Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review: Smithsonian Civil War

Smithsonian Civil War, Inside the National Collection, edited by Neil Kagan and Stephen G. Hyslop (Smithsonian Books, 2013).

Establishment of the Smithsonian predates the Civil War by 15 years. The iconic "Castle" on Washington's National Mall was completed in 1855, and became home to the institution's first secretary, Joseph Henry, and his family, who witnessed some of the opening scenes of the war. Young Mary Henry, Joseph's daughter, recorded in her diary on July 16, 1861, "We went up into the high tower to see the troops pass over into Virginia." Today, the Smithsonian has grown to nineteen museums and nine research facilities, which together preserve tens of thousands of objects related to the American Civil War, including Mary Henry's diary. 

Smithsonian Civil War is the only book of its kind, that I know of, to present together in a single volume some of the most important and representative Civil War artifacts from 13 separate Smithsonian entities (the press release mentions 12 museums and research centers). According to the introduction, curators, archivists, historians, interns, and volunteers (more than 100 staff members) "spent hours in locked vaults, storage rooms, and cabinets, researching and evaluating items" for inclusion, after which the Civil War 150 Editorial Committee debated which items held the "greatest historical value or the most compelling stories attached to them." The results of that exhaustive selection process are positively spectacular. 

This lavishly illustrated, brilliantly assembled coffee table book couldn’t have come at a better time, presenting an "exhibit between hard covers" at a time when the dysfunctional government of the United States has shuttered its doors. 

Commemorating the Civil War Sesquicentennial, Smithsonian Civil War offers 150 thematic essays written by a large number of Smithsonian contributors. Though organized chronologically, the entries amount to stand-alone articles covering a broad spectrum of topics—pre-war through Reconstruction.

The 550 full-color photographs constitute the volume's real strength—highlighting, with high production values, some of the most rare and fascinating objects in the Smithsonian holdings. A number of items will be familiar, such as Lincoln's top hat or the bullet-riddled tree stump from Spotsylvania, but many other objects pictured here have never been on public exhibit. 

Of particular interest are the instances where related objects from different repositories are brought together for the first time. For instance, a portrait of J.E.B. Stuart from the National Portrait Gallery, sits opposite an image of a pistol from the National Museum of American History, a present to Stuart from Major Heros von Borke. Likewise, from the same museums, a portrait of John Brown is featured together with images of weapons Brown and his followers carried in Kansas, and Virginia, including one of the hundreds of pikes Brown stockpiled at Harpers Ferry.

The collections at the NPG and NMAH are most represented, but this eclectic assemblage also features contributions from the Air and Space Museum (Civil War-era aircraft designs), the Postal Museum (printing plate for Confederate stamps), the Museum of Natural History (ornithological specimens), the Museum of African American History and Culture (slave tags), and others.

As impressive as this work is, some of the narrative will raise eyebrows among critical readers. A few examples: the entry on Harriet Beecher Stowe perpetuates the legend that when Lincoln met Stowe, "he reportedly said to her, 'So you're the little woman who wrote the book [Uncle Tom's Cabin] that started this great war!'" While the author did at least use the qualifier "reportedly," it's surprising to see the anecdote given passing credence in a Smithsonian publication. The story is entirely apocryphal, a product of Stowe family lore, and did not appear in print until 34 years after the fact by a Stowe biographer.

In the essay, "Sherman Moves South," we read that after capturing Atlanta, "Sherman ordered Atlanta evacuated and then burned everything he considered of military significance. Nearly one-third of the city went up in flames. Enraged, Hood wrote that his actions surpassed 'in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war.'" Students of the Atlanta Campaign, however, will note that the correspondence in question dates to September 7, about the order to evacuate civilians. The burning of Atlanta did not occur until mid-November, when Sherman left on his March to the Sea.

More surprising, perhaps, is the entry entitled, "Searching for Shoes at Gettysburg," which begins with, "A search for shoes has often been cited as the spark that ignited a blistering three-day battle in the bucolic fields around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1, 1863." General A.P. Hill is pictured in the article, across from a full-page photo of brogans, with the caption explaining that Hill unwittingly launched the battle by "sending in Henry Heth's division to 'get those shoes. . .'" This essay goes so far as to quote Heth's 1877 letter to the Southern Historical Society, in which he fleshes out the shoe story. Heth's after-action report, written two months after the battle, makes one mention of shoes (among other supplies he was seeking), but the consensus among historians is that the shoe story was concocted by Heth to excuse the fact that he brought on a general engagement despite explicit orders not to do so. I'm fairly certain that the National Park Service considers the shoe story as officially debunked. 

These examples are not terribly significant flaws since, as mentioned, the great power of this work are the photographs, and the 150 articles are generally succinct and spot-on, chock-full of useful information on a rich constellation of subjects. The barcode lists this book at $40, but I see it can be purchased in any number of places online for around $24 -- a good price for such a pretty book.

No comments: