WASHINGTON, D.C. — Letters and diaries saved for 150 years from those who lived through the Civil War offer a new glimpse at the arguments that split the nation then and some of the festering debates that survive today.
The Library of Congress, which holds the largest collection of Civil War documents, pulled 200 items from its holdings to reveal both private and public thoughts from dozens of famous and ordinary citizens who lived in the North and the South. Many are being shown for the first time.
Robert E. Lee, for one, was grappling with divided federal and state allegiances. He believed his greater allegiance was to his native Virginia, as he wrote to a friend about resigning his U.S. Army commission.
“Sympathizing with you in the troubles that are pressing so heavily upon our beloved country & entirely agreeing with you in your notions of allegiance, I have been unable to make up my mind to raise my hand against my native state, my relatives, my children & my home,” he wrote in 1861. “I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army.”
Lee’s handwritten letter is among dozens of writings from individuals who experienced the war. They are featured in the new exhibit “The Civil War in America” at the library in Washington until June 2013. Their voices also are being heard again in a new blog created for the exhibition.
For a limited time in 2013, the extensive display will feature the original draft of President Abraham Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and rarely shown copies of the Gettysburg Address.
Beyond the generals and famous battles, though, curators set out to tell a broader story about what Lincoln called “a people’s contest.”
“This is a war that trickled down into almost every home,” said Civil War manuscript specialist Michelle Krowl. “Even people who may seem very far removed from the war are going to be impacted on some level. So it’s a very human story.”
Curators laid out a chronological journey from before the first shots were fired to the deep scars soldiers brought home in the end.
While some still debate the root causes of the war, for Benjamin Tucker Tanner in 1860, the cause was clear, as he wrote from South Carolina in his diary.
“The country seems to be bordering on a civil war all on account of slavery,” wrote the future minister. “I pray God to rule and overrule all to his own glory and the good of man.”
A personal letter from Mary Todd Lincoln in 1862 was recently acquired by the library and is being publicly displayed for the first time.
In the handwritten note on stationery with a black border, Mary Lincoln reveals her deep grief over the death of her son Willie months earlier. Krowl said Mary Lincoln’s grief is also evident in the new movie, “Lincoln.”
“When you read this letter ... you just get a palpable feeling of how in the depth that she’s been and she’s now finally coming out of her grief, at least to resume public affairs,” Krowl said.
All the documents in the exhibit are original. They include a massive map Gen. Stonewall Jackson commissioned of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to prepare for a major campaign.
The library also is displaying personal items from Lincoln, including the contents of his pockets on the night he was assassinated, and the pocket diary of Clara Barton who would constantly record details about soldiers she met and would later create the Bureau of Missing Soldiers.
Some of the closing words come from soldiers who lost their right arms or hands in battle and had to learn to write left-handed. They joined a left-handed penmanship contest and shared their stories.
“I think this exhibition will have a lot of resonance for people,” said exhibit director Cheryl Regan. “Certainly soldiers returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are going to be incredibly moved by these stories.”
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