Years of research, planning and fundraising by a group of local organizers has turned an idea for the North Carolina Civil War History Center into a real possibility. The $65-million Center could potentially create 200 new jobs and bring 130,000 visitors to the area each year. The regional economic impact could reach $18 million annually.
The Center is designed as a teaching museum, not a collecting museum. It will not present just one side of the Civil War, but rather provide the facts about the Antebellum period, the war and reconstruction said Mary Lynn Bryan, a local volunteer and nationally-recognized historian who has been working to bring this idea to fruition for eight years. She now serves as vice president for the NCCWHC Board of Directors.
The Center will focus on the human impact of one of the most traumatic periods in U. S. history.
“We had to think long and hard about what we could do to describe that period of time before the war, during the war and particularly the time after - the Reconstruction,” Bryan said.
The board enlisted historians and scholars from across the state to identify the facts, not lore, of what happened in the state from roughly 1835 until 1900. Once those facts were consolidated and reviewed, they were given to Philip Gerard, author and professor of writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, to turn into the story to be presented through the Center. The result is history told through the lens of how it impacted the lives of the people in the state, something Bryan believes will resonate with visitors.
“We wanted to tell it through the people, not so much battles, uniforms and equipment,” she said. “What we wanted to do is look at what happened to the people of North Carolina.”
There will be a collection of artifacts that support the facts and are important to the experience, she said. The human side of the era will be provided by stories submitted from descendants of people who lived in the state during the era, as part of the Center’s “100 from 100” initiative seeking 100 stories from each of the 100 counties.
The interactive museum will feature a 3D in-the-round-theater that tells the story of the last six weeks of the war when General William T. Sherman’s Final March came through Fayetteville and destroyed the Arsenal. Also included in the plans is a digital educational component that will provide resources to school students across the state.
The NCCWHC Board has building and site designs in hand, a favorable economic impact study, a business plan that includes local and state private and public monetary support. The board already raised $6.2 million of the $7.5 million goal from local businesses and individuals. It recently launched a statewide campaign to raise an equal amount from corporations, foundations and individuals from across the state.
“This project is ready to go,” said John “Mac” Healy, the president of the NCCWHC Board.
“The City and County have to get on board if this is to become a reality,” Healy said. “The critical part is September first, when we go before the finance board of the county.” The NCCWHC Board must get a commitment of $7.5 million each from Cumberland County and Fayetteville City Council.
With local municipal support, the remaining funds would be provided by the state, Healy said. “We had to raise enough funds locally to say this community is behind it. We had to prove Fayetteville would step up,” Healy said, “and show the legislature that the people of the state support it.”
Once completed, the Center would be operated and maintained by the state, Healy said, with admissions, continued state support and an endowment to offset operating costs. It would merge the existing Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex, which is already a branch of the North Carolina Division of History Museums, into the larger History Center. It would be built on the site of the Fayetteville Arsenal, which is preserved in the NCCWHC plans.
Dollar for dollar, Healy said, he believes the portion of the costs provided by public funds would be a strategic investment to increase tourism in the area. “This project doesn’t stand alone,” he said. “With the Airborne and Special Operations Museum and the Cape Fear Botanical Garden, it is another reason to get off the interstate, visit, eat dinner and spend the night.” He added, “It is true economic development when we attract visitors and their money from outside the area.”
The overall vision for the Center is to provide an opportunity to draw lessons from the past, examine the present and engage the future. The NCCWHC Board recognizes that with that kind of examination, money is not the only challenge facing the project.
“One of the challenges with this project, quite frankly, is the name,” Healy said. “A lot of people initially are a little nervous to have their business associated with something as controversial as the Civil War – until they hear how we are approaching the story.”
The story of slavery, war and the reconstruction afterward may not be a happy one, but it does make you think, Bryan said, adding that “It’s everybody’s story, it’s our story and that’s why it is so important. One of the glues that hold us together as a nation is a shared past.”
“The Civil War is something people are fascinated by,” she said. “The war is over but the issues are there.”
Healy agreed, citing recent highly publicized racial tension in the U. S., and pointing out that race is “still very much to be on people’s minds. I see other parts of the country and we have an opportunity to examine issues rooted in history. It is an opportunity for us to be recognized as a state that’s not afraid to look at the issues of race relations and the historical impact. Like it or not, the Civil War and its aftermath have a lot to do with a lot of the tensions between people in our country today. The more people can learn and understand from this era, the more likely they are to move on to a shared future.”
The NCCWHC continues to raise awareness and funds for the project. To learn more visit their website www.nccivilwarcenter.org where you can view a video on the project or call 910.491.0602. Those who submit a family story become a member of the History Center at no cost.