As we’ve mentioned before, LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum has put together a special exhibit on technology in the Civil War at the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington, D.C. This exhibition will remain open through July 6, 2014.
We asked Steven Wilson, ALLM’s curator and assistant director, a few questions about the exhibit.
How did the idea of setting up a temporary exhibit at Ford’s Theatre come about, and why did you pick technology in the Civil War as a topic?
The Ford’s Theatre Society saw images of the exhibit on the museum web site. They thought it would make an ideal subject for a temporary exhibit.
How do you go about selecting artifacts and images for an exhibit like this?
We based our selection of images and artifacts on what we had available in the collection, the story we felt necessary to tell, and what we could borrow from other sites. The story changed somewhat as we modified our approach. The theme never changed—how technology changed the process of war.
What will visitors see? Did you use any objects from other collections?
We expect visitors to see the transformation in America based on the advancement and refinement of machinery. Our purpose was not to provide them with an in-depth view of technology, but rather a headline news approach. From that they can conduct their own examination of the subject. In order to get a clear and at least relatively straightforward view, we felt it was necessary to have some key artifacts in the exhibit. We approached the National Firearms Museum, the Kentucky History Museum, the Tennessee State Museum, the Ohio River Museum, and the Southern Museum for Civil War and Locomotive History. The items we borrowed, such as a lever-action Henry rifle, a model of a steamboat, and the components of a telegraph, provided us with a look into various elements of the subject. Any exhibit is a cooperative adventure and will only succeed with generous partners.
In your opinion, what was the most significant technology to come into use during the Civil War?
USS Monitor’s turret, photographed after the battle with the CSS Virginia. United States Naval History & Heritage Command, Photo #: NH 61923
In my opinion, ironclad warships changed the course of warfare forever. A good argument could be made for balloons, the telegraph, railroads or other innovations, but the battle between the Virginia and the Monitor changed the course of war at sea in a matter of hours. There were ironclads before the Civil War, but they were traditional ships covered with armor. Monitor and Virginia, despite their limitations, shattered the notion that wooden warships ruled the waves.
How decisive was the Union’s industrial edge in terms of the war’s outcome?
Gallantry, loyalty, honor, and courage are words often, rightly or wrongly, associated with war. It’s difficult to generate patriotic fervor in the heat of smelted metal, standing downwind from a phalanx of belching smokestacks, or in a factory floor surrounded by rows of clanking machines. But it is equally war. The South had approximately 100,000 factory workers, while the North had 100,000 factories. It was like an industrial avalanche scouring chivalry from Southern lands. To quote Rhett Butler, the South has nothing but “cotton and arrogance.” A little harsh, perhaps, but one must remember that the Civil War was the first war of machines in a land of machines.
Is it accurate to call the Civil War a modern war?
The Civil War is certainly the first modern war, and its placement in history almost ensures it would have been. Machines had been cultivated to serve their masters, and many nations, embracing the potential of industry, committed themselves to the modern art of manufacturing. Look at what came as a result of impending war, or war itself. The Colt revolver, telegraph, ironclad, balloon, revolving turret, Spencer rifle, Henry rifle, Gatling gun, torpedoes, landmines, rifled cannons, submersibles, self-contained ammunition, and thousands of inventions that ranged from the ridiculous to the nonsensical. There was an Industrial Revolution, and while no government fell directly from its emergence, it destroyed the status quo, reshaped society, and increased the capability of soldiers to kill one another.
What was Lincoln’s relationship with military technology as commander-in-chief? How active was he in the implementation of new tools to wage the war?
Abraham Lincoln was born with a quiet, natural curiosity. He was drawn to learn how things worked, and his strong methodical mind led him, as he said, “to get to the nub of the problem.” He was an inventor, although he might be classified more as a tinkerer, and it was reported that during travels on the circuit Lincoln would stop and examine farm machinery so that he had an understanding of how it worked. When President Lincoln read of, or saw, or was presented with machines that might reduce death on the battlefield, give the Union an advantage, it simply fascinated him, and he expected his generals to share his enthusiasm. Mostly, generals did not. Lincoln felt the Spencer repeating rifle had possibilities, and said so. He pushed the acceptance of the Monitor when his naval advisors thought the despicable thing nothing more than unholy. He would have climbed into Professor Lowe’s balloon for a bird’s eye-view of the countryside, but the aghast Stanton forbade it. Here is why Lincoln’s approach is important: his goal was to win the war and unite the nation. He was not deterred by the super-heated enthusiasm of inventors, or the outrage of Ordnance Department officers. He wanted in his hand a device to stop the killing. A lightning bolt would do, but Lincoln would settle for a new repeating rifle.
Any plans to have the exhibit travel elsewhere after it closes at Ford’s?
We’ll have the graphics available for a traveling exhibit late this year.
Finally, what’s your favorite artifact in the exhibit?
My favorite artifact in the exhibit is the model of the U.S.S. Monitor made by that ship’s crew and given to their captain, John Worden. Not only is it a remarkable historical artifact, it’s a token of the crew’s respect for their captain.