1876: The Eagle Screams

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But that was the exception. Most reminders of the Civil War were lowkey. Of course the United States government displayed its guns, but so did other countries. A thirty-foot statue of a Union soldier stood between Main and Memorial halls, but it was euphemistically labelled the “American Volunteer.”

In Agricultural Hall, Bailey noticed Old Abe, the aged eagle mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry, who had been wounded at Corinth and Vicksburg, but Old Abe’s publicity praised him as much for his audacity as for his ties to the Union. “The most wonderful accounts are given of his behavior during the heat of battle,” noted one observer, “how he grew wild with excitement at the clash of arms, flapping his wings and uttering startling screams.” According to William Dean Howells, who helped cover the Exhibition for the Atlantic Monthly , Old Abe was also noteworthy for his diet of live chickens and his ill temper. One Centennial visitor who strayed too close aroused the bird’s enmity and ended up with a shredded cheek.

There were not many reminders of even the Revolutionary War for Bailey to see. What few relics were scattered here and there made no attempt to recreate the ambiance of the Revolution. Benjamin Franklin’s printing press was on display in Machinery Hall, highlighting the technological strides the country had taken in a century as much as arousing thoughts of the Declaration of Independence. George Washington’s camp equipment was displayed alongside illustrative models from the United States Patent Office. William Dean Howells noted that Washington’s clothes were mislabelled, and a couple of wags calling themselves Daisy Shortcut and Arty O’Pagus expressed doubts about their authenticity. Shortcut and O’Pagus wrote of seventeen aged females who had supposedly provided the Washington relics and claimed that these one-time nurses of the baby George “possessed among them an aggregate of 34,261 buttons, all of which they had purloined at different times from the dear child’s vestments.”

 

This carefree attitude toward the past could hardly be more unlike our own. Whatever uneasiness we have about bringing up issues that divide the country, whatever desire to avoid words like revolution in times when they are easily tossed about, when we consider the Bicentennial, we can’t quite bring ourselves to overlook the divisions or the fact that 1976 «the anniversary of a revolution. Between our uneasiness and those facts we hesitate and debate.

Our centennial ancestors simply weren’t so bothered. While we might question the appropriateness of some of their displays (a liberty bell made from tobacco plugs? ), they seem to have had their own particular sense of decorum that considered a birthday celebration no place to bring up wars and injustices. Added to that, consciousnesses simply had not been raised to much awareness of the past. There were no patriotic organizations like the D.A.R. to encourage that awareness, nor any professional publications like the American Historical Review . The idea that the past could and should be considered in an objective and scientific fashion was just beginning to penetrate the country’s colleges and universities. One Exhibition observer casually shrugged off the whole notion of historical study, declaring, “The country is not old enough for a good history.”

Most centennial citizens thought of history as a subspecies of literature, an art form full of noble sentiment. One might find it useful for underscoring progress or arousing nostalgia, but one need never find it embarrassing, since it could always be ignored. When early in 1876 Congress debated whether to provide one and a half million dollars to the Exhibition, a Tennessee congressman named Casey Young had eloquently made that point. “Here,” he said of the Exhibition, “every child of America may sit down at the paternal board and share the generous feast, and no Banquo’s ghost shall stalk in their midst, clothed in gory garments and pointing to hideous wounds, reminding them of the dark and bloody deeds of wicked civil strife.”

So there was little feeling that the Centennial celebration need account for or reflect the country’s past. And there was a strong feeling that it should glorify the present and the future, since that was what international exhibitions did. That’s what London in 1851 had been about, Paris in 1867, Vienna in 1873.

The men who directed the Philadelphia Exhibition were determined that it should be a similarly positive and forward-looking affair. As men of action rather than men of thought, they could not have been more perfectly suited to the task. They were accustomed to getting things done rather than worrying over the most appropriate way of doing them. General Joseph Hawley, president of the Centennial Commission, was a lawyer, a former Connecticut governor and congressman, the editor and owner of a Hartford newspaper. Alfred T. Goshorn, director general of the Centennial Exposition, was a lawyer and paint maker in Cincinnati. John Welsh, president of the Centennial Board of Finance, was a Philadelphia merchant.