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New Show Celebrates Emancipation Proclamation’s 150th Anniversary

Rare items on display in Gotlieb exhibition


To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center (HGARC) has mounted an exhibition that draws on the center’s extensive collection of Civil War–era documents and memorabilia. The American Civil War: Treasures from the Vault includes photographs, letters, journals, maps, official documents, publications, and relics from the antebellum period through the end of the war. The exhibition explores the causes, reactions, and responses to the 19th-century conflict as seen from a variety of perspectives.

Alex Rankin, the Gotlieb’s assistant director for acquisitions, says the show draws on numerous collections held in the center. Some items were donated by Edward C. Stone, a former BU trustee who was also an amateur Lincoln scholar and a collector. Stone donated his Lincoln library and manuscript collection to create a historic manuscripts room at the old Chenery Library, the precursor to Mugar Memorial Library. Later, in the early 1960s, BU received many historical records and documents from the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, the  First Corps of Cadets, Massachusetts, and Frederick Lauriston Bullard, Pulitzer prize winning editorial writer for The Boston Herald.

The exhibition explores slavery, emancipation, the Union navy, the Confederate and Union armies, and Abraham Lincoln, his cabinet, and his assassination, as well as cultural life during the Civil War, including the literature of abolition, music of the era, and the new art form of photography. Rankin says each piece was selected to give a sense of what life was like during the period.

Etching of Satan tempting John Wilkes Booth, The American Civil War: Treasures from the Vault, Boston University Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center

An etching depicting Satan tempting John Wilkes Booth, 1865.

Many primary source materials are on display, including letters from Lincoln and various members of his cabinet: Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Interior Caleb B. Smith, and Secretary of State William Seward among others. One letter from Lincoln, staying the execution of a Union army deserter (“He is represented to me to be very young with symptoms of insanity. Please postpone the execution til further order”), underscores his compassion. One of the rarest items on display—a wanted poster issued for Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth and conspirators John Surratt and David Herold—shouts, “100,000 Reward! The murderer of our late beloved president, Abraham Lincoln, is still at large.”

Visitors to the show, located in the Richards-Frost Room on the first floor of Mugar, can view a slideshow of Civil War–era photographs drawn from the Gotlieb’s archives, as well as casts of Lincoln’s hands and face originally made in 1860.

The exhibition also explores the era’s emerging technologies. The Civil War was the first military conflict to be extensively photographed, and the proliferation of images helped shape the way the war played out. “Photography had just then become something you could mass market,” says Rankin. “It completely changed the way people looked at war.” Another game changer was the invention of the telegraph, which transmitted developments in the war for mass consumption.

Abraham Lincoln meeting with General George B. McClellan in Sharpsburg, Maryland, The American Civil War: Treasures from the Vault, Boston University Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center

Abraham Lincoln meeting with General George B. McClellan in Sharpsburg, Md., on October 3, 1862.

Other rare artifacts on display include political cartoons, state flags, diary entries, color lithographs, and battle maps, as well as a “Runaway Book,” a Richmond, Va., ledger that details the capture and return of fugitive slaves. Viewers can find relics of Boston’s antislavery past (BU founders Lee Claflin, Isaac Rich, and Jacob Sleeper were abolitionists), information about the Underground Railroad, and descriptions of slave life.

Rankin says he hopes that visitors get “a sense of what it was like to live through a catastrophe, a sense of what Lincoln was like, as a man and as a president, what society was doing to compensate for the great struggle, both in music and in technology.” He adds, “You can’t understand the country today without having a firm understanding of the Civil War period.”

The American Civil War: Treasures from the Vault is on display through August in the Richards-Frost Room, Mugar Memorial Library, first floor, 771 Commonwealth Ave. The exhibition is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. More information can be found here. Learn more about the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center here.

Erin Thibeau can be reached at ethibeau@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @erinthibeau.

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