The cannon, rifles and pistols long have fallen silent, but the triumph and lament of people who experienced the Civil War still speaks through their letters.
These writings are key source material for “Opening Guns: The First Year of Civil War,” an exhibit presented on the occasion of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, 1861-65, at the William L. Clements Library.
It is open from 1-4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday, through June 2.
Curator Barbara DeWolfe says that when one considers the huge outpouring of letters and personal accounts available to scholars — not just from the first year of the war but through its entire four years — the exhibit could just as easily have been named “Opening Pens.”
“What’s revealing is the honesty in the letters — they weren’t censored as they were in World War II,” DeWolfe says. “You really get a feel for the war. These letters, found in numerous repositories in the United States, provide a remarkable record of just about every aspect of the war.”
This war, which opened April 12, 1861, is presented through the written words of Union and Confederate soldiers, commanding officers, politicians and family members at home. The writings, photographs and drawings are presented in 16 large display cases in the library’s Main Room.
“I decided to make letters the focus because we have a huge Civil War collection, called the James S. Schoff Civil War Collection, named after the donor who in the 1970s gave the Clements his collection of more than 300 Civil War items,” DeWolfe says. The Schoff Collection, a key exhibit source, consists of hundreds of collections of Civil War papers and manuscripts acquired over decades. “What’s outstanding from his collection are the letters from the ordinary soldiers, and also from the generals — Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, and from Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.”
In a Jan. 17, 1861, letter from Davis, the soon-to-be Confederate president writes, “The election (of Abraham Lincoln) was not the cause it was but the last feather which you know breaks the camel’s back.”
Isaac Seymour, a soldier who enlisted in the 6th Louisiana Infantry Regiment, was promoted to colonel on May 21. In a Sept. 2 letter presented in the exhibit, he describes camp life and asks for winter clothing:
“I want a few bandanna hankerchiefs, a pack of socks, a couple of pair of very thick drawers, three very thick undershirts, two woolen night caps, two pair of warm woolen gloves, two of my best old winter vests, my thick short frock coat, and a few cakes of toilet soap.”
Letters from the first year reveal that many expected a short conflict. “They thought the war would be over very quickly by December,” DeWolfe says. The feeling is captured in a May 27, 1861, letter from a Confederate soldier named George (no last name specified), stationed in a camp in Georgia, to his brother: “I came to the conclusion that by the first of August everything will be amicably settled,” he wrote.
On July 21, 1861, Congressman Henry Smith Lane joined other U.S. Congressmen and Union supporters who rode horse-drawn wagons from Washington, D.C., to see the first Battle of Bull Run in Centreville, Va. After observing the 10-hour battle — a Union defeat — Lane wrote, “I thought I could perceive an insufficiency in the officers. The attack was made with too few troops.”
He continued, “For eight hours we drove them at all points. The enemy then brought up very large reinforcements and three or four of our regiments retreated in some disorder. It was a bloody battle … a sight I shall never forget and I shall attend no more battles as an amateur, there is no fun in it.”
Union supporters would have to wait another five months for the Union’s first victory in the eastern theater, in December at Dranesville, Va.
Also displayed is a letter from the home front, from the Gordon Family Papers, which document the life of a Confederate family in Maryland during the war. Josiah Gordon, elected to the Maryland House of Delegates, had voted for Maryland to secede. Labeled a Confederate sympathizer, he was arrested and incarcerated at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.
His wife Kate wrote, “I will do all in my power to take care of things at home, and promise you I will not spend one cent more than I can help.”
The exhibit also contains cookbooks of the era, and the stories behind its two most popular songs, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie.”
Clements staff contributing to the exhibit included Brian Dunnigan, associate director and curator of maps who served as military history adviser; Julie Fremuth, conservator, who mounted the exhibit and performed design work; and Clayton Lewis, curator, who produced images.
Mike Ross, financial aid officer senior, Office of Financial Aid, on how training and preparation for sports competition positively impacts his approach to work: “It takes a lot of motivation and attention to detail to do my job well.”
“Reconstruction of an Antenna (as seen on TV)” from UMMA Projects: Amalia Pica, May 28-Sept. 18, U-M Museum of Art.