Questions first ignited in a comprehensive exam room have an electric way of rippling through your whole career, whether you’re teaching in a university classroom and/or in the realms of public history. Take, for example, a standard query about nineteenth-century material culture: How would you tell a history of the American Civil War in five objects?
This inquiry represents a real-life challenge for many public historians. It’s gathered extra significance and cultural mileage in recent months, given the desire to draw in crowds for the full slate of sesquicentennial events planned across the country. Here’s how I’ve tried to meet the task for younger historians, using the British Museum as a starter model (although it’s worth looking at other takes on the same idea). For a short workshop, my goal was to “show-and-tell” with objects that articulated a general timeline of major events; explained Massachusetts’ role and thus localized historical interpretations of big cultural themes like union and secession; and introduced the Society’s mission and mode of collecting diverse materials for research—all in a little under two or three hours.
To begin, I brushed up on material culture and artifact interpretation with a stroll through moderator Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s 2002 online forum on the topic, tapping into the hive mind for new teaching methods and to understand how “hands-on” encounters with museum items can jolt our perceptions of the past in a new direction. A quick flip-through of archived comps notes (tip: save those files now, since you will use them again!) also helped to edit my general approach. After a preliminary sweep of the Library catalog to narrow down our Civil War collections, I settled on five items from the artifact and papers collection of Massachusetts Gov. John Albion Andrew (1818-1867). Andrew, a prominent antislavery lawyer and “Conscience Whig” who, as the Republican head of the commonwealth, raised money and troops (notably, the Mass. 54th Regiment) for the Union, proved an appealing central figure on whom to center a whirlwind narrative.
For Andrew, early campus activism foretold his political outlook. He attended classes at Bowdoin College alongside John Russwurm, the school’s first African-American graduate, and Andrew participated in Bowdoin’s antislavery society. After graduation, Andrew relocated to Boston to study law, practice Unitarianism, and represent indigent defendants pro bono. Though he was not as radical as some in William Lloyd Garrison’s circle, Andrew took a stand at the state level, speaking out against slavery and against the discriminatory policies of the Know-Nothing Party. In 1859, he went even further, defending John Brown’s actions during the Harpers Ferry raid and raising money for Brown’s legal fees. As he helped Massachusetts to mobilize troops for the Union, Andrew applauded Lincoln’s cause, but he thought that the president could have done far more to ensure racial equality in law. The Emancipation Proclamation was, in Andrew’s eyes, “a poor document but a mighty act.” Retiring in 1866 after a double term of service, Andrew died suddenly at the age of 48. From 1920 to 1922, the Proceedings record the Andrew family’s generous donation of his papers and artifacts to the Society. Throughout the war, soldiers and supporters had sent Andrew a remarkable array of artifacts of slavery and abolition. Here are five I use to show how Andrew’s Civil War unfolded:
- Eliza Jane Hersey Andrew’s shawl: Is a unique way to introduce Boston on the eve of war, with circles of men and women gathered in conversations about slavery and secession. Sometimes I’ll also show portions of John’s ceremonial uniform and sword, to demonstrate how the first couple of Massachusetts later appeared “ready” for war at public events. The 1862 R.H. Stearns & Co. shawl—yes, it resembles a certain familiar NFL logo—symbolizes “ordinary” manifestations of solidarity for the Union cause, and serves as a wonderful example of early machine knitwork. That’s a chance to survey the industrial North, and to talk about women’s changing roles within antebellum Boston’s networks of reform.
- Iron slave collar: Shown above, this collar was cut from the neck of a teenage runaway slave in New Orleans; Andrew stated that she had worn the ten-pound yoke for “three weary months.” Capt. S. Tyler Read sent it to Andrew, who had it displayed in the front windows of the posh department store of Williams & Everett. Seizing on Andrew’s political act of material culture, one newspaper invited Bostonians to come and view “A Southern Necklace.” As we (carefully) open the hinged metal, workshop participants get a glimpse of the physical and cultural weight of slavery in Northern and Southern life.
- Deck of Union playing cards: A little more light-hearted at first, this item opens up conversation about what life was like at war. Who were these soldiers, and how did they pass their days? Note that generals claim the face cards, and Lady Liberty steps in as Queen of Hearts.
At the same time, the object’s Federal iconography takes a new form (disposable, popular, mass-marketed), so we discuss why historical societies collect ephemera and something as famous as…
- Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation pen: And that story’s told well here. (see p. 595).
- Finally, a letter from African-American veteran Robert Day to his governor, John Andrew, asking for help to pay for a new wooden leg and vowing to fight again if called. “We of the 54th are A going to try to raise A Library to be Named the Andrews Library After you and one to be called the Sumner Library after the Senator,” Day wrote. “your Name Will Never be forgotten. Likewise that of Shaw.”
If there’s time, we walk through a few manuscripts: a Mass. 54th recruitment poster; Wilder Dwight’s last letters home written from Antietam (“I think I Die in Victory”); a “haunted” nursing report from Louisa May Alcott; and William B. Gould’s 15 April 1865 entry in his Diary of a Contraband: “I heard the glad tidings that the Stars and Stripes had been planted over the Capitol of the
Damnd Confederacy.” The rest of the wrap-up conversation recaps content and skill: How is reading an object different from reading a document? What do we know now about the Civil War? We end on a big question: What happened to Robert Day’s library plan? How have Americans memorialized the conflict?
With that in mind, please comment below on how you’d teach the world of the Civil War to junior high and high school historians, in five objects or less. After all, it’s another way to consider how we can shape the historical knowledge that survey-level students bring to the college lecture hall.