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Feature

The War 150 Years Later

As the sesquicentennial nears, a selection of past, present, and future humanities projects

By David Skinner | HUMANITIES, July/August 2010 | Volume 31, Number 4

On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the sixteenth president of the United States.

He came by rail from Illinois, speaking to crowds along the route from the back of the train. Welcoming the opportunity to show Americans the face of their new president, he joked that in seeing theirs he was getting the better end of the bargain. His political comments were similarly lighthearted. Seven states had seceded from the Union, but he called the crisis “artificial,” and dismissed the Confederacy (which days earlier had inaugurated its own president, Jefferson Davis) as something cooked up by scheming politicians.

Lincoln made stops in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. In Manhattan he attended the opera, though his presence in general (such as wearing black gloves instead of white) inspired more than a few aspersions on his intelligence and decorum.

Responding to warnings of an assassination plot, Lincoln changed plans for the last leg of the journey, cancelling a visit to Maryland’s Monumental City. But crossing into slave territory could not be avoided. Lincoln’s train did make a stop in Baltimore but was soon on its way. Later that day, the president-elect arrived in Washington all but unannounced and, some reports had it, incognito.

Lincoln’s election had split the national vote between North and South. He was the country’s first avowedly antislavery president. Several moments on Inauguration Day betrayed the grim irregularity of this fact and what it foreshadowed for the United States of America.

At the U.S. Capitol, riflemen were posted at the windows and on the roofs of nearby buildings. The oath of office was administered by Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, which helped overturn the Missouri Compromise and extended slavery to Western states. From a platform on the east steps of the dome-less Capitol, a work in progress like the nation it represented, Lincoln spoke to a crowd numbering in the thousands.

The tone of the speech was conciliatory: “There will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.” But Lincoln’s words on the subject of disunion were blunt: “Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.”

Lincoln closed by calling on “the better angels of our nature.” The call went unanswered. Open conflict began April 12 at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The new president ordered up additional troops and another four states seceded. So began the Civil War.

Next year marks the war’s 150th anniversary, its sesquicentennial, which will surely be recalled in numerous events, public and private, local and national. NEH has helped fund scores of programs and projects dedicated to improving our understanding of this terrible, great, and liberating event.

Robert E. Lee is the subject of an American Experience documentary airing on PBS. Mentioned more than once in the pages of HUMANITIES recently is the fact that Abraham Lincoln offered command of the U.S. Army to Lee at Blair House, a short walk up the street from the White House. Lee’s sense of kinship, however, kept the Virginian from accepting. Resigning his post in the U.S. Army, he became the Confederate commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Over the years, NEH has supported numerous Civil War-related American Experience documentaries, ranging in subject from the life of Frederick Douglass, the great writer, orator, and abolitionist, to the marriage of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, to Reconstruction, the so-called “second Civil War.” The latest American Experience project to receive NEH funding is the aptly named documentary, Republic of Suffering, which takes the war’s death toll—a staggering figure upwards of 600,000 Americans—as its subject.

Through NEH’s We the People Bookshelf, four thousand copies of The Civil War, the unforgettable, eleven-hour-long, NEH-supported, Emmy Award-winning Ken Burns documentary are being distributed to schools and public libraries, along with seventeen books on the theme of “a more perfect union.” The Civil War has spawned many imitators in recent years but has remained the most successful television documentary of its kind. Among other accomplishments, it reintroduced audiences and history buffs to Shelby Foote and his magisterial three-volume history of the war. The novelist, once bruited as the heir to William Faulkner, though never so celebrated, began complaining about all the attention that came his way after the documentary first aired in 1990.

Four NEH-supported traveling exhibits from the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial in 2009 have been making the rounds. “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War,” run by the American Library Association, explores slavery, secession, and wartime civil liberties as constitutional crises. “Abraham Lincoln: A Man of His Time, A Man for All Times” looks at the rail splitter’s life and legacy.

“Forever Free: Abraham Lincoln’s Journey to Emancipation,” created by the Huntington Library, draws attention to the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking on slavery, about which, after years of reflection, he finally said, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

More log-cabin lore and the “right to rise” are the themes of “Abraham Lincoln: Self-Made in America,” which examines the arc of Lincoln’s life from humble birth to high office to his assassination.

