Library of Congress exhibit brings the Civil War to life with personal stories and items

The Library of Congress is national treasure, sparkling inside and out. Photo: Battle of the Wilderness, Civil War

WASHINGTON, November 20, 2012 — Hurricane Sandy played havoc with nearly everyone along the East Coast, including the Library of Congress’s press preview of its latest spectacular exhibit, “The Civil War In America.” The storm that swept wind and rain into the area also swept well-laid plans out the window, and some exhibits that were to be included did not to arrive on time.

So a new date was set for Wednesday, November 14, and a rather small gathering of press and media arrived at the appointed hour. But as happens to anyone who steps into the halls of the LOC, chins dropped, breath stopped as an outstanding experience unfolded.

The building itself is indescribable. It dates to 1899, and every magnificent inch of marble, granite, gold leaf, mosaic, statuary, and other decoration that the Gilded Age could produce is there, all shining like new gold ingots. The excellent Library curators, headed by Donna Urschel, were waiting eagerly to lead the tour groups, and we spent the next hours transported by the outstanding new exhibit.

Inside the Library of Congress

The exhibition on the Civil War, with its 200 unique items, is extraordinary and exhaustive. It winds through several exhibit areas, each beautifully lit, the signs eminently readable, and the array of artifacts more than can be taken in during one tour.

Exhibit Captures the Heartbreak the War Brought

The exhibit opens with the 1860 period and goes through each year of the ensuing four-year conflict with pictures, original artifacts, maps, old photographs and new ones, and relevant explanatory material by historians and other scholars. While the overall exhibit is heavy with material from the Union side (this is a U.S. Government institution, and that side did win the war), a good deal of information on the South and its experience in the war is included, represented by many items never displayed publicly before.

Some of the memorable items include a letter from Mary Todd Lincoln expressing her sorrow at the loss of her 11-year-old son, Willie, whose typhoid fever probably came from the polluted water pumped in from the Potomac River. There is also a letter from Union soldier John P. Jones to his wife, expressing the thoughts of many of the Northern soldiers who had never encountered slaves before.

There’s the diary of a Georgia teenager, house-bound and handicapped. He watched the war unfold through the windows of his home, first watching local boys play ball outside, then watching them, his father, and his brother march off to war. And then the war marches home to him.

Civil War exhibit

An extremely long (roughly 6’ x 4’) glass enclosed display table holds the hand-drawn map of the entire Shenandoah Valley, executed in amazing detail for Southern leaders by Jedediah Hotchkiss, master cartographer and topographer to Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. It is hard to imagine how Hotchkiss was able to chart the twists and turns of the hills and valleys only from seeing them from ground level.

One of the curiously funny items on exhibit is a postwar veterans’ newspaper, which ran a “Left-Hand Penmanship” contest, the entrants being those who had lost their right hand or arm in battle, with cash prizes awarded. This seems to have been a big item to the vets.

One of the veterans, Chase from Co. B, 3rd Maine Volunteers and the 5th Maine Battery, submitted his letter and a photograph of himself, telling of the various battles in which he had participated and suffered injuries.

Knowlegeable Staff That Loves Its Subject

It was wonderful to tour with such a knowledgeable staff of archivists and curators. When one of them would start talking about a given display or artifact and paused for a moment, another would step in and add to it. The depth of knowledge of these dedicated professionals would be hard to find anywhere else. This is “their” exhibit in “their” Library and they are justifiably interested in and proud of it.

Outside the Library of Congress

This exhibition shows the war literally through the eyes of those who saw it and lived it first hand. Everyone – whether a Civil War buff or not – should make the trek to 10 First Street SE to check out the exhibit. The beautiful Italian Renaissance edifice with its sky blue dome is worth the trip. 

The Library itself is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and the largest library in the world. It holds more than 151 million items in various languages, disciplines and formats. We saw only one very small part of it and are determined to return.

Part of the Library’s old holdings were destroyed in the War of 1812 and Thomas Jefferson then sold some 6,487 of his own books to the  library in 1815. It has definitely grown since then and even has a satellite campus in Culpeper, Va.  Its primary mission is researching inquiries from members of Congress, although it is open to the public (and dozens of school age children were there), only members of Congress, the Supreme Court and their staffs may check out books. 

The Civil War exhibit will run through June 1, 2013. A trip to LOC just to see the mosaics and statuary is worth it alone.

And for shoppers, the gift/sales shop is extraordinary.

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Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.


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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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