SAN MARINO, Calif.—Some of the deepest, most wrenching complexities of the American Civil War will be examined this fall as The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens presents a pair of exhibitions that will bring to light rare photographs and manuscripts from The Huntington’s collections. The exhibition of photographs—“A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning, and Memory in the American Civil War” runs from Oct. 13, 2012, through Jan. 14, 2013, in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery. It is complemented by a companion exhibition, “A Just Cause: Voices of the Civil War Era,” on view Sept. 22, 2012, through Jan. 7, 2013, in the West Hall of the Library.
“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,” said 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. 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.”
“A Strange and Fearful Interest”
The institution’s Civil War archives—begun when Henry E. Huntington purchased three of the “Big Five” collections of Abraham Lincoln materials early in the 20th century—supply more than 200 works by famed war photographers Mathew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, George Barnard, Alexander Gardner, and Andrew J. Russell as well as an immense amount of lithographic and print material for both shows.
“I have looked at these photographs for years, but I am still struck by how extraordinary this collection is, how absolutely compelling and haunting,” said Jennifer Watts, curator of photographs at The Huntington and curator of “A Strange and Fearful Interest.” “I knew it was finally time we put them on display.”
“The anniversary of the war,” she said, “provided the perfect opportunity to think about the war’s visual record and how it might be presented to the visiting public. The result has been an exhibition that explores how photographic images explained, reflected, and shaped the nation’s coming to terms with the unprecedented death toll of the Civil War, focusing on key episodes to highlight larger cultural issues.”
Exhibition focal points include the battlefront, particularly the Battle of Antietam—the bloodiest and costliest single day of combat in American history; the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the nationwide mourning that ensued, and the subsequent hanging of the conspirators; and the establishment of Gettysburg National Monument as a site of reconciliation and healing.
The exhibition takes its title from a statement made by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1863 responding primarily to the imagery of Antietam—“The field of photography is extending itself to embrace subjects of strange and sometimes of fearful interest.” The war coincided with the rise of photographic and printing technologies that enabled the wide dissemination of imagery to a rapt audience, said Watts.
Recent estimates put the number of Civil War dead at as many as 750,000 Americans, more than all other major conflicts from the Revolutionary War through the present. Said Watts: “It was after I read historian Drew Gilpin Faust’s powerful book, This Republic of Suffering, that I realized the profound impact of the carnage.”
Faust writes, “Soldiers tried to make sense of what they had wrought. As they surveyed the scene at battle’s end, they became different men.” The same could be said for the nation at large as it grappled with death on such a monumental scale, said Watts. “The exhibition examines how the nation ‘became different’ as a result of this conflagration and how it attempted to make sense of it all.”
A cornerstone of the exhibition is the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln and subsequent events. Photographs and related materials will examine the ways in which the assassination, the manhunt and execution of the conspirators, national displays of mourning, and the eventual deification of Lincoln were visualized, disseminated, and understood within their historical context. “The Huntington is uniquely positioned to tell this story through the breadth and depth of its visual media related to these topics, much of which is exceedingly rare,” Watts said.
The exhibition will define how print and photographic technologies were harnessed in different ways and for different ends. Certain stories, such as the assassination, could be told only through print media, whereas others, such as the hanging of the conspirators, needed photography’s “truth telling” legitimacy to satisfactorily record vengeance. It will also look at the various photographic and graphic means of delivery for this imagery, the subject matter of which was new, foreign, and shocking to contemporary sensibilities.
Key objects in “A Strange and Fearful Interest” include Alexander Gardner’s views of battlefield dead at Antietam, rare photographs from Andrew J. Russell’s U.S. Military Railroad Album, including haunting scenes of battlefield devastation and newly established military cemeteries; George Barnard’s incomparable album Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign (1866); a rare “Wanted” Poster from the Lincoln assassination; mementoes of grief such as a Lincoln mourning ribbon and keepsakes; lithographs of Lincoln deathbed scenes as well as photographs of the large public displays of mourning associated with the funeral; a set of photographs by Alexander Gardner depicting the execution of the Lincoln conspirators; John P. Nicholson albums and images related to the establishment of Gettysburg National Monument; and the scrapbooks of Civil War veteran and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News illustrator James E. Taylor, which include exceptionally rare battlefield, contraband, and convalescent images.
Artist Steve Roden has been commissioned to create a contemporary audio piece in response to imagery in the exhibition; the work will be installed in one of the galleries.
The exhibition also will be accompanied by an online component that will feature additional images as well as commentary by experts from a variety of disciplines, including scholars, curators, journalists, artists, and historians who have been asked to respond in both intellectual and personal ways to images in the exhibition.
