Tag Archives: Ford’s Theatre

ALLM curator on the new Ford’s Theatre exhibit

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.

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Ford’s Theatre will host new exhibit from LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum (ALLM) will display a new exhibit “Abraham Lincoln and the Technology of War” at the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington, D.C. Curated by Steven Wilson, ALLM curator and assistant director, the exhibit investigates the significance of inventions and new machines in the Civil War.

Included in the exhibit are artifacts from the B&O Railroad Museum, the Kentucky Military History Museum, the National Firearms Museum, the Center for Northern Indiana History, the Tennessee State Museum and the Vicksburg National Military Park-U.S.S. Cairo. Some rare items from the collection of the ALLM are a Greene bolt-action breech-loading rifle, Captain John Worden’s speaking trumpet and a collection of carte de visite photographs.

“Abraham Lincoln and the Technology of War” will open to the public on February 14, 2014.  The exhibit will remain on display through July 6, 2014. Admission is included with regular daytime visit tickets to Ford’s Theatre, which is free but requires timed entry tickets. Tickets may be reserved in person at Ford’s Theatre Box Office, through Ticketmaster at 800.982.2787, or online at http://www.fords.org.

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Lincoln’s birthday around the Web

Here are a few links to enjoy as you celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s 203rd birthday.

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Bill O’Reilly’s interrupted visit to Ford’s Theatre

By Michael Lynch

Killing Lincoln, the bestseller co-authored by cable news pundit Bill O’Reilly, is in the news right now because one of the Ford’s Theatre gift shops will refrain from carrying it.  The store, located in the theater’s basement museum, is operated by Eastern National, the organization that manages National Park Service stores.  The lobby gift shop, run by the Ford’s Theatre Society, will sell the book.

A Park Service staff member made the recommendation against stocking the book because it contains a number of errors and lacks the usual documentation found in most historical works. Some of the mistakes in the text are minor discrepancies, such as the statement that Ford’s Theatre burned in 1863 instead of 1862. Others are more embarrassing.  For example, O’Reilly and his co-author Martin Dugard place Lincoln in the Oval Office, which wasn’t constructed until decades after the Civil War.  Such errors can pop up occasionally in any piece of scholarship, but the dearth of documentation in Killing Lincoln is striking even for a popularized history book put out by a commercial publisher; there are no endnotes, just a very brief description of published sources at the end of the book.

O’Reilly has framed the affair as a personal battle between himself and a pack of malicious detractors.  On his TV show, he stated (hopefully with his tongue in his cheek) that the book has come under attack by “the forces of darkness.”  He has referred to criticism of the book as “a concerted effort by people who don’t like me” and claims that “our enemies are full of rage at our success.”  That strikes me as a little disingenuous.  The store’s decision not to stock the book is essentially a routine bit of internal NPS business.

Where O’Reilly’s public stature comes into play is not with regard to Eastern National’s call not to sell his book, but the fact that the media thought that decision was a newsworthy item.  Normally a museum shop’s decision not to stock an item wouldn’t be the stuff of national news, but a controversial media personality like O’Reilly makes for an inviting target.  He’s therefore vulnerable to a kind of criticism that doesn’t plague most historical writers.  Maybe that’s unfair, but on the other hand, most historians don’t enjoy the kind of ready-made visibility that would allow them to publish a poorly documented book and see it instantly rocket to the top of the bestseller lists.

For what it’s worth, my issue with Killing Lincoln isn’t so much a complaint about its content as it is a manifestation of perplexity. I’m not sure why such a book needed to be written in the first place. In recent years we’ve seen a number of well-written and carefully researched books on the Lincoln assassination, such as Blood on the Moon by Ed Steers, American Brutus by Michael Kauffman, and Manhunt by James Swanson. These are all scholarly works, but they’re also sufficiently accessible that any non-specialist could enjoy them.  Is O’Reilly bringing anything new to the table?

He has said that Lincoln was an exemplary leader, and that his desire for Americans to draw on his wisdom helped prompt him to write the book. Fair enough, but if you want to unpack Lincoln’s greatness, writing about the assassination seems like an odd way to go about it. Taking a bullet to the back of the head while watching a play wasn’t exactly the most statesmanlike act of Lincoln’s career.

Perhaps O’Reilly decided to tackle Lincoln’s assassination for no other reason than the same pull of the past that’s reeled in countless other history buffs, including myself. If that’s the case, I can admire his enthusiasm, even if I’d be hesitant to recommend his book to anybody else who’s caught the same bug.  In any case, the book’s absence from the shelves of the NPS gift shop doesn’t seem to be affecting its popularity. As of this writing, it holds the number two spot on the New York Times list of hardcover non-fiction bestsellers.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.

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