At N.Y. State Museum, an epic story of conflict and courage
By Paul Grondahl | Times Union, Albany, N.Y. | Published: September 21, 2012
ALBANY, N.Y. — The Civil War is a large house with many rooms, and the State Museum has dug into its vast warehouses of artifacts, the archives of other state agencies and two dozen museums and private collections across the state to build a narrative structure that can contain such a sweeping story.
More than two years in the planning, epic in scope and seeded with small personal stories, "An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State and the Civil War" represents the most ambitious and collaborative exhibit the State Museum has ever assembled.
The exhibit, which marks the war's 150th anniversary, opens Saturday and fills a sprawling 7,000-square-foot space with potent objects, iconic photographs and thumbnail histories that carry a visitor through an emotionally wrenching journey that whipsaws between grace and brutality.
There are heartbreaking quotes, such as this from "The Narrative of Sojourner Truth," an autobiography published in 1850: "He whipped her till the flesh was deeply lacerated, and the blood streamed from her wounds...what a way is this of treating human beings?"
The exhibit includes flashes of sweetness and light, including a pencil sketch from 9-year-old Julian DeVaux O'Brien, who witnessed slain President Abraham Lincoln's funeral procession through Albany on April 25, 1865. The drawing and a photograph showing the buildings of State Street covered in black mourning bunting for Lincoln were borrowed from the Albany Institute of History & Art.
There is a touching letter from former students of George Koons, an Albany schoolteacher with the 43rd New York Regiment killed at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864.
"Our biggest disappointment is there were so many stories we couldn't include," said State Historian Richard Weible, who worked with his staff and Civil War historian consultants to select, write and edit 90 text panels and 50 enlarged graphics that complement more than 200 objects. The exhibit also brought about a deeper collaboration between the State Museum, State Library and State Archives than in the past.
Context is key to understanding the Civil War and this exhibit extends beyond the fighting in both directions — from the abolitionism of antebellum New York to the civil rights movement — in an effort to come to grips with the darkest chapter in American history.
It takes the full measure of the nation's deepest wound from a New York state of mind. As the wealthiest and most populous state at the time, no other state came close in terms of troops, cash, weapons and supplies sent to support the Union cause.
The price was high. By war's end, 448,000 New Yorkers had enlisted in the armed services, and more than 50,000 of them had died.
The intertwined storylines cover far more than the battlefield dramas.
The exhibit begins with a slave's neck collar, an engraved brass implement of ownership four inches thick and three pounds in weight, meant for a slave named Harry who ran away on June 3, 1805. The two businessmen from Canajoharie, Montgomery County, who had purchased Harry jointly posted a $50 reward.
It concludes with a 1920s-era Ku Klux Klan robe, the initials N.Y. carefully stitched with red thread into the white hood, purchased from an antique shop in Saugerties in 1983 and believed to have been worn by a Klansman in Greene County.
"We wanted to show how much things stayed the same even after the war, emancipation and reconstruction," said Jennifer Lemak, senior historian who oversaw the antebellum and reconstruction sections of the exhibit.
The U-shaped exhibit reminds a visitor that past is prologue and raises as many questions as it answers. Was it an "irrepressible conflict" or could it have been avoided? What is the legacy of slavery? Were blacks truly emancipated after the war? What is the cost of freedom?
"We made a conscious effort to connect Civil War history to the present," Weible said. "I don't know any other large institution that is dealing with the Civil War from causes to aftermath."
That effort has yielded an exhibit that feels at once historic and of the moment. A touchstone is the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day of battle in American history and the first major fight on Union soil. A total of 23,000 soldiers on both sides of the clash died alongside Antietam Creak near Sharpsburg, Maryland.
"I regret to say that it is impossible to procure the remains of Byram. There must have been nearly six hundred dead buried in the space of three hundred yards," Capt. Samuel Simms of the 51st New York Volunteers wrote in 1863.
Nearby is a framed Currier & Ives certificate that was marketed to families who recovered no remains of a loved one killed in battle. The picture of a tree-ringed cemetery includes a blank tombstone to be filled in with the name of the soldier, regiment and where he was killed.
"We started by finding the objects and then we built the stories around them," said Aaron Noble, a content specialist and military historian who oversaw the middle section covering the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. "We also tried to cover the state geographically."
In a section on New York's firearms industry, a case displayed several Civil War-era guns manufactured in plants from Buffalo to New York City. There are many local stories and some often-overlooked subplots.
While Native Americans in the East were being harassed and forced by the U.S. government to relocate to western reservations, 20,000 native people volunteered to serve on both sides of the Civil War. In New York, 600 Iroquois — from all Six Nations — fought in the Union Army.
At a time when nativists made life difficult for immigrants in the state, thousands of newly arrived Irish and Germans answered President Lincoln's call for volunteers.
The Civil War was a financial windfall for local industrialists, including Henry Burden and his Burden Ironworks in Troy, which supplied tons of horse shoes for the Union Army. Erastus Corning, great-grandfather of Albany's storied mayor, ran the New York Central Railroad and Rensselaer Ironworks, which profited from the Civil War by transporting troops and supplies and supplying plates for the Monitor, the U.S. Navy's first ironclad warship.
The exhibit takes its title from a quote by William Henry Seward, a Union College alumnus and former New York governor, who as Lincoln's secretary of state discounted a prevailing view that fanatics were at the root of the war between the North and South. He wrote, "It is an irrepressible conflict, between opposing and enduring forces."
Those forces remain embedded in American culture, as the questions raised by the exhibit attest.
The exhibit shows the resolve of a staff beaten down by a decade of downsizing and budget cuts. It also underscores Gov. Andrew Cuomo's strong commitment to highlighting New York's history.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tell this story," said Nancy Kelley, associate museum exhibit planner. "Hopefully, we've got it right."