“A Just Cause: Voices of the Civil War Era”
In a prelude to “A Strange and Fearful Interest,” The Huntington will open an exhibition that examines the ways Northerners and Southerners viewed the rationale for the war. The show takes its title from the letter of April 30, 1864, where Lincoln bids farewell to Ulysses S. Grant as the general embarked on what turned out to be the bloodiest campaign yet: “And now, with a just cause and a brave army, may God sustain you.”
“But what was this cause?” asked Olga Tsapina, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at The Huntington and curator of the exhibition. “And what cause could justify the carnage that would claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans?”
The debate over the cause has been raging since the ink dried on the articles of the Confederate surrender, she said. “The many names we’ve given it—the War of Southern Independence, the War for the Union, the War of the Rebellion, the War of Northern Aggression, the Freedom War, and even the Second American Revolution—epitomize this great and still very much ongoing dispute.”
For those who lived through it, there was no single answer either. “Northerners rushed to arms to preserve the Union and kill slavery; Southerners, to win independence and defend their constitutional rights, which included the right to own slaves,” said Tsapina. “As the war raged on, all pressed on, moved by the sense of honor, loyalty to the fallen, hatred of the enemy, and ultimately, survival.”
The exhibition, drawn entirely from The Huntington’s collections of manuscripts and printed materials, explores this great soul-searching, which made the Civil War, in the words of one war veteran, “a battle of ideas interrupted by artillery.”
On display will be some 80 letters, diaries, and other writings by Northerners and Southerners, including Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, George B. McClellan, as well as those by less famous Union and Confederate soldiers and their families, clergymen, physicians, charity workers, lawyers, and academics. Some of the highlights include 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”; an unusual early design for the Confederate flag that represented “the white and colored races of the South”; a note by Frederick Douglass calling for enlistment of black troops; and a rare copy of the 13th Amendment signed by Abraham Lincoln. Also on view will be a selection from the newly acquired collection of Civil War telegraph records of Thomas T. Eckert, the head of the United States Military Telegraph.
“Northerners and Southerners alike believed that God and the Founding Fathers were on their side,” said Tsapina. “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? What would victory look like? There were no clearly defined war doctrines, contingency plans, or exit strategies. The only thing the leadership on both sides could do was react to pressing political and military problems.”
As the war raged on, its mission was redefined and requisitioned. Even the nature of the conflict remained undefined. The Southerners viewed it as a revolution, a counter-revolution, or a war of independence, said Tsapina. The North struggled to determine whether it was a domestic insurrection or a full-blown war. The latter would presume that the Confederate States of America was indeed a separate nation, something that many, including Lincoln, refused to acknowledge.
“The debate inevitably returned to slavery,” Tsapina said. “Some valued slavery as a divinely ordained social order, a peculiar blessing to the American people sanctioned by the Bible and protected by the Constitution. Others deplored it as a cancer eating at the heart of the nation, a powerful special interest rooted in the most fundamental affront to human dignity and justice.”
Book Series: Civil War
Facilitator Judith Palarz presents a monthly book discussion series focusing on topics related to the Civil War. The series includes a curator-led private tour of the exhibition “A Strange and Fearful Interest.” This series is being offered twice; Series 1 begins Sept. 12; Series 2 begins Sept. 19. Members: $85. Non-Members: $95. Registration: 626-405-2128.
Curator Tour: “A Just Cause: Voices of the Civil War Era”
Wednesday, Oct. 10, 4:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m.
Curator Olga Tsapina gives a private tour of the exhibition “A Just Cause: Voices of the Civil War Era” to gain insights into the war-time debate on the causes of and purpose behind the war. Members: $15. Non-Members: $20. Registration: 626-405-2128.
Public Program: Civil War Living History Day
Saturday, Oct. 27, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Guests are invited to gather on the Library and Brown Garden lawns at The Huntington to enjoy the music of the Civil War era presented by the Band of the California Battalion, re-creating music of the times with period instruments. In addition, the New Buffalo Soldiers, a reenactment group, will present demonstrations about Civil War life. The Buffalo Soldiers refers to the African American men who served as members of the U.S. Calvary during the Civil War.
Free with admission.
Lecture: Drew Gilpin Faust and Ric Burns on “Death and the Civil War”
Wednesday, Oct. 31, 7:30 p.m.
Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, best-selling author of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, talks with filmmaker Ric Burns about his new film, “Death and the Civil War,” based on Faust’s book. The documentary examines how the unprecedented death toll and carnage of the war challenged American cultural attitudes about death and fundamentally transformed federal government policies toward soldiers.
Friends’ Hall. Free, but advance tickets required.
Curator Tour: “A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning, and Memory in the American Civil War”
Wednesday, Dec. 5 4:30-5:30 p.m.
Curator Jennifer Watts gives a private tour of the exhibition “A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning, and Memory in the American Civil War.”
Members: $15. Non-Members: $20. Registration: 626-405-2128.
*Check online calendar
for updated information on all events.