Other Civil War-related exhibitions include “Lincoln and New York,” a recent major exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, which, also not so long ago, partnered with the Virginia Historical Society on an exhibition devoted to Generals Grant and Lee, now a traveling exhibition. The Catoctin Center for Regional Studies at Frederick Community College in Maryland has received a grant for “Crossroads of War: The Civil War and the Home Front in the Mid-Atlantic Border Region,” a series of lectures, conferences, and tours devoted to this part of the country during wartime.

Virginia was one of the states to join the Confederacy after Fort Sumter, whereupon Richmond replaced Montgomery, Alabama, as the capital of the Confederacy. And, of course, the state was the stage for several important battles, including Bull Run and Fredericksburg. The museum exhibition, “An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia” is supported by a $1 million NEH grant to the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission. The exhibition will open in Richmond in 2011, and travel to six other cities in the state, after which a smaller version will circulate to other venues.

Many Americans will decide to revisit the Civil War through the printed word. NEH has supported quite a shelf of Civil War histories over the years, starting with Road to Disunion, William Freehling’s superb two-volume study of the antebellum South. Another important study looking at prewar America, also completed with NEH assistance, was the 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning A Nation under Our Feet by Steven Hahn, which examined the political lives of black Americans from slavery in the rural South to the Great Migration.

Don Fehrenbacher’s 1978 book The Dred Scott Case, written with NEH support, won the Pulitzer as well. Fehrenbacher, one of the great lights of Lincoln scholarship, examined the Supreme Court decision that Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan (ranked by modern historians as one of the worst chief executives ever) had hoped would settle the legal and political issue of slavery once and for all.

In 1989, a Pulitzer Prize went to James McPherson’s much-loved, one-volume history of the war, Battle Cry of Freedom, which was supported with an NEH research fellowship. Celebrated for his careful blend of fine scholarship and powerful storytelling, McPherson marches the reader at a stately pace through the social, political, and military history from the halls of Montezuma to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and Lincoln’s assassination.

For an earthier take on the Civil War, one can put on a pair of hiking boots and head off into the parklands with a copy of the Civil War Battlefield Guide, published with NEH support in 1990, and revised in 1998, by the Conservation Fund.

A book about Lincoln himself, from his own point of view, was the goal of David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln Prize-winning 1995 biography. If the future president seemed less than formidable as he arrived in Washington in 1861, so did he seem many years later to Donald, who called him “one of the least experienced and poorly prepared men ever elected to high office.” Donald also called him, in the same sentence, “the greatest American president.”

The aftermath of the Civil War was the subject of Eric Foner’s classic Bancroft Prize-winning Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877. Called by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris a work of “stylistic genius,” Foner’s account sought to move beyond the revisionism that had begun with W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America and provide a newly coherent history that returned the freedman to the center of this important national drama.

Underlying so many works of history is the careful, decades-long work of collecting and editing historical papers, the indispensable primary documents of our national memory. NEH has supported many such projects: the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, the Papers of Jefferson Davis, the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, the Papers of Andrew Johnson; Race, Slavery and Free Blacks: Petitions to Southern Legislatures and County Courts, 1776–1867, the Frederick Douglass Papers, Walt Whitman’s Civil War writings, the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, the Thaddeus Stevens Papers, and the Papers of John C. Calhoun.

And yet papers do not always refer to paper anymore. Great scholarly and public collections are increasingly accessible online. The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database by David Eltis has brought together collections previously scattered in archives around the world and is slowly transforming our understanding of how the abduction, shipment, and sale of Africans shaped several North and South American countries. Among its many fascinating lessons is the sheer number of slaves that were transported: Prior to the 1820s, four times as many African slaves crossed the Atlantic as Europeans.

There are many other lessons to be found for classroom use on EDSITEment, NEH’s educational web portal. The Civil War-related curricula include, for grades 9-12, A House Dividing: The Growing Crisis of Sectionalism in Antebellum America, Abraham Lincoln on the American Union: “A Word Fitly Spoken,” and The American Civil War: “A Terrible Swift Sword.” For grades 6-8, among much other material, is Life in the North and South 1847–1861.

Over the years NEH has supported numerous digital media projects that have shed light on the great issues and events of history. NEH support helped Edward Ayers complete a CD-ROM and then an Internet version of his highly celebrated Civil War interactive program The Valley of the Shadow. Through the National Digital Newspaper Program, the Library of Congress posts on the site “Chronicling America” contents from a huge collection of historic newspapers from 1874 to 1922. It will begin posting Civil War-era newspapers this summer and, in 2011, will include newspapers dating back to 1832.

