Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust was the perfect person to provide historical context for the Schlesinger Library’s new exhibition, titled What They Wrote, What They Saved: The Personal Civil War. Faust has spent her scholarly career conducting research on the American Civil War and writing award-winning books on the subject—including This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Random House, 2008) and Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 1996). She spoke to a crowd of 200 in the Knafel Center in Radcliffe Yard on October 15, the opening day of the exhibition.
In an intimate storytelling voice that held her listeners spellbound, Faust said that the very title of the exhibition—the notion of a personal Civil War—is testimony to our changed understanding of it. In the past, historians focused on generals and statesmen and broad national trends when they studied the Civil War, but today they ask different questions.
After the publication of John Keegan’s book The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme in 1974, Faust said, historians began to ask about the experience of the common soldier. What did he eat? When did he sleep? What made him fight?
About the same time that military history shifted, she said, historians began using what was then called “the new social history” to study the lives of women and enslaved people on the home front. For several reasons, the Civil War provides a particularly rich understanding of how these two streams converged. Not only was it a literate war—the majority of Americans could read and write—but people were moved to record their thoughts. They knew that they were living in momentous times and that whatever they wrote and kept would most likely be valued.
The Civil War was also an uncensored war, because those in charge hadn’t figured out how to monitor the flow of letters between the home front and the battleground. The war kept people apart, so they wrote down their thoughts in letters. “We don’t know what people said at the dinner table,” Faust remarked, “but we know what they wrote to each other.”
The library’s exhibition also reminds us that women’s writing was not just personal. Faust cited Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly as an example. “This was Stowe imagining the difficulties of slave families,” she said, adding that correspondence in the exhibit suggests that Stowe took up the project because she had lost a child and wondered how enslaved mothers endured the sale of their children into slavery.
“Warfare is of course about the power of guns,” Faust said in closing. “But I think we see in this exhibit that it’s also about the power of words. And those words are ours—still—to read, to understand, to learn from. I hope you enjoy this wonderful exhibit.”
Following Faust, Kathryn Allamong Jacob, the Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts at the Schlesinger, described the wealth of material the library committee considered when selecting documents for the exhibition: diaries, hundreds of pages of letters, dozens of images (daguerreotypes, tintypes, cartes de visite, photos), prints, memoirs, autobiographies, biographies, histories of the war, and the very first fundraising cookbook—The Poetical Cookbook—published to secure money for soldiers’ relief.
The exhibition committee looked for hooks on which to hang a larger story, Jacob said, for items “that tell their own stories but also stand in for the stories of others.” Catherine Porter Noyes, for example, was one of a thousand teachers who traveled south from New England to teach newly freed slaves. Her diary is in the exhibition, representing the experience of other teachers.
Lizabeth Cohen, dean of the Radcliffe Institute, opened the event by pointing out that the library’s exhibition coincides with the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. “The Schlesinger’s exhibition makes a unique contribution to Civil War commemorations,” she said. “The objects and documents selected from our collections demonstrate vividly that the domestic concerns of home and family were not apart from war. Rather, personal, often private, documents provide compelling evidence of how military and political events such as the Civil War affect individual lives and collective experience.”
Photos by Tony Rinaldo