Wednesday, April 28, 2010

From the National Archives' vaults, an interactive way to experience the Civil War

The aged Georgia document proves the Civil War adage, “rich man’s war, but poor man’s fight.”

In the North, a draftee could gain an exemption by paying a fee of $300 or by hiring a substitute.

The scenario played out a little differently in the Confederacy. Many Southern whites believed the draft favored the rich.

The "twenty Negro law," for example, exempted planters with 20 or more slaves. In February 1864 that requirement was reduced to 15 slaves, and Lycurgus Rees of Columbia County, “who had "fifteen able-bodied slaves,” applied for an exemption as "a Farmer or Agriculturalist." In return he agreed to furnish the Confederate War Department with 1,500 pounds of beef, bacon, or pork. (Click image to enlarge)

Documents like Rees’ exemption will come to life starting Friday in a two-part exhibition at the National Archives building in Washington, timed to mark the Civil War’s 150th anniversary. Entitled “Discovering the Civil War,” the show in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery draws from millions of records, letters and photographs at the archives.

“Our extensive use of primary source documentation will let visitors examine historical evidence and decide for themselves some of the controversial questions that swirl around the Civil War even today,” says National Archives public affairs specialist Miriam Kleiman.

Recent debate over slavery’s role as a cause of the Civil War proves that Americans are still divided on the war's cause or causes.

Curator Bruce Bustard said the Archives wants the documents on the sensitive issue of slavery to speak for themselves. The Confederate Constitution, similar to the U.S. Constitution in many ways, provides an explicit right to hold slaves as property.

"We want people to look at the documents, read the documents, ask questions about them and then ultimately make up their own minds," Bustard told the Associated Press.

This won’t be your father’s Civil War exhibit. Little-known incidents or stories will be told in new ways.

Visitors will access touch-screen machines. The archives is very active on social media, promoting the exhibit on Twitter and a scavenger hunt on Facebook. Visitors will be able to create a graphic novel, using comic-style cartoon panels, from Archives documents about the commerce raider CSS Alabama.

“Discovering the Civil War” also looks at the unusual places where the Civil War reached, including Japan, China, and France. There's an interactive globe that people can virtually "spin" and land on many of these different spots, with explanations and documents about what occurred there, Kleiman told me.

The original Emancipation Proclamation is rarely shown, but it will be displayed for three days in November. Another significant item at the exhibition is Virginia’s ordinance of secession.

The two-part exhibit is organized thematically. Part A topics are Breaking Apart, Raising Armies, Finding Leaders, We Were There, A Local Fight, and A Global War. Part B will cover six additional topics: Prisoners and Casualties, Innovation and Enterprise, Spies and Conspiracies, Emancipations, Endings and Beginnings, and Remembering.

“All theme areas contain original documents, facsimile documents, and photos. Most theme areas have either a computer or mechanical interactive,” says Kleiman. “For example, we have created a ‘Facebook’ type interactive that demonstrates the close relationships among Civil War military leaders.”

An educational Web page will launch on Friday to coincide with the exhibition opening.

Kleiman says she hopes visitors will “encounter unexpected people, viewpoints and events” through the exhibits.

The second half of the exhibit will open in November, exploring the war's consequences. Next year, the 6,000 square-foot exhibit will begin touring nationally, with stops in Michigan, Texas and Nebraska.

Admission is free. The exhibit will be presented in two parts. The first runs April 30-Sept. 6, the second Nov. 10-April 17. National Archives hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., March 15-Labor Day, and 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., day after Labor Day-March 14.

Click here for more information on the exhibition.
Click here for YouTube preview.
Click here for National Archives' quarterly Prologue magazine.

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