National

Exhibit looks at smaller events of the Civil War

WASHINGTON —"They are treating me worse and worse every day,"

That's what a slave named Ann in Paris, Mo., asked someone to write on her behalf in a letter to her "dear husband" on Jan. 19, 1864. He was a soldier in a Union Army black regiment.

Ann was desperate for money to buy clothes and food for herself and their daughter: "Our child cries for you."

The letter is part of a trove of Civil War artifacts amassed by the National Archives to commemorate the 150th anniversary of one of the most important events in American history.

The exhibit, "Discovering the Civil War," which opens in Washington on Friday, is not your typical Civil War retrospective. Epic battles are not the focus.

Through letters, diaries, maps and other documents, as well as touch-screen technology, the exhibit reveals smaller twists and turns in the sweep of the calamitous events of the 1860s that continue to echo more than a century later.

"We're not trying to say that Gettysburg and Antietam are not important," said Bruce Bustard, an Archives senior curator. "But this is a sort of unexpected, undiscovered part of the Civil War."

There is the telegram that Gov. Thomas Carney of Kansas sent to the secretary of war on Aug. 22, 1863, because the town of Lawrence was "burning and plundered." It had been attacked by the Confederate guerrilla leader William Quantrill, and the governor implored Washington for federal troops.

Or a plea in 1862, that still resonates today, to the War Department from seamstresses at the U.S. Arsenal in Philadelphia. They protested the Army's plan to privatize the work because the new contractor would cut their already meager government wages by half.

"Many of us have husbands, fathers, sons and brothers in the Army," they wrote, and only by "unceasing exertions" were they able to "barely live at the prices paid by the Arsenal."

"This is 150 years ago!" exclaimed Marvin Pinkert, director of the Center for the National Archives Experience. A different kind of request came from G.P. Miller, a black physician from Michigan, who wrote the War Department in 1861 offering to raise a regiment of "sharpshooters" to fight the rebels. The Army praised his "patriotic spirit and intelligence," but said no thanks.

"Colored persons," came the reply, could be legally given arms only in times of great emergency.

"The Civil War is ... the traumatic event in the childhood our nation," said filmmaker and Archives official Ken Burns, creator of the 11-hour PBS documentary, "The Civil War." "What the National Archives permits us to do is to see the history of the United States not as just some distant subject matter in a history book, dry dates and facts and events, but living breathing history that touches on individuals."

Such as:

* The muster rolls for the 42nd Mississippi Infantry Company F, and the 1st (Corr's) South Carolina Rifles Company G

* A U.S. Navy poster hoping to lure potential recruits away from the Army with big letters stating: "The Conscription bill! How to Avoid it!!"

* A little-known first draft of the 13th Amendment in 1861, only this one did not abolish slavery. Just the opposite, in fact. It was never ratified.

The exhibit will be in two parts, with the second phase opening in the fall. The entire show will tour the country next year.

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