The pivotal role New York State played in the war is the focus of the 7,000-square-foot exhibition. As the wealthiest and most populous state, the Empire State led all others in supplying men, money, and materiel to the causes of unity and freedom. New York’s experience provides significant insight into the reasons why the war was fought and the meaning that the Civil War holds today. An Irrepressible Conflict will be open through September 22, 2013 in Exhibition Hall.
“As the nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it is important that Americans everywhere are aware of the critical role New York played in this defining moment of American history,” said Museum Director Mark Schaming. “This expansive exhibition, together with a wide array of educational programs and web-based resources, will present the rich and complex story of how New York led the way in the fight for national unity and freedom for all.”
The exhibition includes objects from the collections of the State Museum, Library and Archives, as well as others from institutions across the state. Among the many significant objects are a Lincoln life mask from 1860, the earliest photograph of Frederick Douglass (a rare 8-by-10-inch daguerreotype image, courtesy of the Onondaga Historical Association) and the only known portrait of Dred Scott. Additional support for this exhibition is provided by RBC Wealth Management.
The exhibition’s title was inspired by an 1858 quote from then U.S. Senator William H. Seward, who also served as governor of New York (1839-42) and secretary of state (1861-69). Seward disagreed with those who believed that the prospect of war between the North and South was the work of “fanatical agitators.” He understood that the roots of conflict went far deeper, writing, “It is an irrepressible conflict, between opposing and enduring forces.”
An Irrepressible Conflict will be organized around three themes — Antebellum New York, The Civil War 1861-1865 and Reconstruction and Legacy. Over 200 objects, documents and images will be on display. The exhibition includes profiles of significant historical figures who played key roles in the war effort, but will also include the personal stories of previously unknown soldiers.
Antebellum New York
Antebellum New York covers New York’s history of slavery and its role in the national debate over slavery. New York, once the largest slave state in the North, became a center for abolitionism and other reform movements. The exhibition focuses on Seward, Underground Railroad “conductor” Harriet Tubman and abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass and Gerrit Smith who were active at the same time many New Yorkers profited from their business relationships with Southern slaveholders. In the end, the differences between opponents and supporters of slavery would become an “irrepressible conflict” for New Yorkers and all Americans.
Among the artifacts displayed is a brass slave collar, c.1806, inscribed “J.S. glenn/GLENN/Montgomery Co. NY.” There also is a broadside, loaned by the Onondaga Historical Association, establishing a reward for the return of Harriet Powell, whose escape from slavery in October 1839 helped establish Onondaga County’s national reputation as a center for the abolitionist movement.
Antebellum New York also chronicles the state’s rise, after the opening of the Erie Canal, as the most populous and productive state in the nation. It focuses on the rising tensions between immigrants and native-born Americans, antebellum politics and the 1860 election of
President Abraham Lincoln.
The Civil War 1861-1865
The Civil War 1861-1865 era recounts New York’s pivotal role in the war effort, examining the contributions of New Yorkers on the battlefield and home front. As the most populous state, New York was required to furnish more men than any other state. While united in battle to preserve the nation, New Yorkers were torn over the same issues that divided them before the war. In order for the North to emerge victorious, however, these divisions – between immigrant and native-born, rich and poor, abolitionist and anti-abolitionist, Republic and Democrat – had to be overcome.
On display is a colorful broadside from Glens Falls asking “Are You Ready to Stand by the Stars and Stripes,” courtesy of the State Library. Visitors will also see a flag, loaned by the New York State Military Museum, from the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry. This regiment was raised and commanded by Elmer Ellsworth, originally from Malta, Saratoga County, who became the war’s first martyr. Ellsworth was fatally shot tearing down a Confederate flag from the Marshall House hotel in Virginia, and became the first Union officer killed.
Spotlighted in this area of the exhibition are former Albany Mayor, Congressman and railroad magnate Erastus Corning and Dr. Mary Walker, an Army surgeon who was the only woman ever to receive the nation’s highest military award – the Medal of Honor.
New York’s shipbuilding, iron and firearms industries played a vital role in the war effort. The Civil War marked a transition in naval warfare – from wooden sailing and steam ships to heavily armored ironclads. On display, courtesy of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, is an iron plate, reportedly rolled for the nation’s first ironclad ship, the U.S.S. Monitor, at the Corning & Winslow foundry in Troy, Rensselaer County. The exhibition also includes a Model 1863 Percussion Rifle, manufactured in Ilion, by E. Remington & Sons. New York State gunsmiths dominated the firearms industry throughout the first half of the 19th century and used these new and emerging technologies to equip Union soldiers with the latest equipment.
The exhibition focuses on several infantry units from New York, as well as the roles played by individual soldiers. On display, courtesy of the St. Lawrence County Historical Association, is a snare drum used by Private David Lyons of the 60th New York Volunteer Infantry. There also is a photo of a Broadside Ballad, the Drummer of Antietam, courtesy of the State Library. Broadside ballads were one good way of disseminating news throughout the war.
When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, it not only freed slaves but authorized the recruitment of African-American soldiers. Three regiments of U.S. Colored Troops were raised in New York. On display are Muster Roll abstracts from the collections of the State Archives for individual soldiers in the 26th and 31st U.S. Colored Troops.
The exhibition chronicles the story of the Elmira Prison Camp, which opened in July 1864 to accommodate the government’s increasing numbers of rebel prisoners. Originally a barracks for 5,000 men, Elmira – known as “Hellmira” by its inmates – eventually housed over 12,000 Confederate soldiers. Nearly 25 percent of them died from malnutrition, exposure and disease. A restraining chain from the prison, courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society, is among the artifacts on display.
President Lincoln’s assassination occurred just days after the war ended. Photographs and other artifacts are on display relating to this tragic episode in the nation’s history. Lincoln’s funeral train made stops in 12 cities, including New York City, Albany and Buffalo.
Reconstruction and Legacy
Reconstruction and Legacy, the exhibition’s final section, chronicles the impact the war had on New Yorkers. By the war’s end, 448,000 New Yorkers had enlisted in the armed services, and more than 50,000 of them had died.
Thousands of Civil War veterans also returned home with injuries or disabilities. Some needed long-term care that was more than their families could provide. New York passed legislation in 1872 to construct a home for these soldiers in Bath, Steuben County. A wheelchair from the home, courtesy of Edwin Presley, will be on display in this area of the exhibition.
The exhibition shows how memories of the war changed with the times. It focuses on Reconstruction, continuing prejudices and the struggle for equality, the Civil Rights Era and the meaning and relevance of the war today.
The State Museum, State Library and State Archives are planning a variety of programs to complement the exhibition including lectures, guided tours for students, and educational activities for children and families. There also will be an online exhibition and web resources for students and teachers, including downloadable packets of materials for pre-and post-visit classroom activities.
About the New York State Museum
Established in 1836, the New York State Museum is a program of the State Education Department’s Office of Cultural Education. Located on Madison Avenue adjacent to the Empire State Plaza in Albany, the Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission is free. Further information can be obtained by calling (518) 474-5877 or visiting the Museum website at www.nysm.nysed.gov.
Photo: A brass slave collar, inscribed “J.S. Glenn/ GLENN/ Montgomery Co NY.” (New York State Museum photo).