Archives exhibit explores little-known aspects of Civil War

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010; B01

The Confederate prisoners were lined up 15 paces from the Union firing squad. The order was given, and the six rebels died instantly. Five of them were shot through the heart, the Union officer in charge reported, adding that the execution was conducted to "my entire satisfaction."

So what if they were innocent POWs. A band of rebels had massacred captured Union soldiers and their commanding officer a few weeks before. Now, Union commanders just needed to select a Confederate officer for death, to complete the eye-for-an-eye transaction.

There was no gallantry to this bloody affair in 1864, no stirring charge worthy of Currier and Ives. It was but a dark footnote to the epic of the American Civil War. And it was just what the National Archives sought for the major exhibit that will debut Friday: "Discovering the Civil War."

The exhibit, designed to launch Washington's celebration of the coming 150th anniversary of the war years, seeks to explore more of the little-known aspects of the battle and glimpse some of the dimmer corners of the conflict that remade the country and that so many Americans think they know so well.

Yet 150 years later, the anniversary of the war that tore the nation apart finds a country that remains racially divided, politically fractured and historically split -- even over the causes and legacy of America's most wrenching conflict.

The governors of two Southern states, Virginia and Mississippi, sparked controversy this month by neglecting or sounding dismissive of the role of slavery in the war. And one noted Civil War historian says the nation might be too divided to properly mark the key unifying event in its history.

"I think it's going to be impossible to get all the American people to gather to commemorate a portion of American history that's so important to the country," said Virginia Tech's James I. Robertson Jr., who 50 years ago directed the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission. "People just aren't that together anymore.

"The nation is far more polarized and politicized now than it was" in the centennial, he said. "Every subject seems to become an issue."

But another scholar disagreed. Princeton historian James M. McPherson said that the Civil War centennial coincided with the civil rights movement. "On the issue of race, I think there was much sharper polarization then than now," he said.

McPherson said recent uproars point to "the way in which the war still resonates in American culture."

"Issues having to do with race and slavery and regionalism and federalism -- all of those are hot-button issues in American politics and American culture, and the Civil War looms over all of them," he said.

The war, which began in 1861 and ended in 1865, claimed more than 600,000 lives -- 2 percent of the population then. Today, that would mean 6 million dead, historians say. One battle in 1862, near Sharpsburg, Md., killed four times the number of American casualties on D-Day in 1944.

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."

Somehow, word of his plight reached the White House, whose chief resident -- and the Civil War's main protagonist -- was known for staying executions.

Bustard duly found in the archives a scrawled note on War Department stationery dated Nov. 10, 1864.

It read:

"Suspend execution of Major Wolf until further order, (and) meanwhile, report to me on the case.

A. Lincoln."

Wolf was spared, survived the war and lived well into old age.

Admission is free. The exhibit will be presented in two parts. The first runs April 30-Sept. 6, the second Nov. 10-April 17. National Archives hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., March 15-Labor Day, and 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., day after Labor Day-March 14.

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