Review: National Archives exhibit on the Civil War

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Following up on last April's "Discovering the Civil War" Part One, the National Archives opened its "Discovering the Civil War" Part Two on Wednesday, the continuation of an exhibition so large that it was forced to show it in two installments. The new show, opening just in time for the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's 1860 election, is devoted to "Consequences," which is broadly interpreted to include not just the horrors of war, but also emancipation, the aftermath and Reconstruction. From Thursday through Sunday, the exhibition will also include a rare display of the original Emancipation Proclamation, now a fragile collection of yellowed paper covered by a tracery of handwriting in thin ink, with Lincoln's schoolboy cursive signature at the end.

But the horrors of war are the most arresting. One image, a reproduction of a photograph, shows a young, wounded Union soldier, his leg amputated just below the knee. Next to him, on a reading stand, lies a newspaper, a striking contrast to the real "news" of the image, the bandaged stump of the soldier's leg, dotted with dark blood where the shin bone should be.

Unlike in so many images from the period, including many in this exhibition, the young man has a powerful sense of presence and humanity. He stares straight at the camera, his eyes dazed, perhaps from pain, but also alert, intelligent and, so it seems from across the distance of a century and half, angry and defiant. In other images of the war, faces don't register much personality, a result of the long exposure time to make photographs, but also, perhaps, of a certain shyness and subservience to the photographer and his technological marvel.

This one soldier stands out from the myriad bearded men who populate Civil War photography because he resists the impersonal. Perhaps it is the sudden and clarifying wisdom that comes from having a limb sawed off. Perhaps it's the newspaper next to him, a poignant detail that suggests that even after the trauma he has suffered, he is still interested in the larger world, the course of the war, the meaning of the event that has irrevocably changed his life. Just as the Napoleonic wars created a sense of shared history and involvement among the scattered and diverse peoples of Europe, the Civil War was the baptism into modernity for America.

A letter from parents desperately requesting more information about the death of their son Leander Hamlin is powerful as much for its primitive style as for its emotional eloquence. "Was he killed instantly or was wound and afterward died if so how did he die what did he say in regard to dieing." There is little punctuation, the grammar is poor, but the urgency of the grief is powerful. For some, the written word was a clumsy tool; for others, including perhaps the soldier with an amputated leg, it was the pervasive medium of newspapers and communion with the larger world. Backwoods America was the timber from which the America of inventions and technology, of imperial ambition and international power, would emerge.

The second part of the National Archives exhibition feels a little less tech-heavy than the first installment, which is a relief. Touch screens are no substitute for actual objects, and the screens at the National Archives are almost, but not quite, sophisticated enough to provide a satisfying reading experience. Unfortunately, most of the material is presented in reproduction, enlarged for easier viewing, but with a palpable decorative feel that makes the visitor wonder whether many documents are wallpaper or essential reading. It's a curious bad habit of so much contemporary museum design: A large-scale photograph printed directly on a wall panel becomes part of the background. A simplewell-lit glass case with a photograph or text and adequate explanatory material is still the best default for displaying historical archival material.

But if you take the time to dig into the details of the over-designed display of reproductions, the exhibition has depth. Organized into six broad categories -- Invention and Enterprise, Prisoners and Casualties, Emancipations, Spies and Conspiracies, Endings and Beginnings, and Remembering -- "Discovering the Civil War" is balanced between substantial issues and gee-whiz curiosities. A cipher book for encoding messages that was found among the possessions of John Wilkes Booth and a discussion of competing telegraph technologies are among the latter.

Among the former is an oversize ledger with neatly written entries documenting extra-judicial "homicides" and "whippings" meted out to newly freed slaves by hostile Southerners. The cases were compiled by the Freedmen's Bureau, the U.S. government agency that dealt with the complex and painful issues facing refugees and freed slaves after the end of the war. The handwriting is precise and elegant, making the ledger look like a presentation book, intended from the beginning to be a historical object.

The Freedmen's Bureau also oversaw marriages and employment contracts for the 4 million people newly liberated from bondage. But in many cases, what looked like legal and gainful employment in 1865 seems today like a perpetuation of slavery in all but name. A Dec. 16, 1865, apprenticeship contract for a freed slave promised something that would have been unthinkable before the war: employment and an education. But the contract also bound the 4-year-old Jeff to 17 years of what was essentially servitude.

The Freedman's Bureau is a classic example of bureaucracy dealing with an overwhelming problem, history in emergency mode. And it wasn't popular in the South. An 1866 editorial from a Southern newspaper pronounces it "a failure," saying that "its further continuance or enlargement will add greatly to the national burden of taxation."

Clearly, the South had not changed its thinking, even in the aftermath of war. After the 1862 Battle of Antietam, a bloody nightmare that gave Lincoln enough of a putative victory to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, the president (in the words of an interlocutor) said that "the character of the war will be changed" and that the "South is to be destroyed and replaced by new propositions and ideas." The South resisted those new propositions and ideas vigorously -- a letter reminds a Southern woman that she can't confiscate the wages of her former slave.

Eventually, an anodyne sense of reconciliation was plastered over the real racial, economic and historic divisions that still divide this country. A medal struck for the 100th anniversary of the war in the 1960s shows the two leading generals of the conflict, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee representing North and South, over the conspicuously obfuscatory words "Consciousness of Duty Faithfully Performed."

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