Maryland Historical Society Art and Artifacts Tell Story of Divided Nation

Avi Y. Decter
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Divided Voices at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore is a notable effort to provide a narrative of the American Civil War as it was experienced in Maryland. This exhibition is well worth a visit by anyone interested in American history and culture—or, for that matter, interested in contemporary American life. The exhibition is instructive both for what it has achieved and what it has not achieved. For the thoughtful visitor, Divided Voices is likely to evoke meaningful reflection on one of the seminal events of our national story and on our response to that event 150 years later.

Left: Tattered battle flag of the 4th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops- part of the ‘Divided Voices’ exhibition. artes fine arts magazine

A Prelude

On September 17, 1862, the armies of Lee and McClellan collided along the Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. In the brutal fight that followed, 25,000 soldiers were killed or wounded—the largest number of casualties in a single day in the history of American arms. The day after the battle ended, Mathew Brady ushered in a new era in photojournalism, sending two of his photographers, Alexander Gardner and James F. Gibson, to document the battlefield strewn with the bodies of the dead “so covered with dust, torn, crushed and trampled that they resembled clods of earth and you were obliged to look twice before recognizing them as human beings.”

Portable photo field studio, complete with darkroom and head-braced chair (see detail in Figure #1, below.).

That October, Brady opened an exhibition titled “The Dead of Antietam” at his New York gallery. Before descending to sentimental platitudes (“that crown which only heroes and martyrs are permitted to wear”), The New-York Times reported that “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryard, and along the streets, he has done something very like it.” [FIGURE 1 HERE]

As visitors approach the Divided Voices exhibition, they encounter a display of period photography and photographic practice that foreshadows key themes of the exhibition: the critical position of border-state Maryland; the divisiveness that pitted neighbor against neighbor; the transformation of war’s romance and glory into horror and revulsion. Photography also establishes the exhibition’s design ethos and ambience: large photomurals in grainy grays, set off with vivid red, inflect the exhibition, evoking the war’s fog and fire, smoke and blood.

An Overview

'Divided Voices' floor plan. Fig.#2, below. Click to enlarge

Divided Voices occupies a large (4,000 s.f.) gallery. The exhibition is shaped like a large doughnut (see the accompanying floor plan), with an enormous glass case at its center, photomurals on the peripheral wall, and pylons, vitrines, and reader rails animating the landscape between the glassed-in core and the periphery. Visitors follow a linear, counter-clockwise path, returning at the conclusion to their starting point. [FLOORPLAN HERE]

Lincoln’s 1860 election generated fears for “the safety of the Union” Fig. #3, below.

The exhibition opens with a sweeping statement by Stephen A. Douglas (1854): “We are a people for Freedom and a people for Slavery. Between the two, conflict is inevitable.” The first section of the exhibition, “A Long Road to War,” exemplifies white people’s ambivalence about slavery in Maryland. Slavery persisted in some areas, but Maryland also had the largest free African American population in any slaveholding state. In fact, African American Marylanders were almost equally divided between slaves and freedmen, and Baltimore had the largest number of free blacks of any American city. The complexities of race in 1860 Maryland are briefly noted in a single large panel at the start of the exhibition: “Slavery and African American life in Maryland was as diverse as the state’s landscapes and cultures.” [FIGURE 3 HERE]

An April 1861 Baltimore riot caused first casualties of war. Fig.#4, below.

 The presidential race of 1860 and the election of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party candidate, precipitated the secession of southern states. Maryland, like the other border states of Kentucky and Missouri, adhered shakily to the Union, but conflict among Marylanders intensified. The second major section of the exhibition, Divided Loyalties, shows how deeply these divisions ran, leading to riots in Baltimore in April 1861 and disruption of a critical railroad junction just 50 miles from the Federal capital. Imposition of martial law by Federal forces followed promptly (and in Baltimore lasted for the duration of the war). Here, too, contradictions abound: Baltimore Mayor George William Brown, a Southern sympathizer, vainly tried to prevent attacks on Union volunteers passing through the city, while Governor Thomas Holliday Hicks, a staunch Unionist, was himself a slaveholder. [FIGURE 4 HERE]

Zouave jackets, popular in pre-war women’s costume and related military uniform. Fig. #5, below.

