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Why Did the Civil War Happen? Part II

01/27/2011

An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia

On June 15, I posted Why Did the Civil War Happen? Its subject is the introductory video that was then under production for the VHS blockbuster show, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia. I mentioned how some consider this question still vitally important today, how the full answer goes back even to the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, and that the biggest problem we faced was a self-imposed deadline of four minutes to answer the question. We imposed the deadline because our exhibition is large and visitors will want to—and will have to—move quickly through it.

I talked about how slavery caused the war, though the war was not begun to free the enslaved, how throughout the 1850s slavery had kept the free North and the slaveholding South on a collision course that could end in dissolution of the Union or a war to preserve it, how by 1860 both North and South were tired of compromising on the issue, and how Virginia’s decision about secession would be momentous because it would affect the course followed by the other Upper South states.

The video is now completed and available for viewing. In it, the players in the drama tell the story in their own words. To avoid the possibility of editorializing on our part, we put no words of our own into the program; the video presents only actual quotes from the period. Admittedly, one could editorialize by picking favored quotes and by stacking the numbers one way or the other. But we were careful with our selections and diligent about giving equal time to voices from every side of the issue. The final product runs a little more than the desired four minutes, but we expect that viewers won’t look too much at their watches. (We didn’t when we previewed it, because so much moves by so quickly.)

See what you think of the finished product. Thanks to the generous funding we received for the show, we are able to present a total of seventeen audiovisual programs in it. We hope you will come to see An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia and look at all the programs. And tell your friends to come too.

William M. S. Rasmussen is Lead Curator and Lora M. Robins Curator at the Virginia Historical Society.

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