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Civil War's contemporary importance


"A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln. " an exhibit focusing on Civil War times, opened at the Chicago Historical Society in February. The following is a review of the catalog to the exhibit.

The Chicago Historical Society, located on Clark Street at North Avenue, is open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5p.m. Admission is free on Monday: otherwise, it is $1.50 for adults and 50 cents for children as well as senior citizens. Eric Foner and Olivia Mahoney. A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln. New York: Chicago Historical Society in association with W. W. Norton & Co., 1990. Pp. 119 with bibliography, exhibition checklist and index. $35 (cloth): $24.95 (paper).

On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln received the state Republican party's nomination for the U.S. Senate. Perhaps second only to his later Gettysburg address as an example of Lincoln's oratorical powers, his acceptance speech on that occasion is best remembered for the metaphor implicit in its fifth sentence: " 'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' " Lincoln, of course, was referring to the nation's current condition, "half slave and half free." From 1861 to 1865, as the 16th president, he would oversee the emancipation of the country's four million slaves as well as the conduct of the war which reunited the victorious North and the vanquished South.

All of this might be dismissed as mere history, and familiar history at that. But as a recently opened exhibition in Chicago reminds us, every generation of Americans must come to terms with the Civil War era and its implications for their own time. The authors of the exhibit catalog conclude that "The Civil War settled two divisive issues the permanence of the union and the fate of slavery only to raise a host of others." In light of the continuing racial rift in American society, it is tempting to re-invoke Lincoln's metaphor and to ask how long we can endure as the dual nations described in the 1968 report of Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner's Commission on Civil Disorders: one heavily populated by poor people of color, the other largely white and middle class.

"A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln" is therefore an especially timely exhibit to be featured at the Chicago Historical Society (CHS) during the 1990s, for through 600 artifacts and images it

July 1990/Illinois Issues/31

Illinois Issues Summer Book Section

places in context the most intractable of the unresolved issues arising from the war, the role of race in American life. The handsome catalog should help visitors to prepare for the displays in advance, to ponder them more productively on the scene and to prolong the intellectual and emotional response they encourage. With its carefully crafted commentary and its exciting illustrations, the catalog also offers a welcome alternative for those who cannot see the exhibit itself.

Co-authored by Eric Foner, a Columbia University history professor, and Olivia Mahoney, associate curator of decorative and industrial arts at CHS, the catalog like the exhibit it explicates represents the latest collaboration between academic experts and CHS museum staff. Such cooperative efforts seek to ensure that the society's rich holdings are not only rendered accessible to the widest possible audience but also presented according to the soundest available scholarship.

The guidebook resulting from this partnership reflects a viewpoint summarized in the authors' preface: "At the root of the crisis that produced the Civil War lay slavery, the 'peculiar institution' of the Old South. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the Union created by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution became divided into slave and free regions .... The existence of slavery in the Southern states and its extension into the Western territories became the focus of an acrimonious national debate that. . . helped to bring on a military confrontation in which over 600.000 Americans perished. Begun to preserve the Union in the aftermath of the South's secession, the war became a struggle for emancipation that eradicated slavery from American society but left to future generations the issue of racial justice." This viewpoint represents a return to the belief of Lincoln's contemporaries that slavery was the ultimate cause of America's bloodiest conflict, but at the same time a reversal of the position held by many later historians, who until recently favored other explanations for the war, ranging from sectional tariff disputes to inept political leadership.

'A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln' . . . places in context the most intractible of the unresolved issues arising from the Civil War, the role of race in American life

Each of the catalog's seven chapters covers a corresponding section of the exhibit. Readers may be surprised by some of the facts revealed. For example, we learn that on the eve of the Civil War, fully three-fourths of white southern families owned no slaves. We are reminded of one reason for President Lincoln's moderate policies: He had been elected in 1860 with only 40 percent of the total vote and without a single ballot in 10 southern states. We find that in order to win the war, the Union army had to conquer an area as large as western Europe, a feat unequalled in modern times. After the war, the nation had to cope with the war's casualties, more of whom perished from inadequate treatment of wounds and diseases than died outright on Civil War battlefields. Finally, we see the revolution wrought on American life by the war. The federal budget of 1865 was 20 times that of 1860. and women rushed to fill vacated jobs in previously male-dominated fields, making permanent inroads in retail sales, nursing and the federal bureaucracy.

The nucleus of the society's collection on this period, and thus the core of the exhibit, was acquired in 1920 from the estate of Charles F. Gunther. a Chicago businessman and politician who had begun amassing 19th century Americana after the Civil War. Among the items on display which were originally in Gunther's possession are arm shackles for slaves; a printing press used by martyred Alton abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy; furniture and a top hat allegedly from Lincoln's Springfield home; a musket from the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Va., where John Brown led his raid in 1859; the table on which Robert E. Lee signed terms of surrender; and the walnut bed where Lincoln died.

Besides such impressive physical artifacts, the exhibit also contains diverse images of the period drawn from various media. Perhaps most moving among these are photographs taken not of the famous Lincoln in office, Ulysses S. Grant in camp but of the anonymous the nameless war dead of each side, the unidentified blacks in slavery and in freedom.

Like the mix of photos, the text treats many of the extraordinary figures we would expect to find here: Frederick Douglass and Stephen Douglas, Andrew Jackson and Stonewall Jackson. However, it also introduces us to lesser-knowns like John and Mary Jones, free blacks who moved from the South to Chicago in 1845. They built a thriving tailoring business and sheltered fugitive slaves in their home. John lobbied against Illinois' Black Laws for 17 years before their repeal in 1865 and became one of the first blacks elected to public office in the North.

Over 100 of the exhibit's 600 items are pictured in the guide, a fourth in full color. For those who want to explore the period further, there is a concluding essay on recommended readings.

Judith L. Everson earned her Ph.D. in American studies and has taught history courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction as well as the institution of slavery at Sangamon State University, where she is an associate professor.

32/July 1990/Illinois Issues

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