the park’s facilities outdated, and parks across the country looked to forge themselves anew for the post-World War II, modern age.

To adapt to this changing environment, park planners confronted questions that define the NPS even today: How should a park balance access to resources and grounds with the need to preserve that ground? How can a park best educate and inspire an increasingly consumerist society? For a Civil War park, how could historians best appeal to audiences during the tumultuous era of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement? To address these conundrums, calls to fund a national movement to update park facilities for the National Park Service’s 50th anniversary in 1966 set in motion a massive overhaul aimed at modernizing parks from top to bottom, aptly called “Mission 66.”

Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center with Mission 66 sign

The Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, shown here under construction, was Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania’s highest-profile Mission 66 project, but signs like this one could be seen in parks across the country, heralding the new age of the NPS.

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The Case of the Officer’s Hut Exhibit


From: Beth Parnicza

A hidden piece of the park’s past lies tucked away behind a false wall and a Union Sixth Corps flag in the basement of the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. Peering over the false wall, a dusty wooden floor, painted wood pattern, and painted fireplace are all that remain of what was once a much-desired Confederate officer’s hut display. Its existence and composition have passed out of easy park staff memory, provoking a small mystery begging to be solved. Had the exhibit ever been in use? If so, what did it originally look like? When was it dismantled, and why?

modern view officer's hut

The remains of the Confederate officer’s hut as it appears today

Both of the park’s visitor centers feature exhibits that primarily date to the “Mission 66” period of park development, part of a National Park Service-wide initiative to improve the infrastructure and interpretation of park sites for the NPS’s 50th Anniversary. The initiative happily coincided with the Civil War centennial, producing an increased sense of urgency for Civil War sites to expand their interpretation. Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center’s exhibits date to 1962, and looking around the Visitor Center, it is hard to imagine that much has changed in the ensuing years.

The original layout of the 1962 exhibits featured a room of Fredericksburg-specific and general Civil War exhibits on the main floor, and two basement exhibit rooms included a room filled with rows of firearms as a “study collection” and a room highlighting life in camp and social history elements like the roles of women, religion, and relief organizations. This layout featured a fascinating combination of subjects: modern Visitor Center elements upstairs, a nod to past museum styles with rows of barely interpreted relics downstairs, and the inclusion of social history, which rose to prominence during this period.

camp life corner floor plan

The floor plan for the Confederate officer’s hut exhibit. This is the back corner of the exhibit room at the bottom of the stairs to the right.

The centerpiece of the “camp life” exhibits in the basement was a recreated Confederate officer’s hut corner. When proposed, it was emphasized by the park as a favorite element, noted in one plan that its inclusion was something “the park greatly desires.”  Continue reading

Fredericksburg to Gettysburg – The Dr. William J. Chewning Collection, Part 2


From Eric Mink:

In Part 1 of this look at the Chewning Collection, found here, Dr. William J. Chewning amassed over 100,000 Civil War artifacts and opened The National Battlefield Museum in Fredericksburg. This private museum operated under his direction from 1929 until his death in 1937. In his final years, Chewning tried to find a local buyer for the collection, but neither the National Park Service nor the City of Fredericksburg opted to purchase the artifacts. With his passing, Chewning’s widow and son inherited the collection. They, however, did find a buyer.

The April 30, 1938 edition of The Free Lance-Star carried an editorial entitled “Fredericksburg Loses.” The column announced the sale of the Chewning Collection to a buyer in Manassas, Virginia. The local paper lifted this editorial from The Suffolk News-Herald, but it might as well have been written by someone within the Fredericksburg community. In announcing the sale, the editor mourned Fredericksburg’s loss of the collection.

“The master collection belonged in Fredericksburg and there it should have remained. These relics will be of immense value historically and intrinsically no matter where they are but they will fit nowhere like in the place of their origin.

We have no hesitancy in saying that this collection should be acquired by the Federal government and made more accessible to the public. It is in many respects educational. Fredericksburg has lost a rare chance to capitalize it along with its sacred shrines. But that city’s loss is Manassas’ gain. The place that gets it has something.” “Fredericksburg Loses,” Suffolk News-Herald, reprinted in The Free Lance-Star, April 30, 1938

William J. Chewning, Jr. (left) and Julius Richards (right) admiring the Stonewall Jackson amputation table in its new home near Manassas.

William J. Chewning, Jr. (left) and Julius T. Richards (right) admiring the Stonewall Jackson amputation table in its new home near Manassas.

Just as Dr. Chewning had not wanted to see the collection leave Fredericksburg, neither did his family. With no local buyers, however, keeping the collection in the community proved impossible. Julius T. Richards of Manssas became the new owner of the massive collection. In announcing the transaction, The Fauquier Democrat described the disappointment the Chewnings felt in selling the artifacts out of Fredericksburg:

“In announcing the sale Mr. Chewning stated that both he and his mother, Mrs. Anne Page Chewning, regretted the necessity of depriving Fredericksburg of this rare collection. No prospective purchasers who would keep the museum in Fredericksburg could be located.

Mr. Chewning added that Fredericksburg had made no attempt to acquire the collection and, in fact, ‘had evidenced little real interest in it.’

 For these reasons, he said, he and Mrs. Chewning deemed it advisable to accept Mr. Richards’ ‘highly attractive proposition.

