Exhibit seeks to show more human side of Civil War

McClatchy NewspapersApril 27, 2010 

WASHINGTON — "They are treating me worse and worse every day." That's what a slave named Ann in Paris, Mo., asked someone to write on her behalf in a letter to her "dear husband" on Jan. 19, 1864. He was a soldier in a Union Army black regiment.

Ann was desperate for money to buy clothes and food for their daughter and herself: "Our child cries for you."

The letter is part of a trove of Civil War artifacts the National Archives amassed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of one of the most important events in American history.

The exhibit, "Discovering the Civil War," which opens Friday in Washington, isn't your typical Civil War retrospective. Epic battles are not the focus.

Through letters, diaries, maps and other documents, as well as touch screen technology, the exhibit reveals smaller twists and turns in the calamitous events of the 1860s, which continue to echo more than a century later.

"We're not trying to say that Gettysburg and Antietam are not important," said Bruce Bustard, an archives senior curator. "But this is a sort of unexpected, undiscovered part of the Civil War."

There is the telegram that Gov. Thomas Carney of Kansas sent to the secretary of war on Aug. 22, 1863, because the town of Lawrence was "burning and plundered." The Confederate guerrilla leader, William Quantrill, had attacked the town, and the governor implored Washington to send federal troops.

A plea in 1862 from seamstresses at the U.S. arsenal in Philadelphia to the War Department still resonates. They protested the Army's plan to privatize the work because the new contractor would cut their already meager government wages by half.

"Many of us have husbands, fathers, sons and brothers in the Army," they wrote, and only by "unceasing exertions" were they able to "barely live at the prices paid by the Arsenal."

"This is 150 years ago!" exclaimed Marvin Pinkert, the director of the Center for the National Archives Experience.

A different kind of request came from Dr. G.P. Miller, a black physician from Michigan, who wrote the War Department in 1861 offering to raise a regiment of "sharpshooters" to fight the rebels. The Army praised his "patriotic spirit and intelligence," but said no thanks.

"Colored persons," came the reply, legally could be given arms "only in times of great emergency."

The exhibit will be in two parts, with the second phase opening in the fall. The entire show will tour the country next year.

"The Civil War is ... the traumatic event in the childhood of our nation," said filmmaker and Archives official Ken Burns, the creator of the 11-hour PBS documentary "The Civil War." "What the National Archives permits us to do is to see the history of the United States not as just some distant subject matter in a history book, dry dates and facts and events, but living, breathing history that touches on individuals."

Such as:

  • The muster rolls for the 42nd Mississippi Infantry Company F and the 1st (Corr's) South Carolina Rifles Company G.

  • A U.S. Navy poster that hoped to lure potential recruits away from the Army with big letters that said: "The Conscription bill! How to Avoid it!!"

  • A little-known first draft of the 13th Amendment in 1861, only this one didn't abolish slavery. Just the opposite, in fact. It was never ratified.

  • Missouri as a hotbed of Civil War passions. In New Harmony, Mo., a Union commander wrote his superiors that the flag had been "publicly disgraced" when members of a local church removed it from behind the pulpit and threw it outside.
  • In Mount Pleasant, Mo., the Masonic Lodge was the headquarters for a secret Confederate society whose followers killed Union loyalists and dragooned others to join the Confederate army.

    In 1864, Union soldiers executed six rebel prisoners in St. Louis in retaliation for their killings of Union soldiers and their commanding officer after they were captured at Pilot Knob a few weeks earlier.

    That was still not enough for the Union Army, however, because the enemy had killed an officer. So they selected another Confederate prisoner, who had nothing to do with the events, to be executed as further recompense.

    Eventually, President Abraham Lincoln spared his life.

    "This is not the Civil War that I remember," Bustard said. "It's hostages and executions."

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