War in words
The Huntington Library hosts a blockbuster two-part exhibition of Civil War photographs and manuscripts this fall
By Carl Kozlowski 08/24/2012
When thinking of an intriguing and exciting way to spend an afternoon, a visit to the library may not be the first activity that springs to mind. But this fall, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is about to change all that with two blockbuster exhibitions on the Civil War.
The first exhibition, a collection of manuscripts from the war entitled “A Just Cause: Voices of the American Civil War,” opens Sept. 22 and runs through Jan. 7 in the Mary Lou and George Boone Gallery. It’s complemented by “A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning and Memory in the American Civil War,” which runs from Oct. 13 through Jan. 14 in the library’s West Hall and features astonishing rare photographs from the nation’s most divisive era, during which more than 750,000 Americans were killed.
“When we began thinking about how the Huntington might weigh in on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we knew that an exhibition of photographs was indisputably the way to go,” says David Zeidberg, Avery Director of the Library. “These are works in the Huntington’s collections that largely haven’t been seen together in this way before and tell a remarkable story of who we were as a nation and what a tremendously difficult period this was.
“At the same time, we knew that also bringing out some of our manuscript material could provide important narrative context,” continues Zeidberg. “What was this war about that took the lives of three-quarters of a million people? We think of it as a given; in fact, it is a question that has been fiercely argued about over time.”
The photo exhibition features more than 200 works by famous war photographers, including Matthew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, George Barnard, Alexander Gardner and Andrew J. Russell, from the library’s extensive Civil War archives. The collection was begun when Henry E. Huntington purchased three of the “Big Five” collections of Abraham Lincoln materials early in the 20th century and has supplied a vast array of lithographic and print material for both shows.
According to Jennifer Watts, curator of photographs at the Huntington, the timing of the exhibition was inspired by the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. The exhibition focuses on the battlefield, including the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest and costliest single day of combat in American history, in addition to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the nationwide mourning that ensued and the subsequent hanging of the conspirators, as well as the establishment of Gettysburg National Monument as a site of reconciliation and healing.
“I have looked at these photographs for years, but I am still struck by how extraordinary this collection is, how absolutely compelling and haunting,” says Watts. “I knew it was finally time we put them on display.”
The manuscript exhibition is also a stunner and takes its title “A Strange and Fearful Interest” from a line in a letter written by President Lincoln to his head Union general and eventual presidential successor Ulysses S. Grant. That actual letter is a centerpiece of the exhibit, which also includes more than 80 letters, diaries and other writings by Northerners and Southerners, including Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, as well as those by less famous Union and Confederate soldiers and their families, clergymen, physicians, charity workers, lawyers and academics.
Also included is the letter Robert E. Lee wrote on the eve of the war predicting a “fiery ordeal” that the country had to “pass through for its sins,” as well as an unusual early design for the Confederate flag that represented “the white and colored races of the South.” There’s also a note by Frederick Douglass calling for enlistment of black troops and a rare copy of the 13th Amendment signed by Abraham Lincoln. Rounding it out is a selection from the newly acquired collection of Civil War telegraph records of Thomas T. Eckert, the head of the United States Military Telegraph.
It all adds up to reveal that some things never change in war, particularly the sad certain opinion everyone has that God is on his side.
“Northerners and Southerners alike believed that God and the Founding Fathers were on their side,” says Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington. “They all believed that their own cause was just, and the enemy was fighting to uphold tyranny and injustice. This faith, however, gave rise to impassionate and divisive debates: Can a just war be cruel? Can a good cause unleash so much evil in the world? We’re still facing these questions today.”
“A Just Cause: Voices of the American Civil War” runs from Sept. 22 through Jan. 7, 2013, and “A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning and Memory in the American Civil War,” runs from Oct. 13 through Jan. 14, 2013 at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. Visit Huntington.org or call (626) 405-2100.