This exhibition presents an account, using rare original letters and newly-discovered documents, of the personal struggles of the people living in Madison County and the Southern Appalachian Mountains during the middle of the 19th century. The museum is open daily (except Mondays) from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and by appointment. It is located in Montague Hall on the university campus. Admission is free.
The exhibition includes dozens of photographs and authentic objects from the period, including a wedding dress, a jacket worn by James A. Keith, a doctor and lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army; Confederate currency; flags; books; sabers; ammunition; a McClellan cavalry saddle; and many other objects of everyday life owned by individuals on both sides of the war.
Part of the exhibit explores the “Shelton Laurel Massacre,” an event in January 1863 in which Confederate soldiers under the direction of Lt. Col. Keith summarily arrested and executed 13 prisoners in the remote Shelton Laurel valley of Madison County. That event drove a deep wound into the rural communities of Madison County that lingers to this day.
Exhibit organizers say that, in many ways, the events in Shelton Laurel in 1863 have become emblematic of the Civil War as fought in the mountains: confused and complicated, often conducted outside the rules of war by individuals with changeable loyalties, looking only to survive. The resulting consequences were often brutal for the women, children, and former African-American slaves left to tend to the homes and farms left behind.
Exhibit organizers say they’re not picking sides or casting blame, but rather presenting viewers with the facts as they best know them. The exhibit is “an attempt to shed light on the complex, apocryphal nature of the conflict in the devastated Southern Highlands, which still reverberates deep in the hollows and gaps of the Blue Ridge,” according to museum director Les Reker.
The exhibition was curated by Max Hunt, senior writer for the Mountain Xpress newspaper, along with historian Katherine Cutshall and authors Maynard Shelton and Dan Slagle. Editing, writing, research, and design was provided by Carolyn Comeau and Ryan Phillips. This exhibition is made possible through a grant from the Madison County Tourism and Development Authority.