With the anniversary of Richmond’s 1865 surrender reaching its 150th anniversary this week, the city’s most unique commemoration of the American Civil War sesquicentennial opened at the Valentine on March 26. Working alongside Meg Hughes, Curator of Archives, I have spent the past few months researching, writing, and designing Beard Wars, a photography exhibition juxtaposing ‘then’ and ‘now’ between Civil War imagery and contemporary photography.
As a graduate student focusing on Civil War scholarship, I have often overlooked the powerful medium imagery affords in both visualizing and contextualizing the conflict. Though not depicting battlefield butchery or home front hardship, the Valentine’s Civil War photographic portraits provide a certain degree of humanness to the war, a visual of the men who either strove to tear a nation apart or struggled to hold it together. From these portraits, individual styles emerge, most notably in the varying ways both Union and Confederate generals subscribed to the Victorian fashion trend of growing, maintaining, and styling facial hair. Though these self-grown accessories would shorten in length and ultimately fade by the mid-20th century, facial hair fandom is once again vogue in 2015 in reflecting the styles of 1865.
Working on Beard Wars since early January, I hardly anticipated the level of organization, detail, and flexibility required for transforming a show concept into an installed exhibition. Such a process required patience, communication, humor, and a certain amount of occasional scruff to feel I fit in. Be it “Friendly Mutton Chops” or a full beard, sideburns or a wispy moustache, Beard Wars offered me–and now the Richmond community–a memorable means of exploring how both in times of war and in the present-day we elect to portray ourselves to society. Beard Wars is on view on the Valentine’s Lower Level through November 30.
Andrew Lunney is a graduate student in the History M.A. program at Virginia Commonwealth University.