In the months after Lincoln’s inauguration, thousands of Maryland men flocked to the Union and Confederate colors, anticipating a brief, heroic conflict. The romance of war faded in the face of its brutal reality. The third major section of the exhibition, “Spontaneous Combustion,” traces the process of disillusionment and describes the actual conditions of war. An exhibit on camp life stresses war’s tedium (“then drill, then drill again”), while displays on battlefield tactics, medical care, imprisonment, and mourning underscore its horrors. A torn jacket worn by Major Richard Snowden Andrews, a Maryland volunteer in the Confederate Army, exemplifies the violence of battle: the lower portion of the jacket was ripped open by an explosion; its bent buttons show the impact on Andrews’ body. Astonishingly, Andrews survived his gruesome wound, though he wore a metal plate over his abdomen for the rest of his life. As Anne Schaeffer of Frederick, Maryland, observed, “So much trouble, expense and suffering to maim and murder each other.” [FIGURE 5 HERE]

African Americans at war: USCT battle flag and a Medal of Honor winner. Fig.#6, below.

The exhibition also presents the wartime experiences of sympathizers and supporters on both sides of the conflict, especially those of women. As one Maryland woman remarked, “Never again during our lives can such opportunities for noble deeds present themselves for women.” In addition to supporting their sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers, women served as spies and nurses, raised funds for relief, sewed banners and flags. One of the many striking objects on display is a magnificent, hand-painted battle flag presented to the “4th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops by the Colored Ladies of Baltimore.” Clara Barton and Harriet Tubman were among the Maryland women whose wartime efforts are well known, but many less-famous others, like Maria C. Hall, could look back at their wartime service with satisfaction: “I mark my Hospital days as my happiest ones.”[FIGURE 13 HERE]

The concluding area of the exhibition, The Long Reunion, recalls the aftermath of the war. Veterans’ organizations, reunions, and encampments perpetuated wartime camaraderie. Maryland Confederates far outpaced their Union counterparts in creating memorials and monuments and in publishing memoirs and histories. In effect, having lost the war, the Confederate veterans “won the peace.” As a result, the Lost Cause and the role of Marylanders in service to the Confederacy were greatly embellished. Moreover, the disaffection of Union and Confederate veterans persisted for generations after the war. Despite the overarching quote in this area (“War does not determine who is right—only who is left.”) and despite a few exceptional friendships among former enemies, the veterans “have never mixed in any manner with the other side—have no joint reunions, no joint banquets, no decoration or memorial days in common,” according to William H. Pope, Superintendent of the Maryland Line Confederate Soldiers home (1893).

Some Highlights

Divided Voices is notably successful in major ways. First, the exhibition considers a broad range of topics. The recruitment and performance of African Americans in the U.S. Colored Troops is a subject that is too little known; in this project, black soldiers are given legitimate recognition. The home front, and the roles of women in particular, are moved into the foreground, rather than being treated as an afterthought. It was unexpected in this context to find glass breast shields used by nursing women paired with a chemise with nursing slits to allow for breast feeding. Technology is given its due, both in relation to the significance of railroads and evolving weaponry, especially the remarkably destructive Minié ball. The sheer terror of battle and the horrors of maimed and slaughtered men are treated here in a compelling way.

Embedded in the exhibition are profiles of more than 30 Marylanders—black and white, notorious and unknown. Their “voices” help to personalize the issues, while providing a variety of perspectives on key events and movements. The narrative is also dramatized for visitors by two costumed living history actors representing a sergeant in the U.S. Colored Troops and the actor-assassin John Wilkes Booth; the two alternate in providing in-gallery monologues, followed by Q&A and gallery tours. Though the living history presentations are offered on a limited schedule, they are engrossing, informative, and, judging from observation of four groups of visitors, highly effective.

The “vacant chair,” abiding symbol of wartime loss. Fig.#7, below.

