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Civil engagement

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  March 8, 2009 08:17 PM

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Crew of Union Gunboat, 1864
The crew of the U.S.S. Miami on its main deck. Photographer unknown.

Photos reveal the daily life and hard truths of the War Between the States

Through April 26, the Medford Historial Society is hosting "Of the People: Faces of the Civil War," an exhibit featuring 50 photographs exemplifying often-overlooked aspects of that war. Globe Correspondent Jon Dyer visited the exhibit:

By John Dyer
Globe Correspondent

At the height of the Civil War, during a quiet moment, sailors on the USS Miami played checkers. They listened to a banjo and drum, smoked, and read. Some were tough-looking and wizened. Others were baby-faced - they smile widely in an 1864 picture taken by an unknown photographer (above).

Look more closely at the photo, and other details appear. The Union gunboat is integrated, but the majority of African-American sailors sit off to the ship's starboard side as they mend clothes. The white sailors huddle together, but have left a space between themselves and the blacks.

History says the crew worked together to help conquer New Orleans, a strategic Southern city. They fought valiantly, side by side, against a Confederate ironclad off the North Carolina coast. Yet on their own ship, they reinforced the racial barriers they were helping to destroy.

We don't know enough about what went on in that battleship. But, taking a cue from the Medford Historical Society, we now know a bit more. Through April 26, the society is hosting "Of the People: Faces of the Civil War," an exhibit featuring the Miami photo and 49 others exemplifying often-overlooked aspects of the War Between the States. The exhibit at 10 Governors Ave. draws from nearly 3,300 Civil War-era photographs owned by the society - the fifth-largest privately held collection of such images in the United States, said Michael Chesson, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Assembled by a prominent Medford citizen who was also a Civil War veteran and then donated to the society about 60 years ago, the collection was forgotten until 1990, when schoolchildren rummaging in a box discovered it. Pieces of the collection have been displayed only sporadically in the past two decades. Now the society is trying to open the collection to the public.

"People haven't seen them, and they really are remarkable," said Barbara Kerr, a member of the society's board of directors and assistant director of the Medford Public Library. "We want to bring people's attention to how amazing this collection is."

Chesson, who wrote the catalog for the exhibition, said he was flabbergasted when he saw the range and depth of the photos. "I thought initially this was going to be local history, with a lot of people from Medford," he said. "It's not only Medford. They are much broader than that."

The professor shed light on the Miami photo, too. It was typical for sailors on US warships to segregate themselves, he said, a reminder that while the Civil War put an end to slavery, African-Americans faced nearly a century of Jim Crow laws in the South after Reconstruction, as well as discrimination that persists even today nationwide.

Links between the Civil War and contemporary events inspired the exhibition, said Jim Kiely, also on the society's board. Society members wanted to participate in the historic change surrounding the election of the first African-American president and the recent 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birthday.

"We really felt that, as a historical organization, we'd be utterly remiss not to seize the opportunity," Kiely said.

Ulysses S. Grant
General Ulysses S. Grant with his horse, Cincinnati

Curators also rejected showcasing major figures from the war, said Kiely, though they included a photo of General Ulysses S. Grant with his horse, Cincinnati (above). Instead, they mostly chose images from daily life: a black woman standing outside a slave pen (below); a white woman and her family cleaning Pennsylvania troops' laundry (below); three Union officers enjoying tea or coffee around a table while their black servant attends to them.

Woman outside a slave pen
Woman outside a slave pen

Washington DC Camp
Washington DC camp of the 31st Pennsylvania Infantry

"The show's purpose is to reveal the various competing interests and complexities that were going on," said Kiely. "What were human beings doing?"

The 1863 photograph of the officers and the servant especially moved Kiely.

According to Chesson's catalog, the three New York infantry officers were among the bodyguards protecting General George McClellan at Antietam in Maryland a bloody battle in 1862 that claimed 23,000 lives but, because General Robert E. Lee retreated, gave President Lincoln the success he needed on the field to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

The men appear confident and relaxed. They seem to be engaging in lackadaisical conversation. The officer to the left wears his hat at a jaunty angle. They are part of one of the greatest armies of all time. On their table are china cups, flowers, and a loaf of bread. The flag behind them has the 13 stars representing the union of the first 13 colonies and its ideals.

But like the photo of the Miami, the separation between whites and blacks is unsettling.

Officers' mess, 1863
Officers in Company E of the 93rd New York Volunteer Infantry take afternoon tea
with the help of an African-American servant in Bealeton, Virginia.
Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan

Chesson said the servant might be "contraband," a term the Union Army used for slaves seized as spoils of war. The officers could be thinking of their servant as property rather a person. "This is a rather disturbing photograph for me," said Kiely.

The Medford Historical Society owns the photos thanks to Samuel Crocker Lawrence, a colonel in the Lawrence Light Guard - a local militia - who Kerr said was wounded at Bull Run in Manassas, Va. Returning from the front, he put down draft riots in Boston as a brigadier general in the Massachusetts militia and eventually became Medford's first mayor.

When the war ended, Lawrence, the wealthy owner of a rum distillery, bought photos of Civil War figures and scenes, said Kerr. He amassed an enormous collection that was kept in the armory on High Street until 1948, when the Lawrence family gave the collection to the society.

The photos include portraits of soldiers, images of battlefield landscapes and artillery pieces, and snapshots of daily life, like that of the Miami or the three Union officers. Many of the photos had been mass-produced, so their subjects have been seen before, said Kerr. But the quality of the Medford photos is excellent because they were forgotten for so long. Their counterparts in, say, the National Archives are often of lower quality.

"The photographs were undisturbed," said Kiely, adding they were now stored in a vault. "They simply lay flat, which was good for them."

The society is embarking on a fund-raising campaign to properly archive the collection, which Kerr says is priceless. The exhibit cost around $30,000 to mount, said Kiely, though most of those costs were borne by volunteers who donated their time and elbow grease. The lack of a proper database for the photos is one reason they haven't been put on display more often since they were rediscovered.

"The rule in library science is that if something is not cataloged, it's going to be forgotten, and that's exactly what happened," said Kiely.

He estimated that the society needed around $15,000 to archive the photos properly. The Blue & Gray Education Society, a Virginia-based nonprofit, donated a computer and scanner to the society to help with the job, but Kiely said the group needed to hire a professional archivist who could undertake the laborious task of scanning the photos and putting in details about them.

Len Riedel, executive director of the Blue & Gray Education Society, said his group jumped at the chance to help Medford. Like Chesson, he said the photos make up an amazing collection that provided invaluable material to Civil War scholars, particularly those studying ordinary people.

"It is a comprehensive look, as much as it is possible to have one, of what was going on," said Riedel. "You can look at people and see people with longer hair, shorter hair, facial hair, no facial hair, how they were in camp, what was important to them in their society. It gives us tons of treasures."

John Dyer can be reached at

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