The horrors of the American Civil War, wrote Walt Whitman in 1863, “open a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, new things, exploring deeper mines than any yet, showing our humanity … tried by terrible, fearfulest tests, probed deepest, the living soul’s, the body’s tragedies, bursting the petty bounds of art.”
A century and half after the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 sparked the conflict, Americans are still trying, as Whitman did, to comprehend our nation’s most “terrible, feafulest tests.”
Fifty years ago, the 100th anniversary of the Civil War was marked by elaborate reenactments of battles like Bull Run and Antietam by “Blue and Gray Skirmishers.” Ironically, the Civil War Centennial took place as the Civil Rights movement struggled to achieve racial equality and other basic American liberties that had been the focus of the divisive events of the 1860’s. Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a “new birth of Freedom” was finally coming true, even as the embers of the Civil War were being raked over to grasp its meaning.
The wounds remaining from the 1861-65 conflict are about to be probed again in a series of commemorative programs under the banner of “Civil War 150.” That’s easier to remember (or spell) than saying the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. But a visit to a small, though extremely impressive, exhibition of historical documents at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia will quickly dispel any doubts about the need or relevance of giving the American Civil War one more look.
The exhibit at the Rosenbach is entitled The Civil War Begins. The comparative simplicity of the title does not do justice to the profound importance of what is on display. These are not merely newspapers, letters, transcripts of speeches and official reports from the 1850’s through the first major battles of the war in 1861. To a very significant degree, the words inscribed on these timeworn documents actually influenced the outbreak of the Civil War. And once the trigger had been pulled, newspaper accounts of early events, like the combat death of Union Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, had a resonance that decisively shaped the course of the long, bloody years to come.
The Rosenbach Museum is particularly well suited to commemorate the American Civil War. The museum displays historic books, literary manuscripts and art objects collected by Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach and his brother Philip Rosenbach, legendary rare book dealers active during the first half of the 20th century. Of equal importance, the mid-19th century building in center city Philadelphia that houses their collection preserves the spirit of the Rosenbach brothers’ devotion to American culture and its roots in English literature.
In the gallery devoted to The Civil War Begins, visitors will find an 1857 document by Abraham Lincoln, then a relatively unknown lawyer from Illinois, calling for Union loyalists to rally to the cause of preserving the nation. In this hand-written draft, the genius is first displayed that would astonish the world with such speeches as “the last best hope of earth” message to Congress in December 1862, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Speech of 1865.
In another display case, the resignation letter from Col. Robert E. Lee to General Winfield Scott, commander of the U.S. Army, is on view. In the spring of 1861, Lee, the army’s most distinguished field grade officer, was favored by Scott to command the forces designated to hold the fraying nation together. But Lee, scion of one of Virginia’s most venerable families, was torn between loyalty to the Union and devotion to his “country.” Lee’s country was Virginia, the “Old Dominion.” And he was not alone in his regional loyalties.
For most early 19th century Americans, pride of place was reserved for the state of their birth. Official documents still referred to the Union in terms of “the United States are” rather than “the United States is” a nation. When Virginia belatedly joined the break-away Confederate States of America on April 17, 1861, Lee’s ability to support the Union, or at least remain neutral, was severely constrained. A few southern-born officers like George H. Thomas, the future “Rock of Chickamauga,” persevered in their support of the Union. Robert E. Lee, the son of Revolutionary War hero, “Light Horse” Harry” Lee, felt that he could not.
Lee’s letter to Scott, dated April 20, 1861, was one of two he wrote, resigning from the U.S. Army. A second letter was sent to the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron.
Lee’s steady hand and exquisite penmanship give no indication of the torment he experienced in reaching his decision. Lee’s words to his beloved old commander, whom he had met with for the last time two days before, evoked the tragic sentiments that were dividing the entire nation.
Since my interview with you on the 18th Inst: I have felt that I ought not longer to retain any Commission in the Army. I therefore tender my resignation … It would have been presented at once but for the struggle it has Cost me to separate myself from a Service to which I have divoted all the best years of my life, & all the ability I possessed. During the whole of that time, more than a quarter of a century, I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors & the most Cordial friendships from any Comrades.
Lee concluded his letter with the fateful words, “Save in the defense of my native state shall I ever again draw my sword.”
As fate would have it, the first major battle of the Civil War, Manassas or Bull Run, as it was known in the North, was fought in Virginia. Lee was not in command or even present. The Confederate commander was the fiery Louisiana strategist, P.G.T. Beauregard. General Beauregard’s official report of the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Manassas is included in the Rosenbach exhibit. Later in the war, Lee would indeed draw his sword “in the defense of my native state.” Replacing Beauregard, he would have occasion to write many battlefield dispatches, all too many.
The Civil War Begins is much more than a record of soldiers and politicians. The exhibition is a model treatment of the moral ambiguities, skewed perspectives, petty concerns and human frailty that led to the war, along with the more grandiose issues that are featured in history textbooks.