The real stars of Divided Voices, however, are the extraordinary array of Civil War memorabilia, much of it from the Society’s own outstanding collections. The rarity, richness, and significance of these collections are astonishing. Notable objects range from a pike used in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, to a single home-made sock worn by an ordinary Confederate soldier, to a “Vacant Chair” used in veterans’ ceremonies to honor those killed in the war. [FIGURE 6 HERE]

The exhibition narrative is substantiated, indeed driven, by its array of objects. In addition to the above exemplary items, Divided Voices displays a 34-star U.S. flag hung by a Lincoln supporter to celebrate his election in 1860; an apron made to resemble a Confederate flag created by a Rebel sympathizer; linen and leather haversacks and a bottle of Walnut Catsup; a mourning dress from Baltimore; a naval officer’s frock coat worn by Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan; and a Civil War surgeon’s kit of gleaming knives and saws, frightening in this context. The concluding section of the exhibition features two imposing and unusual objects–a large wooden cabinet that housed the “Records of the Army and Navy of the Confederate States in the State of Maryland,” displayed side-by-side with an analogous chest-on-stand from the Union Club of Baltimore (1863-1872).

Bucolic painting of Harper’s Ferry with memorabilia of John Brown’s raid. Fig.#8, below.

The objects and images are artfully displayed. At the opening of the exhibition, for example, visitors are confronted with a large, idyllic painting of Harper’s Ferry by Augustus C. Weidenbach (1863). The peaceful scene is powerfully juxtaposed with objects, images, and interpretive text that present John Brown’s violent attack on Harper’s Ferry and his subsequent execution. Brown’s abortive raid was launched from a Maryland farm and, as it happens, a Maryland militia unit were the first responders. Another artful juxtaposition is found in the exhibit on prisoners of war. A photo mural depicting a skeletal prisoner serves as backdrop for a wooden rosary, charms, bracelets, and rings carved by Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout Prison. The contrast in tone, scale, and materials is striking—and memorable. [FIGURE 2 HERE]

Other objects of folk art embellish the exhibition. The final object encountered by visitors is a shadow-box titled “Antietam National Cemetery Memorial” which was created in 1886 by John Philemon Smith, who, as a seventeen-year old, had witnessed the Battle of Antietam. This assemblage includes a list of Union soldiers who died in the battle, together with hundreds of souvenirs gathered on the battlefield. The centerpiece is a miniature replica of the Private Soldier Monument, placed at the cemetery in 1880. The effect is touching.

Quotes, photomurals, objects, and casework create a powerful effect. Fig.#9, below.

The exhibition’s clean layout and design are effective in showcasing the artifacts and in conveying the overall narrative. The enormous, room-size glass case in the center displays costume and related objects representative of the battlefield and the home front. Surrounding the central glass case are large photomurals, oversize quotes in first-person voice, free-standing reader rails, and casework displaying a wide range of military memorabilia. The graphics and quotes are well-chosen and well-executed, and the lighting and casework show off the objects and texts to great advantage. The exhibition and graphic design encourage close attention and somber reflection.[FIGURE 11 HERE]

The exhibition does have minor flaws, of course. The small size of some captions and tertiary texts makes them hard to read. The interpretive copy—main and secondary panel texts—are generally short and to the point, but some texts are choppy, assemblies of simple declarative sentences presumably written that way for accessibility. These could—and should–have been crafted as cohesive paragraphs. Here is one instance where a sharp editorial eye was needed:

“To Care for Him who shall have borne the battle”

Civil War medicine is often viewed as primitive. The source of infectious diseases had not yet been discovered and antibiotics did not exist. The truth is thousands of compassionate civilians and military men stepped up to make a terrible situation better. Anesthesia was commonly used and amputations were the best way to save lives. . . .

Here, meaning and clarity fall victim to compression, omission of contextual information and rigid sentence structure. Were amputations the “best way to save lives” from infectious diseases because “antibiotics did not exist?” Alternative phrasing such as, “Anesthesia was commonly used to provide relief, while amputation of shattered limbs saved thousands of lives,” might have resolved the mystery.

Interpretive Issues

But these minor defects in execution are not the primary concern: larger and more substantial issues color and distort Divided Voices. The first of these is the exaggeration of Marylanders’ role in Confederate service. The main text panel introducing the area devoted to battlefield combat baldly states that “Maryland sent 20,000 young men south and 60,000 more to Union regiments,” clearly signaling that three Marylanders served on the Union side for every man who served with the Confederacy. Although recent scholarship puts estimates of Maryland enlistments on both sides at a much lower level, they do agree that the ratio of Union to Confederate enlistments was three-to-one. In short, among Maryland men who served, a preponderance supported the Union cause, not the cause of secession and slavery.

