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Archives exhibit explores little-known aspects of Civil War

Bruce I. Bustard of the National Archives previews an upcoming exhibit, "Discovering the Civil War," which runs April 30 through Sept. 6.

But the archives' exhibit seeks to probe beyond the sagas of the grand battles that pack the shelves of bookstores.

It will present, for instance, an earlier, and long forgotten, proposal for what could have been the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The actual 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery in the United States. But in December 1860, Congress proposed a very different version.

Although never ratified, it read: "No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will . . . abolish or interfere, within any state, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said state." This was a 13th Amendment that would have protected slavery, instead of abolishing it, archives historians say.

The exhibit, which is free, features reproductions of recruiting posters, letters and photographs, including one haunting portrait of an African American drummer boy from a Union regiment of black soldiers.

The exhibit also uses touch-screen computer technology to illustrate chapters of the war. The saga of the notorious Confederate commerce raider, CSS Alabama, which preyed on Union shipping until it was sunk in 1864, is told as a touch-screen "graphic novel" with comic book-style cartoon panels.

The tale of the vengeful executions in Missouri is rendered with a touch-screen tour of the documents found in the archives' stacks.

"It's kind of a guided research experience," said senior curator Bruce Bustard, "where the visitor will be able to follow the research through the steps."

It is not a pleasant story. "It struck me as not the way I remembered the Civil War growing up, which is generally pictured as great armies clashing on a battlefield like Gettysburg," he said.

The tale begins with the killing of six Union POWs and their commander, Maj. James Wilson. They had been captured in a skirmish at Pilot Knob, Mo., on Sept. 27, 1864. But their captors handed them over to a rebel guerrilla commander named Tim Reves, or Reeves, Bustard said.

There appears to have been bad blood between Reeves and Wilson, Bustard said, but the record on that is not clear. Documents indicate that Wilson and his men were killed by Reeves and his band Oct. 3.

After the bodies were found weeks later, outraged Union officers ordered the execution of the six rebel POWs at a prison in St. Louis. And on Nov. 8, Confederate Maj. Enoch O. Wolf was selected to be shot in retaliation for the killing of Wilson.

Wolf proclaimed his innocence, condemned the killing of the Union soldiers by a "bush whacker" and in a letter to a Union general requested time "to prepare for death."

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