Among the most intriguing items on display is the journal and account book of the Philadelphia artist, John Henry Brown. Little known today, largely because he specialized in portrait miniatures, Brown was a northerner who was skeptical of the policies of Lincoln and the newly-formed Republican party. Brown had met Lincoln in 1860 when he had been commissioned to paint his portrait. His journal records that Brown personally liked Lincoln – Lincoln the man. But Brown’s dismissive comments on Lincoln’s political philosophy shows that he did not accept the belief that the United States was a nation with strong, internal unity. And it was bad for business, as his journal entry for January 15, 1861 shows.
At Miss Roger’s picture. Lost another engagement today, owing to the condition of the times. This makes six hundred & seventy five dollars, lost thus far, by broken engagements and no new engagements making. This is the time of year, engagements were generally made, which gave me work for a year.
The exhibition includes many newspapers and journals whose blazing headlines and vitriolic rhetoric contrast with Brown’s prosaic concern over dollars and cents. But a scrap book of newspaper clippings on view reinforces the impression that Brown’s obsession over cash flow was less a personal character flaw than a national trait. The scrap book contains news stories and reviews, evocative of the 1850’s, but it is the small print of some of the classified advertisements offering rewards for escaped slaves that show how economics helped spark the long fuse leading to Fort Sumter.
“Left my residence on the Central Plank Road, three miles from the city, two slaves…” one classified begins, offering $800 dollars for the capture of the fugitives. The scale of the reward was adjusted to the physique and health of the slaves and to the degree of assistance rendered in securing their return to bondage. Here in fine print, as in John Henry Brown’s testy comments, is an indication of how deeply slavery was imprinted on the fabric of American life.
From the remarkable documents presented in the Rosenbach exhibition, the Civil War appears to be less of an “irrepressible conflict,” as it was called than and since. Rather, Americans groped their way to the abyss, clinging to self-interest, wishful thinking and foolish bravado. Even the level-headed Ulysses S. Grant failed to grasp the extent of the looming catastrophe. After rejoining the U.S. Army to train Union volunteers, Grant wrote to his sister in August 1861, predicting the triumph of the Union. Though concerned by the military strength of the Confederates – “they are so dogged that there is no telling when they will be subdued’ — Grant immediately contradicted himself and forecasted Union victory — for April 1862.
According to Kathy Haas, the curator of the exhibition, many of the items on view, like Grant’s letter, will be replaced periodically by similar ones due to the need to preserve these fragile, light sensitive documents. It will also be a chance to highlight the riches of the Rosenbach’s collection of Civil War literature. That is no idle boast. In the case of General Grant, alone, the museum owns 80 of his wartime letters, as well as the draft telegram announcing Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
The Rosenbach Civil War exhibit, which opened last December, will continue until July 2011. In 2013, a follow-up exhibition will highlight the decisive events of 1863, notably the Emancipation Proclamation and the Battle of Gettysburg. Haas said that there are long-range plans for a concluding exhibition designed to document the end of the war, Lincoln’s death and the troubled legacy of the conflict. Continuity will be provided by the “Today in the Civil War” blog which enables students of history to view objects on view in the Rosenbach exhibition, as well as to read full or partial transcripts.
And then, there is the Rosenbach Museum itself, a showcase of the extraordinary dedication, literary taste and regard for humanistic values of the brothers who amassed the treasure trove that is stored within its walls.
The manuscript of James Joyce’s Ulysses is here, as are large portions of the manuscripts of Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby. Thomas Sully’s 1831 portrait of Rebecca Gratz, the talented and beautiful Jewish woman from Philadelphia who inspired Sir Walter Scott’s Rebecca in Ivanhoe, graces the wall of one of the Rosenbach’s lavishly decorated period rooms. Original drawings by the visionary English poet William Blake and thousands of paintings, sketches and manuscripts of Maurice Sendak are preserved in the Rosenbach’s vast holdings of English literature, old and new. One hundred personal letters written by George Washington and a first edition of the volume of verse by the first great African American poet, Phillis Wheatley, including her 1775 poem, “To his Excellency General Washington,” testify to the Rosenbach brothers’ devotion to collecting Americana. And rarest of rare, the Rosenbach is the proud owner of one of only eleven known copies of the first book printed in the English colonies, the Bay Psalm Book of 1640.
The Rosenbach Museum and Library is thus a fitting venue to explore how American culture was tested during the ordeal of the war to preserve the Union. The Civil War Begins exhibition may be said to document how a nation and its people can fail in moments of crisis to remain united. The follow-up exhibits will surely testify to how a “new birth of Freedom” did indeed take place – in the speeches of Lincoln, in the literature of writers like Walt Whitman and in the hearts of the American people.
The Civil War Begins
December 15, 2010 – July 17, 2011
Rosenbach Museum & Library 2008-2010 Delancey Place, Philadelphia, PA