Discovering the Civil War at the National Archives

The National Archives‘ new “Discovering the Civil War” exhibit reexamines this well-visited topic through primary documents presented in new ways, like through videos and interactive touch-screens.

The exhibit at the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of National Archives has been split in two parts: part one, titled “Beginnings” will be on display from April 30 through September 6, 2010, and part two, “Consequences” opens November 10, 2010, and closes on April 17, 2011. Both parts will then travel as one exhibit to eight locations across the country.

Visitors begin their experience at the exhibit by viewing a video where an “archivist” pulls images and documents from the archives and talks about their significance. Then, the exhibit continues on by showcasing both original documents behind glass as well as enlarged reproductions of documents and images. Many of the documents are compared and contrasted by looking at them from both Northern and Southern perspectives.

The exhibit presents many questions, like, “What if you didn’t want to serve?”, “How do you raise an Army?”, and “How do you find leaders?” Then answers are pulled from information from the documents on view.

Some of the most fascinating sections of the exhibit focus on stories of individuals in the war. For example, one display shows two service cards for a “Private Henry Scott”:

NARA Henry Scott Confederate    NARA Henry Scott Union

The National Archives explains: “These two service cards show that Private Henry Scott served in both armies. He originally joined the Confederate 10th Louisiana Infantry, where he fought at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness. He was captured at Spotsylvania in May 1864 and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. He then took the oath of allegiance for the United States and joined the 1st U.S. Volunteer Infantry. He deserted soon after on August 30, 1864.” The above images are courtesy of the National Archives, and come from the Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780′s-1917.

Interactive touch screens are scattered throughout the exhibit. At them you can view and enlarge documents, look at relationships between generals through the lens of “social networking,” and even piece together a Civil War themed graphic novel.

The Civil War was also the focus of the most recent issue of Prologue, the National Archives’ magazine. Within its pages are articles by James McPherson (“Out of War, a New Nation”), Robert Remini (“At the Edge of the Precipice” – article not available online), Bruce Bustard (“Discovering the Civil War”) and others.

Prologue magazine from NARA

For more information on the “Discovering the Civil War” exhibit see this recent review from the Washington Post.

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