Mrs. Chewning said that while she regrets the removal of the collection from Fredericksburg, she is ‘happy to know’ that it will be permanently in Virginia.” – “National Battlefield Museum Relics Will be Removed to Manassas Site,” The Fauquier Democrat, April 30, 1938

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Fredericksburg’s National Battlefield Museum – The Dr. William J. Chewning Collection, Part 1


From Eric Mink:

In two previous posts, found here and here, I looked at two early exhibits of Fredericksburg relic collections – the Cotton and Hills collection (1887-1891) and the Jacobs-Agan collection (1891-1907). Elmer Agan put his collection in storage in 1907, after which no public displays of Civil War artifacts existed in the town. A 1912 newspaper editorial calling for the creation of a museum to display such items in Fredericksburg was met with silence. Although local interest remained, the museum idea went dormant and did not resurface until late 1927.

Reverend Richard V. Lancaster of the Presbyterian Church created the spark that brought the concept of a local museum once again to the attention of both city officials and the public. In an open letter to the Fredericksburg City Council, published in the The Free Lance-Star, Reverend Lancaster urged the city to:

“establish a Museum for permanent safe keeping of historic relics in which the community abounds. In almost every home there are souvenirs of war, now carefully regarded, but which in the future will become of increasing value.

 I am sure that if you will do this you will have achieved a thing of real permanent value to Fredericksburg and Virginia, for which coming generations will be grateful.” – “An Open Letter of Request,” The Free Lance-Star, December 8, 1927

Reverend Lancaster suggested the use of a room under City Hall. He noted that the city used the room for storage and that it could easily be adapted for exhibit space. His suggestion brought action. Before the end of the month, the Chamber of Commerce established a committee to look into the idea. This working group included representatives of local historical and fraternal organizations. Its chairman was Dr. Joseph N. Barney, a local physician. The group held a meeting on January 5, 1928, at which many ideas and plans were discussed. In the end, it proposed that a museum building be constructed at Hurkamp Park. The committee felt the city should fund the project and that the museum “would be this city’s donation to the National Battlefield Park.” The Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park had been created just a year earlier and had yet to acquire or build any visitor facilities. The idea sounded good to those involved, but in the end the city chose not to pursue the project. For some members of the committee, the idea of a museum in the city deserved another look to see what alternatives to municipal funding might exist.

Dr. William J. Chewning in the uniform of a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps - 1917-1918

Dr. William J. Chewning in the uniform of a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps – 1917-1918

Dr. Barney, the museum committee chairman, enlisted the assistance of one of his colleagues, Dr. William J. Chewning. Like Dr. Barney, he was a respected physician in town. A native of Fredericksburg, Chewning came from an established local family. His father, Dr. George H. Chewning, practiced dentistry in the city. Young William attended local schools and graduated from the University College of Medicine in Richmond, Va. He returned to Fredericksburg and along with Dr. Barney became an early member of the Mary Washington Hospital staff. He joined the army in 1917 and received a commission as a 1st Lieutenant in the Medical Corps, serving stateside in Baltimore, Maryland and at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. By 1928, Chewning was married, in private practice and raising a family in a home on the 400 block of George Street in downtown Fredericksburg.

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Why Not Have a Museum in Fredericksburg? – Early Civil War Relic Collections


From Eric Mink:

This begins a three-part post that will look at early collectors and exhibits of Fredericksburg’s Civil War history.

An earlier post, found here, took a look at Fredericksburg’s Museum of War Relics (1887-1891). The museum was actually a room in the Exchange Hotel that contained displays of Civil War relics and artifacts. Leander Cotton and William A. Hills ran the hotel and owned the collection. Their museum marked the first effort within Fredericksburg to display artifacts associated with the area’s Civil War history. The Cotton and Hills collection proved to be a good draw for the hotel and an early attempt to capitalize on toursim generated by the local battlefields. When the two men left the hotel business in 1891, they sold the collection to a Union veterans’ organization in Massachusetts. It wasn’t long, however, before another Fredericksburg merchant assembled his own impressive collection of war material and put it on display in his store. Like the Cotton and Hills collection, it too became an attraction with both local citizens and visitors to the area.

Bernard H. Jacobs emigrated from Prussia in the early 1860s and first settled in Richmond, Virginia. From there, he moved to Orange, Virginia and then on to the west coast. He returned to Virginia, finally making Fredericksburg his home in 1878. Jacobs opened a clothing store at 821 Main (Caroline) Street and for nearly forty-four years his store was, according to a local newspaper, “regarded as one of the city’s business landmarks.”

The building that house Bernard Jacobs's clothing business at 821 Caroline Street. The small one-bay addition to the right is where Jacobs exhibited his relic collection.

The site of Jacobs’s store at 821 Main (Caroline) Street is occupied by this commerical  building.

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Fredericksburg’s Museum of War Relics


From Eric Mink:

The war’s impact on the Fredericksburg area was felt in many ways, from the destruction wrought by four major battles, to the inconvenience and strain felt by nearly two years of occupation by the opposing armies. When the armies marched away, they left not only ruined farms and decimated livelihoods for local residents, but they also left an immense amount of war material behind. Relics and artifacts of war have always fascinated people and those associated with the Civil War are no different. Almost as soon as the smoke cleared, curiosity seekers and collectors scoured the battlefields and empty camp looking for objects left by the armies. Some individuals amassed great collections and it was not unusual after the war  to find small privately-run museums adjacent to the battlefields. Such was the case in 1880s Fredericksburg.

Located at the corner of Caroline and Hanover Streets, the Exchange Hotel was one of Fredericksburg largest and most successful hotels. In 1887, two men from Connecticut took over management of the Exchange. Leander Cotton hailed from East Hartford, Connecticut and as a veteran of the 21st Connecticut Infantry he knew the Fredericksburg area battlefields. William A. Hills was from Glastonbury, Connecticut and a mere 22 years-old when he entered into a partnership with Cotton at the Exchange.

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