The Civil War From the Bottom Up

Posted April 28, 2010 at 3:33pm

The Civil War may seem like a tired topic, but the new exhibit at the National Archives, “Discovering the Civil War,” takes a fresh approach to an old story.

The exhibition, which opens Friday, shows visitors noteworthy artifacts from the National Archives in an attempt to illustrate how the war affected those who were involved. “Discovering the Civil War” includes letters, diary entries, military records and other documents. Few of the original documents are on display; instead, the Archives has replicated them and made them larger and easier to read.

“This bottom-up view of history is important because it engages our citizens in the practical work of democracy,” said filmmaker Ken Burns, who was on hand for the opening. Burns, a vice president of the Foundation for the National Archives, was periodically in contact with the exhibition’s planners.

“Discovering the Civil War” is just as much about the Archives as it is about the Civil War. The exhibition opens with a video shot in the stacks of the Archives that explains the research process and discusses the types of things housed in the Archives.

“This is the DNA of our civilization,” Burns said of the collection. He added that during his time in the stacks, he discovered a record of his great-great-grandfather’s involvement in the Civil War. “There is more information in this building than just about anywhere on the planet.”

The exhibition can seem overwhelming because there is so much information on display. It tracks the events leading up to the war and the war itself, though rather than delving into battle details, the story is told through the eyes of those who bore witness to it and were affected by it. One of the most moving parts of the exhibit is the letter section.

“This is a war fought by the two most literate armies in history,” Burns said. “So you get incredible poetry.”

A letter written by a Missouri slave to her husband who was fighting on the Union side is one great example. It was written in January 1864 and asks that he send money home to her. “They are treating me worse and worse every day,” the letter reads.

Not all of the letters that were sent were received. A letter from Confederate surgeon Robert J. Pell that was mailed to his wife in July of 1863, but confiscated by the Union, is highlighted. Mrs. Pell never saw the letter, but it made its way into the Archives.

Along with personal letters are diaries kept during the conflict. One recorded by a Confederate lieutenant colonel discusses the funeral of his son, which his wife was unable to attend.

“Our angel boy was put to rest just before the sun went down,” the entry begins. The letter also reveals that Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ wife came to the funeral.

“It becomes a life that is connected to other lives,” Burns said. “All of a sudden you’re invested in human lives because they could have been your relatives.”

While these writings are on display, conclusions are not laid out for visitors. The exhibit is instead peppered with large yellow note cards asking questions. For example, a blown-up version of the Crittenden Compromise — a document proposed by Kentucky Sen. John Crittenden, which would have made great concessions to the South, particularly regarding slavery — is shown at the beginning of the exhibit.

A note is attached to it asking visitors, “Why would someone support the Crittenden Compromise?” The exhibition does not offer an answer, but instead allows visitors to draw their own conclusions.

This is the first part of the exhibit, which will remain open until September and then go on a national tour. Part two of “Discovering the Civil War” will open at the Archives in November.