What do you do when you hear an inner voice telling you to live out your destiny? You listen. At least that’s what S. Waite Rawls III did. Descended from Virginia ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, Rawls felt a deep connection to the Civil War as a child. But it wasn’t until a business trip decades later that he had an epiphany calling him to return to his roots. Rawls eventually moved back to Virginia to turn around the fortunes of the struggling Museum of the Confederacy (now the American Civil War Museum Foundation) in Richmond. His efforts have been exceedingly successful. Today, Rawls is one of the leading voices in the movement to preserve Civil War history.
BGES Blog: You grew up in Franklin, Virginia, in the 1950s. Your family has an impressive history in that area. What stories can you share with us?
WR: Too many of my ancestors fought in the Civil War to count—three great-grandfathers and countless of their siblings. My great love of the Civil War came from my father and grandfather. I’m named after them. The S in my name stands for Sol, for the sun.
One of my favorite stories concerns one of my great-grandfathers. When Lee moved into Gettysburg, he left a regimen of Confederate soldiers in Virginia to protect the railroads in Richmond. One company of 50 men was guarding a bridge, and the Union attacked with a column of 1,200 men. The Confederates were able to hold them off for four hours before they were all left for dead. One of the soldiers, who was shot clean through his gut, lay motionless in the mud. Amazingly, he was still alive. That man was my great-grandfather. He was the only man not killed or captured in the attack.
BGES Blog: At the age of nine, you joined Franklin’s Civil War Round Table. How did that happen?
WR: The Franklin Civil War Round Table was the fifth or sixth to form in the U.S. It was an old-fashioned group—members would meet to discuss one single topic. I wanted to join, but was told I had to pass a test first. They sent me to the Confederate Museum in Richmond, and asked me to give a report on it. I passed and got into the Round Table. At the time, all our meetings started with a trivia question, so they put me in charge of them. I still remember my first question: What was Stonewall Jackson’s favorite drink? The answer: buttermilk.
BGES Blog: Later in life, you lived in New York City and Chicago, working as an investment banker. How did you feed your interest in the Civil War during that period?
WR: Actually, I put aside the Civil War for a while. I graduated from VMI in 1970, and then got my MBA and JD from the University of Virginia. I moved to New York City, where I was working a lot and doing a great deal of traveling. During a trip to Europe, I was flying back home through Heathrow. I remember having a catharsis. I bought a novel at the airport, and when I sat down to read it, I realized that I had read it already. At that moment, I said to myself, “Get me back to the Civil War.”
During the ’80s, when I was living in Chicago, I was invited to serve on the board of the Civil War Trust, which eventually became the Civil War Preservation Trust and ultimately the American Battlefield Trust. My profile began to grow, and in the early 2000s, I was recruited for the Museum of the Confederacy. I wanted to go home and do good works, so it was a perfect opportunity.
BGES Blog: Today, you’re the President of the American Civil War Museum Foundation. What do you see as your most important responsibilities?
WR: When I became the President of the Museum of the Confederacy, we were months away from bankruptcy. My top two priorities were saving the institution and saving the collection. Since the museum’s collection was by far the most important in the U.S., this took precedence. We asked for help from the state, and they stepped up. We re-branded the museum to tell the whole story of the Civil War with a much broader series of exhibits.
BGES Blog: You once said the museum’s two biggest challenges were making the Civil War relevant in the 21st century and convincing the public that the Confederacy and racism are not synonymous terms. How have you addressed these issues, and how successful have you been?
WR: I remember doing an interview with the Voice of America radio network on the 150th anniversary of Appomattox. I noticed a black man feverishly taking notes while I was speaking, so I sat down to talk with him. He was from Africa, near Sudan and Ethiopia. It struck me that the Civil War doesn’t just have national relevance—it has a global impact.
As I mentioned, we realized we had to tell the whole story of the Civil War. The focus couldn’t be solely on the battlefront. We also had to delve into the home front. So we adopted programming that had contemporary relevance. For example, we created programs on PTSD and women in combat.
The racial component is much harder for everyone. Today, the Confederate soldier is too often seen as nothing more than a symbol of white supremacy. The Union solider, by contrast, is the good guy fighting for emancipation. But in truth the vast majority of Americans at the time held racist views. Again, telling the whole story and providing proper perspective is crucial.
BGES Blog: You’ve known Len Riedel for a long time. How were you introduced to him and BGES? What do you enjoy most about it?
WR: I consider Len my brother in our Civil War cause. We met because of our ties to VMI, and became really good friends. I was introduced to BGES before my work with the museum. It’s a great organization that does important work.