NEH also supports institutions dedicated to illuminating the Civil War through the humanities. The Richards Civil War Era Center at Pennsylvania State University received a $1 million challenge grant to support their programming on the history of American freedom from the Founding to the Civil Rights era. The Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College received an $850,000 challenge grant to support its staff, online Lincoln resources, and educational programs. The Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County got a $375,000 challenge grant to help restore six historic properties and a recently discovered Underground Railroad cistern. The Lancaster Trust plans to use the buildings and cistern for interpretive programming devoted to the abolitionist legacies of Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith.

The Civil War tourist (you know, tourist in a good way) may also consider such NEH-supported sites as President Lincoln’s Cottage, which received $260,000 to support interpretation for exhibitions and tours.

Various materials relating to the Civil War have been supported by NEH Preservation and Access grants at large and small institutions alike. With NEH assistance, the Pennsylvania Heritage Society is conserving and archiving 2,568 muster rolls representing every Pennsylvania soldier who served. The Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum and Library and the Fifth Maine Regiment Museum have both received modest grants to help preserve and store their history collections.

Many local and state Civil War remembrances involve NEH partnerships with state humanities councils. The South Carolina Humanities Council is supporting a major multimedia exhibition and public programs at the state historical society on “The Dissolve of the Union—South Carolina and the Secession.” The North Carolina Humanities Council is hosting a scholarly panel on the so-called United States Colored Troops. The Vermont Humanities Council received an NEH grant to help identify sites related to the home front of the Civil War.

In Illinois, the Road Scholars Speakers Bureau is presenting six speakers and nine presentations covering the gamut from a Stephen A. Douglas Chautauqua performance to lectures on “The Civil War at Sea” and the “Medical Side of the Civil War.” The Indiana Humanities Council is supporting a web-based compilation of articles on the Civil War in Indiana.

In Pennsylvania, history professor Judith Giesberg will speak on the famous letter of condolence that Abraham Lincoln sent to Lydia Bixby, the mother of five Union soldiers assumed to have been killed in the war. Robert Sandow will report on deserters who hid in the Appalachian hills, while history columnist Donald Scott talks about Camp William Penn, home base for over 11,000 African-American soldiers whose vocal admirers included Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth.

The Encyclopedia of Virginia, a project of the Virginia foundation for the Humanities, has been developing its content on the state’s Civil War history, work that is being picked up for educational purposes by the Virginia Sesquicentennial commission and the New York Times.

The Florida Humanities Council devoted an entire issue of its magazine, Forum, to the Civil War experience. So unlike the state we know today, Florida in 1861 was largely unsettled in its southern half. Forty-five percent of the population of 145,000 was made up of slaves, whose work was critical to feeding the Confederate army.

Schoolteachers and college faculty are the intended audience of NEH Summer Seminars, Institutes, and Landmark Workshops, many of which take up the Civil War as their subject. In the summer of 2010, 160 K–12 teachers visit battlefields along the Missouri-Kansas border to study the clashing cultures and political beliefs involved in the guerilla violence along state lines. Middle Tennessee State University has organized workshops in and around Nashville to examine the local history of occupation and emancipation. Wilson’s Creek, the war’s second major battle, is the subject of a Landmark Workshop in Missouri run out of Drury University.

Also in the summer of 2010, abolition and the Underground Railroad were studied by a group of schoolteachers at Colgate University. Meanwhile, another group at Southern Illinois University examined “Abraham Lincoln and the Forging of Modern American” with visits to nearby landmarks. African-American history in the Low Country was topic A at a Civil War-related workshop for teachers run by the Georgia Historical Society. African-American history was the subject of another Landmarks Workshop, which took place in the nation’s capital in both 2007 and 2008.

Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, hosted a five-week institute for high school teachers on “Cotton Culture in the South from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement.” Also in the summer of 2010: Slavery in New England was the lesson for thirty schoolteachers at the Rhode Island Historical Society. Meanwhile, the Library Company of Philadelphia ran a four-week summer seminar on the Abolitionist movement.

A group of community college faculty studied “war, death, and remembrance” at the University of Mississippi, while college and university teachers examined new approaches to Civil War scholarship in a summer institute offered by the Georgia Historical Society.

On July 4, 1861, as James McPherson relates in Battle Cry of Freedom, President Lincoln struck a different tone from what he’d chosen for the inaugural. “Our popular government has often been called an experiment,” he said. “Two points in it, our people have already settled—the successful establishing, and the successful administering of it. One still remains—its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it.”

David Skinner is editor of HUMANITIES.