NARA’s Civil War Exhibit

NARA’s Civil War Exhibit

The National Archives' Civil War exhibit combines photos, documents and memorabilia with a unique presentation and modern technology.

Eager to fight during the Civil War, Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye disguised herself as a man named Frank Thompson, enlisted in the Michigan 2nd Regiment and became a spy. Amazingly, she pulled off her gender-bending role undetected. Marriage and domestic responsibilities came after the war. But Seelye suffered extensive injuries while serving and applied for a military pension to support her family.

In 1884, after several failed applications, the House of Representatives approved Seelye’s request in the amount of $12 a month. The paperwork that authenticates her victory is among millions of documents the National Archives and Records Adminstration (NARA) has unearthed and assembled into its innovative Discovering the Civil War exhibit.

The two-part exhibit, which opened at NARA headquarters in Washington, DC, and will soon go on tour (see below), marks the 150th anniversary of the war that pitted northern and southern states against each other, killed 620,000 soldiers and sailors, and freed 4 million slaves. Part one, Beginnings, illustrates the breakup of the United States and the challenges North and South faced in finding leaders and support on the homefront. Part two, Consequences, explains the war’s global reach and the Reconstruction era.

Years in the making, the exhibit draws from “one of the richest reservoirs of records and holdings ever,” says Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero. “What’s remarkable is it has the scope and scale worthy of its subject matter. We’ve used these records in creative ways that inspire people young and old to explore the Civil War further. The very concept that there are still discoveries to be made a century and a half later is unbelievable.”

Those discoveries include maps, receipts, photos and proclamations from both sides of the battlefield. The resignation letter Gen. Robert E. Lee submitted in 1865 is part of a collection of military resignation letters. A graphic photo of a slave’s wounds was once used to prove how harshly slaves were treated. The original lyrics to the “Battle Cry of Freedom” are spelled out on sheet music.

Items are grouped by theme more than by date to answer probing questions about the impact of the war. The “Raising Armies” section draws attention to the Confederacy’s need to build its Army and Navy from scratch. Even the US Army in early 1861 consisted of just 14,000 men. Four years later, millions had engaged in the fight. Viewers learn what motivated men — and about 400 women like Seelye — to enlist, what happened to those who resisted and how each side took far-reaching measures to raise troops. The measures did not including recruiting women, despite the 1864 letter from a group of Virginia women to the Confederate secretary of war suggesting ladies be allowed to take part.

Discovering the Civil War stands out because it speaks to the experiences of all, focusing as much on average citizens as on generals and politicians. This “bottom-up” approach is critical, says National Archives Foundation vice president and filmmaker Ken Burns, whose 1990 Civil War documentary is the most-watched program in PBS history. “The Civil War is the most important event in America’s history. It is the traumatic event in the childhood of our nation,” he says. “And the National Archives’ exhibit permits us to see the history not just as some distant subject matter in history books, dry dates and facts of little concern, but living, breathing history that touches individuals.”

Modern technology and interactive displays bring the exhibit to life. Instead of stepping into the 1860s, viewers can use touchscreens to unlock mysteries alongside history researchers. One display visually connects headshots of national leaders to show complex relationships between the forces. A line marches from Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ portrait to that of Union Gen. Joseph C. Johnston: The two were West Point military academy roommates before fighting on opposing sides in the Civil War.

Fittingly, the exhibit’s online presence is commensurate with its physical one. Its website lets you “crawl” through documents — such as the vastly different unratified and ratified versions of the 13th Amendment — to answer archivists’ questions about the war. You also can watch videos of related public programs and peruse articles about researching Civil War records. You even can read a transcript of HR 5335, dated April 1, 1884, awarding Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye her long-awaited pension.

Civil War on Tour

Part two of Discovering the Civil War is open in NARA’s Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery through April 17, but that’s not the only place to experience the exhibit. Beginning Memorial Day, the combined parts of the exhibit will become the largest traveling exhibition the National Archives has ever undertaken, with stops in several US cities. “[This tour] will make the records and research in the exhibit accessible to a truly national audience,” US archivist Ferriero says.

The schedule is still being set but so far includes The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich., May 21-Sept. 5; the Houston Museum of Natural Science Oct. 14-April 29, 2012; and the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville in 2013. See NARA’s website for more tour stops.


From the May 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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