“Who shall tell the story?”: Voices of Civil War Virginia

The Civil War’s impact on the culture, politics, and geography of Virginia cannot be overemphasized: battles ravaged the landscape, blockades and other political maneuvers transformed the economy, and profound regional tensions resulted in the creation of West Virginia. This exhibition seeks to reveal how Virginia was changed by the war, focusing on the voices of those who experienced it. Letters, diaries, scrapbooks, maps, newspapers, songsheets, broadside advertisements, photographs, and physical artifacts drawn from across Special Collections’s rich holdings in the period reveal the lived experience of war.

The exhibition’s title is drawn from a manuscript of Walt Whitman who, soon after witnessing a battle in Virginia, wrote,
Who shall tell the story?…We talk I say of stories of this war—have histories of this war already; and shall have books of full detail, hundreds of them. In printed books, full histories of this war will come. O heavens! What book can give the history of this war?
The war stories in this exhibition include those of Confederate and Union soldiers, working women and war widows, black troops and southern Union sympathizers, enslaved people and prisoners of war, schoolchildren and University of Virginia students, poets and musicians, wounded soldiers and nurses. Diverse and contradictory, this plurality of stories confirms the continuing relevance of Whitman’s question.