Discover the Civil War at the National Archives

Discover the Civil War at the National Archives


You have thousands of soldiers on both sides
who are maimed. It’s just heartbreaking to think about these
children. You could go up in a balloon, overfly the
enemy position, look down, gather intelligence. Civil War participants living and breathing
in action. That’s awesome. I love the title of “Discovering the Civil
War” because it’s little-known facts. And it’s allowing the visitor to uncover
these elements through documents. Documents give facts that are moving, outrageous,
infuriating. There is a roster of D.C. children in an orphanage
and they’re all under the age of 12. In the remarks column it’s simply written in
terms of the status of the parents, “lost during the war.” To have a question mark
on something so important, it just kind of stayed with me. What we came across were some letters in which
government contractors were accused of using 15 percent wool and 85 percent of this filler
material, “shoddy.” It should have been 85 percent wool, 15 percent shoddy. And so
these blankets fell apart very easily. So the term “shoddy” all of a sudden becomes
synonymous with poor quality. You’re starting to see here with the Civil
War the birth of some of today’s more modern intelligence branches. What today would be
called “imagery intelligence,” with the advent of ballooning and overhead observation.
We have a great example in the exhibition of a colonel who created a map from his experience
two days aloft. One of the points we wanted to make in the
exhibit was that slaves acted on their own to secure their freedom. There is a letter
from a black Union soldier, who is writing to his wife’s owner and he wants his child
back. “And when we come, woe be to the slave-holding
rebels!” It’s a little-known fact that there were
two 13th Amendments, one holding up slavery and one abolishing slavery. The first 13th
Amendment, the Emancipation Proclamation and the second 13th Amendment are all in the same
area. And the way that we laid them out is like, they are kind of like bread crumbs,
you go to one to the other to the other. While the war ended in 1865 it was really
the beginning for the South. Four million people were now free, a quarter of a million
Confederate soldiers had died. The picture of the young African-American children. You
know it’s a city because of the background but the city has been just demolished. We knew we had some great textual records
and some fantastic photographs, but we didn’t know about motion picture film. Actually,
we do have motion picture film. The Vicksburg reunion in 1917, anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000
veterans. Over 1,800 attended the Gettysburg reunion in 1938. And behind them you’d see
automobiles going down the street. And it’s just amazing to think what these veterans
had seen, the changes they had seen from their time in the Civil War. You never know what you’re gonna find in
the boxes of documents.

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