Durham News

June 20, 2014

Students’ exhibit a ‘whole new side’ of the Civil War

Assigned to do original research and make something of it for the public, a class of UNC undergraduates created an exhibition that shows ‘a whole different side’ of the American Civil War.

The little drummer boy looks almost cherubic, wide-eyed and baby-faced, riding on the shoulders of a scowling Union soldier whose eyes are fixed, straight ahead and hard.

“The kid’s innocence is poignant,” Eliza Richards said. “It’s like he’s having a little piggy back ride, but they’re actually going into war.”

Eliza Richards is a literature professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill, and the child on his way to war is the iconic image for “Imagining the U.S. Civil War 1861-1900” – an exhibition her undergraduate seminar students created this spring semester.

“It’s not what your typical Civil War enthusiast or buff might think,” said Claudia Funke, special collections curator for the UNC libraries.

Looking into the exhibit cases is, in a way, like looking into a host of diaries from the era, some personal and immediate and others revealing ways the Southern, Northern and slave cultures perceived the war as it was happened or tried to cope with it later.

Real diaries are there, such as the one Union Capt. Ira B. Sampson kept in Confederate POW camps; and letters, such as one Confederate Lt. Col. Rawley White Martin received from his sister while he was a Union prisoner. They are among dozens of items Richards’s students culled from from the university’s collections.

There are dime novels, women’s poems, children’s stories, magazine images, photographs of ruins left behind by Sherman’s march through Georgia, black narratives pre- and post-Emancipation – impressions of the war, from both sides, many of them consciously composed to play a role in the conflict.

“That’s a specific historical slant,” Richards said. “This is particularly popular literature of the war ... and the way litereature is engaging in the conflict, as propaganda, as solace for those who ... have lost massive amounts of friends and relatives. Literature serves all these different functions.”

A class member, Hannah Wallace, summed it up: “It’s a whole different side of the Civil War that you don’t usually get to see.”

For instance:

•  “Hymns for Camp,” a well-worn book, pocket-size, that went through the war with a solider, perhaps to use for singing around the campfire at night for comfort.
•  A Confederate geography primer that “talks about the North like it’s ancient history,” Richards said, “and talks about the new country that has ... a completely new national identity.”
•  A poem by Cornelia Johnson, wife of a Confederate officer, whose writing was considered so inflammatory that after the war a Union general ordered all copies of her poetry confiscated and burned.
•  A “Manual of Military Surgery,” sharing a case with a surgeon’s saw and Walt Whitman poetry about Civil War hospitals.
•  Children’s stories about knitting socks for soldiers in the field, “teaching kids how they could participate in the war effort.”

“There’s some really interesting things in the exhibit that people wouldn’t ordinarily see, because you have people looking with fresh eyes,” Funke said.

There is the memoir of a woman who disguised herself as a man so she could go to war: popular magazines; and the transcribed text of an address that the slave poet George Moses Horton delivered to UNC freshmen.

“He’s reprimanding them for not appreciating their education,” Richards said.

A student first

As far as Richards knows, “Imagining the Civil War” is the first case of a student-curated exhibit being shown in Wilson Library. It’s a “prestigious” place, in a library devoted to rare books and special material such as the Southern Historical Collection and the university archives

“They were in awe of the room when they saw it,” Richards said. “It gave them a sense of the importance of the task.”

Richards, who has a particular interest in literature and journalism of the Civil War, said she devised the seminar “Imagining the U.S Civil War” as an experiment in “experiential learning” – having her 21 students perform original research with primary-source material, and create a product from it to convey what they learned for the public.

“We teach them all these things abstractly: how to do research, how to go to the library, how to create a bibliography.” she said. “Why should I write clearly? Why go to the library and look it up, I can Google? Who cares about the material object?

“A lot of things are rare and you can’t just Google them,” she said.

I’ve never seen students work so hard for a class and learn so much so quickly. And I’ve been teaching 20 years,” Richards said. “It was a completely remarkable experience, I think, all around.”

Related content



Editor's Choice Videos