Thursday, November 11, 2010

Still learning about the Civil War -- Nov. 11, 2010 column


In April 1961, the National Archives in Washington opened a major exhibition for the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. It did not even mention slavery or emancipation.

That the Archives would gloss over the causes and consequences of the Civil War in telling its history seems incredible, but it reflects the tensions that ran high 50 years ago. The 100th anniversary commemoration of 1961 to 1965 coincided not only with the Cold War but also with the turbulent civil rights movement.

The centennial got off to a shaky start when some Southern states objected to the national commission that Congress and President Eisenhower authorized in 1957 to run the commemoration. It was called the Civil War Centennial Commission. Why, the Southerners asked, was it not the War Between the States?

In October 1960, the Civil War Centennial Commission’s chairman, Ulysses S. Grant III, grandson of the Union Army commander and U.S. president, proclaimed that the Civil War had not torn the country apart.

“The war did not divide us,” Grant wrote. “Rather, it united us, in spite of a long period of bitterness, and made us the greatest and most powerful nation the world had ever seen.”

Grant, who was 80 and a retired Army major general, also wrote in “This Week Magazine” that he had a “close feeling” for the Civil War. The article was titled “Here comes the greatest centennial in U.S. history!” Grant promised battle reenactments, “many on a huge scale,” along with “colorful ceremonies…exhibitions of war trophies and mementos…memorials, parades, new historical markers and a great many special ceremonies.”

Historian Robert J. Cook quotes from the article in his 2007 book “Troubled Commemoration,” which meticulously chronicles what went wrong with the centennial. Civil War historian David W. Blight of Yale has described the official commemoration as nothing short of “a political and historical debacle.”

The commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War so far seems on more solid ground.

For one thing, Congress has refrained from creating a national Civil War sesquicentennial commission. States and localities are organizing most commemorative activities.

On Wednesday, the National Archives opened a major Civil War sesquicentennial exhibition called “Discovering the Civil War” that not only covers slavery and emancipation but also makes clear that the nation was divided.

A description of the eve of the war says: “In 1859 the prospect that the United States would break apart and plunge into civil war seemed remote. Few Americans could have imagined a war that would last four years, destroy much of the South, kill 620,000 soldiers and sailors and free four million slaves. Yet just two years later, it happened.”

The exhibition invites visitors to take a fresh look at the conflict through stories that are little known and documents that are rarely seen. An excellent catalog that accompanies the exhibition is a big help for reading the documents, some of which are hard to decipher in the dim light of the gallery.

The catalogue suggests that visitors examine the evidence, ask questions, listen to a wide variety of voices from the era “and make up your own mind about the struggle that almost tore apart these United States.” That’s open-ended enough not to get the Archives into trouble, even in these cranky times.

The Archives’ centennial exhibit took a top-own approach. It focused on the big names -- Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee -- and marched chronologically through the war from Fort Sumter to Appomattox.

The new exhibition takes a thematic approach. Part I, which was open April 30 to Sept. 6, was called “Beginnings.” Part II, which runs through April 17, is “Consequences” with sections devoted to Spies and Conspiracies, Invention and Enterprise, Prisoners and Casualties, Emancipations, and Endings and Beginnings. The exhibition is the most extensive display ever assembled from the Archives’ Civil War holdings.

The exhibition works hard to disabuse visitors of the notion that documents are just dull pieces of paper. It displays personal letters, photos, lists, posters, telegrams and diagrams -- many retrieved from dusty files since the centennial.

It contains a facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln issued Jan. 1, 1863. The Archives also arranged for a rare showing of the fragile, original proclamation this week.

It also shows a sad letter from a slave in Maryland named Annie Davis. She wrote Lincoln on April 25, 1864, asking if she was free. No response has been found, but the exhibit notes that the answer to her question would have been no. Slavery continued in Maryland until Nov. 1, 1864.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


  1. Ms. Mercer illuminates some of the interesting aspects of the US civil war that are not widely known - for example that in l859 the notion of the nation engaging in a war between itself was considered to be far-fetched. One wonders why the war started and why it continued for four years with its high cost in lives and treasure.

    Nice job, Ms Mercer. We enjoy reading your column each week.

  2. I share caryberkcam's and Ms Mercer's views. The civil war matches WWI as the most unnecessary wars in which the U.S. has participated, along with the Spanish American, and Viet Nam.

    Thank you Ms. Mercer for your fine writing and interesting and informative columns. We also look forward to reading them each week.