National Archives On The Civil War

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A two-part traveling exhibit, “Discovering the Civil War,” which opened at the end of April in Washington, D.C., offers visitors a peek into the National Archives’ 160 million war-related documents, the most comprehensive collection in the nation. Curators have culled several hundred of the most interesting letters, photographs, and official documents, digitized them, and loaded them onto interactive touch screens. The exhibit also reveals how the researchers go about their work in studying these artifacts.

“Rather than present another chronological exhibit on the Civil War,” says senior curator Bruce Bustard, “we wanted to highlight the incredible range of National Archives records.” One social networking page reveals the prewar friendships between generals who would turn into bitter rivals during the conflict. Also on display are the original Virginia Ordinance of Secession, which attempted to undo the state’s ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and a private bill passed by Congress to award a military pension to a woman who secretly enlisted and fought in the Union army.

An 1860 Census notebook from Illinois lists Ulysses S. Grant as a “leather merchant” with an estimated net worth of $200. “Only four years later he was commander in chief of the Union armies,” says Bustard, “and 10 years later he was president. Quite a change for someone who was basically penniless.”

Part One: Beginnings runs through Labor Day, Part Two: Consequences from Labor Day until November 10. Check www.archives.gov/exhibits/civil-war/about for a list