I’m talking this week with John Coski, historian with the American Civil War Museum in Richmond and recipient of ECW’s 2019 Emerging Civil War Award for Service in Public History.
In recounting his “origin story” yesterday, John talked about getting into grad school and getting away from the Civil War. He found his way back when the graduate director took on a major project for Charles City County that enabled him to arrange for some publication opportunities for his grad students, including John.
John Coski: I did the Civil War essay and the Reconstruction essay and ended up ghost writing a bunch of others for people—did a lot of work over the next eight years, six, seven years, anyway—and it was published in 1989. I ended up being co-editor.
Through that, I met the owner of Berkeley Plantation, part of Charles City history, and we came up with the idea of doing a little book about the Harrison’s Landing occupation, Berkeley in the war. Basically I provided the copy, and he provided the publication, and we split the proceeds. And that went through any number of printings. I think it’s still being printed. So, a little entrepreneurship, early version, regarding Civil War.
By that time, my wife [Ruth Ann] and I had moved to Richmond, and she got a job at the White House of the Confederacy the year it opened. I’d had a year of teaching at Hollins College—now Hollins University—with my Ph.D. and decided that, eh, I’m not really into teaching. There’s just something about it that doesn’t agree with my temperament. I would never be able to stop working. I would be a perfectionist and never be able to sleep and never to be able to be anything but absolutely wired.
That year was hell for me, but it was instructive. And I already kind of knew that from teaching while ABD [all but dissertation], that this routine was not for me, so we decided to move to Richmond as a place where both of us could find jobs. And she found one first—as, eventually, the supervisor of the White House guide staff. She was there first, and I worked for her.
And then so, through that agency anyway, I got back into the Civil War and back into public history by joining the museum in 1988.
Chris Mackowski: Did you have to shift gears when your wife started working for the museum?
JC: Not really. The Civil War had stuck with me, and I continued to read on it. I mean, it was always an interest. Even though I wasn’t studying it primarily, it was a subject I did a lot with it, and it just never went away.
When I got to the Museum of the Confederacy, I didn’t know anything about Jeff Davis, though, and had to read up on him. I never took “Old South and New South” in college. Ruth Ann did, but I never did, so she was better equipped in some ways for working at the White House than I was. But my interest and my knowledge of the war, my basic knowledge of the chronology of the war, never left, so it was pretty easy to shift gears and slip back into it. By December of 1988, I was doing programs for local groups.
CM: What was the Museum of the Confederacy like at that point?
JC: At a crest, very much of a crest. The White House had just opened, so it was a fulfillment of the plan articulated in the early ’70’s when the ladies in the museum [the Confederate Memorial Literary Society, the museum’s founders] rejected the advice to start concentrating on being “house beautiful,” give away their collections to West Point or the Virginia Historical Society, and just concentrate on being one thing and do it well. That was the advice received in the early ’60’s, and the ladies said “Thanks for your advice; we’re going to do it all anyway.”
The museum first opened in ’76, and the White House closed for restoration and then re-opened in ’88. And while there were still some things undone and remained undone at the museum for many years, the ladies did it. And so they hired the first professional guide staff and decided to see how it went, and it went so well that they made the guides full-time. Ruth Ann was among those first full-timers, and the White House was gangbusters. It was one of our strongest years ever.
The press about the White House, for the most part, was good. And it was considered one of the best restorations—Architectural Digest and others covered it. So it was quite an exciting time.
And then we also, about that same time, got the first of several NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] grants for the “Before Freedom Came” project.
We had already received an NEH grant for an exhibit that was then in the basement of the house called “Victory and Defeat: Jefferson Davis and the Lost Cause,” which was one of the first explorations of memory, and the first-ever in a museum, as far as I know. A late friend of mine who was our mentor at the museum was the curator of this, and he used Charles Wilson’s book, Baptized in Blood, as sort of his text. But the museum was very forward looking, very progressive. Here we turned the microscope on ourselves: what is our contribution to the creation of the Lost Cause and the Davis family and the museum itself, founded in 1890?
So with that NEH grant, another one for the White House, and then two for “Before Freedom Came.”
The year that “Before Freedom Came” went up in ’91—in six months it was up—and it was the highest visitation the museum has ever had. And, of course, it received all kinds of good press. People had what I call the “Nixon in China” reaction: “The Museum of the What? Is doing what? An exhibit on slavery?” The audacity of it—and it was just very well handled. We had Drew Faust and John Michael Vlach and Theresa Singleton and Deborah Gray White, and all kinds of wonderful consultants for this exhibit. And I got assigned to that on my first job as historian at the museum, to help out Tucker Hill and Kym Rice, the curator, with “Before Freedom Came.”
CM: And so in the midst of all that, you went from “guide” to “historian”?
JC: I started as a guide working under my wife in 1988, and when we got a new director in 1989, I put my resume in front on him, and he said, “Why are we having a Ph.D. giving tours?” That created a job for me as historian in May of 1990, and then I got thrown into the “Before Freedom Came” project, and it was just a very exciting time. I mean, we were, if not cutting edge, pretty darn close to it, proving to the world what we always said about ourselves: there’s a big difference between the Museum of the Confederacy and the Museum for the Confederacy. It’s our subject of study; it is not a religion.
CM: What a great distinction.
JC: If you want an advocacy organization, those exist; but don’t come to us.
In tomorrow’s segment of our interview with John, we’ll learn more about the work he did for the Museum of the Confederacy.