advertisement

National Archives puts Civil War vaults on display

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — Beyond the famous battles of the Civil War, there was chaos.

The governor of Kansas was frantically pleading for ammunition to quell guerrilla warfare, citizens in Missouri were appealing to Army officials when a U.S. flag was ripped from a church rooftop, and citizens in Virginia were asking the governor for arms to fight Union sympathizers.

Stories like these emerge from documents that go on rare public view Friday at the National Archives in Washington as the nation prepares to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Filmmaker Ken Burns took an early look Tuesday and said the lesser-known details and evidence of the war will prove far more compelling than dry dates and facts from history books.

"Most of the way we tell our history is from the top down — we see American history ... as kind of a succession of presidential administrations, punctuated by wars," Burns said.

That begins to change, he said, when people see original records and photographs.

"When we can touch their diaries or touch their records, then they connect to us in a way that all that other homework doesn't," said Burns, who spent weeks at the archives 20 years ago researching and filming for his landmark series, "The Civil War."

The exhibit draws from millions of Civil War records, letters and photographs at the archives.

Many documents on display are reproductions, though some originals also are on view, along with touch-screen interactives. They are arranged by theme to tell such stories as secession and slavery, international connections to the war and how some women fought disguised as men.

It's too much to display all at once. The second half will open in November, exploring the war's consequences.

Next year, the 6,000 square-foot exhibit will begin touring nationally during most of the anniversary years of the war, with stops in Michigan, Texas and Nebraska.

There were no declarations of war or peace treaties to display from the Civil War. The Union never recognized the Confederacy as a separate nation.

One of the most significant documents on view is Virginia's original ordinance of secession. Virginia initially refused to join seven states that seceded after President Abraham Lincoln's election but passed the measure in April 1861.

Other documents show how Lincoln reacted, how the Confederate states were organized and how both sides grappled for international support.

Leaders who lined up on opposite sides of the battlefield often had close connections before the war. Exhibit designers created social networking pages like Facebook to show how Union Gen. George McClellan once was a protege of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, for example.

As for the sensitive issue of slavery, curator Bruce Bustard said they want the documents to speak for themselves.

A comparison of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the Confederacy demonstrates their remarkable similarity, he said, except for a reference to God, a six-year presidency and an explicit right to hold slaves as property.

"We want people to look at the documents, read the documents, ask questions about them and then ultimately make up their own minds," Bustard said.

Although two Southern governors — Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Haley Barbour in Mississippi — recently seemed to downplay the role of slavery, Burns said there is no question it was at the root of the conflict.

"We just have to distinguish between what's history and what's the manipulation of history," Burns said, referring to Confederate History Month celebrations that neglect to mention slavery. "The great ennobling outcome of Civil War was not just the end of a secessionist movement but the liberating of 4 million Americans who happened to be owned by other Americans."


Like what you see here? Become a member.


Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Comments

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.

advertisements