Share This Article

Discovering the Civil War

National Archives Traveling Exhibit

The most cataclysmic event in American history left a huge paper trail, which the National Archives has mined to great effect in a sprawling exhibit that hits the road this summer to commemorate the Civil War’s 150th anniversary.

The exhibit avoids predictable blow-by-blow accounts of battles. Instead, this is the war as seen by the politicians whose words fanned the flames, the clerks who tracked the cost of ordnance or the number of casualties, and the parents who sought to find what became of a soldier son. Among the most affecting displays are those devoted to the war’s long-term human costs: a prosthetic manufacturer’s logbook listing recipients of new limbs with the battles that scarred them—Gettysburg, Winchester, Petersburg; a Union Defenders Certificate that a mother used to apply for a pension after her son and sole source of support was killed; a roster of Southern black orphans whose parents were simply, plaintively “lost during the war.”

Surprisingly modern issues also surface and remind us that sharp tensions inevitably arise within a democracy at prolonged war. The telegraph, one of this war’s many new technologies, completely changed how—and how fast—information could be shared, leading to worries about the press’ role and government censorship. Wasteful spending and fraud allegations mounted as the war dragged on. Even the role of women in combat was debated when Virginia women offered to raise “a full regiment of Ladies” to fight for the Confederacy in 1864. (Their offer was chivalrously declined.)

In the accompanying coffee-table book, the National Archives staff contributes essays that contextualize the objects on display and, along the way, provide a tantalizing glimpse into daily operations at the nation’s foremost repository.

Next stop for “Discovering the Civil War” is the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. (summer 2011), followed by the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas (fall 2011-spring 2012), and then the Durham Museum in Omaha, Neb. (fall 2013).


Originally published in the June 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.