Newberry Library Exhibit

Yesterday, I got to spend a little more time at the Newberry Library’s “Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North.” It’s a collection of printed materials, paintings, sheet music, letters and more from the Civil War. I’m not the biggest Civil War buff but I did enjoy it because it showed some alternative perspectives.

There were various caricatures and drawings throughout the exhibition that really pummeled home different aspects of the civil war. THere was a drawing criticizing Great Britain for continuing to trade the South for its cotton despite England’s role in stopping the slave trade. It showed John Bull talking to a Southerner while a slave is literally trapped in a bale of cotton. Very potent piece. There were text-based pieces but I’m a visual person so I’ll mostly talk about those.
 The exhibition also discussed the violence against Native Americans during the war. I’ve learned in my studies is that war tends to increase the general level of violence in society, not just on the battle field. Rates of domestic abuse go up so it made sense that there were more battles with Native Americans. There was an incredible drawing that showed the hanging of 38 Dakota Indians from “crimes” perpetuated during the Dakota War. It was allegedly the largest execution in US history ordered by Lincoln. He did commute the sentences of 256 men though. Regardless, there was a big trial but it was very one-sided. There was little representation for the Dakotan Indians. It reminded me a bit of the Haymarket Riot trial and its martyrs. Sad that I didn’t even know about it until today. Read more.
There was also discussion about women during the war. Envelope art was apparently a thing. One envelope had a little drawing of a woman with the phrase “If I cannot fight, I’ll feed those who do.” It was that wonderful time of negotiation between women’s roles of domesticity and needs of the nation. Women may complete essential tasks of sewing, caring for the sick, etc, but it wasn’t limited to the domestic sphere previously. Though I did learn about women marching on a courthouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania against the draft. So there is that. I also learned a bit about two Chicagoans, Mary Livermore and Jane Hoge, who were important in the Chicago Sanitary Commission during the war. I’m going to have to read a bit more about them but it’s neat to find some new names to read. They also wrote about their experiences during the war. Excellent.
There were some lovely paintings and drawings too. Many were by Winslow Homer. There is a wonderful one that starts the exhibit, called “Banner in the Sky” by Frederich Church (1861). It shows a red menacing sky but in the middle, the clouds make the picture of an American flag. It’s really lovely. It’s a nice depiction of this idea that we live and breathe patriotism. Even our landscape does too! There is another painting “On Guard” by Winslow Homer. It shows a boy in the countryside, seemingly far from battle. But he’s waiting, perched on his seat for something to happen. It’s a nice reminder of how the home front and war front are connected.
So it’s an interesting exhibition and worth checking out. But it closes March 24th so time is running out. There is a digital component so you can check it out here. But it’s always better in person.
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