Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Civil War in America

Where: Library of Congress

When: through January 4, 2014

Although the Library of Congress is not on my usual list of destinations, a friend recommended this show, and since I was taking some time off this week, I decided to go a bit off my beaten path.

The first thing that struck me was the security in place; aside from the fact that you could keep your shoes on, it's like being at an airport.  This similarity extends to the clueless people in line, who don't understand that "remove your keys" means you should take your keys out of your pocket.  There was a couple ahead of me that was baffled by many such instructions.  After you get in, however, the building itself is quite something to see.  Frescoes and statuary abound, and that's before you even get to the exhibit spaces. 

The Civil War is marking its sesquicentennial (a word I just love and too rarely get to use) and this show is part of that remembrance.  The exhibit is quite large, so plan on spending a bit of time there.  I made it through in about an hour, but I didn't dawdle.  The show is very well-organized and everything on display is carefully labeled - clearly librarians had a hand in this!  It's set up as a timeline: the show begins with the period immediately before the war and ends with Lincoln's assassination and the surrender at Appomattox.

I learned a few things at this exhibit; if you're a Civil War buff, this may not constitute new information - feel free to skip this paragraph!  The majority of the men who enlisted in the Confederate Army were not slaveowners themselves; they were poor rural people who had been told that they were fending off an invasion by Northerners.  Clever of the wealthy to get the poor to fight their wars.  The District of Columbia was not only home to the federal government, but also to many Southern sympathizers, which must have made for interesting times here in the place where I spend so much of my life.  About 400 woman concealed their identities and fought on both sides of the conflict.  I can only imagine that the medical examinations were quite cursory!  This I knew before, but it's worth mentioning: at the battle of Antietam, over 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in action - that's just one day.  That number is so staggering that I can't even comprehend it.  Hot air balloons were used for aerial reconnaissance - you'd think they would have been unwieldy and easy to shoot down, but perhaps they could stay above the fighting and there certainly were no airplanes available!  Only 48 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation were printed.  These were signed by Abraham Lincoln and offered for sale for $10.  Not all of them sold.  Now I realize that $10 in the 1860s was far more money than $10 today, but still...

I was reminded of two exhibits from the Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum.  One was the small show on Adalbert Volck - one of his drawings was on display.  The other was the exhibit on the Civil War and its influence on American Art.  There was (no surprise) a Matthew Brady photograph on display here, and I remembered that the ability to takes photos and distribute them at home brought the horror of the war into America's living rooms.

The part of the show that drew the most attention was the arrangement of the contents of Lincoln's pockets on the night he was assassinated.  Aside from a slight feeling of ghoulishness, I couldn't help but think he had quite a few little items with him, and wonder why a $5 Confederate bill was among them.

Verdict: Well worth a trip to the Library of Congress to see this very well-organized show.  Take plenty of time and plenty of patience with you. 

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