However, the composition of exhibition elements would suggest exactly the opposite. Among white soldiers from Maryland profiled in the array of brief biographies, only one was a Union soldier, while seven are Maryland men who fought for the Confederacy, an imbalance only slightly offset by profiles of three African American soldiers in Union service. Similarly, Confederate sympathizers who are profiled outnumber those who were Union sympathizers.

Haversacks, tinware, and other ordinary objects of everyday life in the army. Fig#10. below.

The disparity is even more pronounced in terms of visitors’ experience of the exhibition and understanding of the story in the objects selected for display. Here large-scale Confederate items overwhelm their Union counterparts. From an experiential point of view, the objects far outweigh the interpretive texts. Any unwary visitor or, for that matter, any visitor who failed to read or remember the opening line of that one text panel would leave Divided Voices believing that Marylanders, certainly white Marylanders, mostly fought on the Rebel side. Southern sentiment was strong in Maryland (which had voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the presidential election of 1860), and especially in Baltimore and Southern Maryland. But it was nonetheless outweighed by sympathy, support, and service for the Union, among both white and black Marylanders. [FIGURE 10 HERE]

How did this misleading interpretation come about? For one thing, Confederate veterans and sympathizers were assiduous in preserving the memory of “the Lost Cause.” In their version of history, heroic Southerners led by dashing cavaliers and doughty sea dogs were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and industrial strength of the North, hell-bent on destroying an idyllic agrarian culture which sought only to maintain its traditional institutions and ancient liberties. Invested in the past, those on the losing side glorified their efforts in an unequal struggle, relegating their Union opponents to roles as ciphers in mass formations led by blood-thirsty mediocrities. This mythic re-telling of “the War between the States”—the name itself a key element of the myth–was embodied and sanctified in monuments, memorials, and a vast literature that far outweighed those of the Unionists. The exhibition text is rife with ‘Lost Cause’ language:

“An isolated, rural South was strangled and overwhelmed by an industrial North. Manufacturing and manpower won the war.”

“Maryland raider Harry Gilmore epitomized the danger and romance of . . . hit and run cavalry tactics.”

“The embodiment of the Southern cavalier . ..”

And so on.

More fundamentally, Divided Voices, despite welcome attention to the role of African Americans in the Union forces, has mostly passed over the core issues of slavery and racism. In fairness, two large panels near the exhibition opening do touch briefly on slavery in Maryland and the efforts of Maryland slaves to secure their liberty by service in the Union cause. These, however, are compromised. The concluding sentence of the main text dealing with slavery reads: “Collectively, most slave owners viewed abolitionism and the Republican Party as a [sic] threat to their wealth, culture and political influence.”

This critical interpretive text fails to represent the views of the slaves; instead, the view of slavery presented here is that of the white masters. As if to underscore this problem, the caption of an image on the same panel (in much smaller point size than the main text) reads in part: “Free African Americans and slaves . . . saw the war as an opportunity to strike a blow against the institution of slavery. Resistance increased significantly during the war, and Maryland slaves took advantage of the turmoil by fleeing to the Union Army, to the North, or free black communities in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.” In 1860, Maryland blacks were not divided on the abolition of slavery, and blacks constituted 100% of those enslaved. Surely their “voices” should be the ones we hear first on the subject, rather than those of the minority of slave owners.

Notwithstanding other texts that evoke black Marylanders’ yearning for freedom—most notably the text panel titled “He Will Fight” and a second panel devoted to an African American celebration of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment (1870)—there is a conspicuous silence in this exhibition on what would seem to be an important theme: the impact of the war on black Marylanders, slave and free alike. The emancipation of Maryland slaves through ratification of a state constitutional amendment in November 1864, the first such emancipation among the loyal, slave-owning Border States and arguably the most consequential “impact” of the Civil War on the State, is noted flatly in a single sentence at the end of the text panel “He Will Fight’: “Maryland abolished slavery in November 1864.” (A second, elliptical reference to the abolition of slavery in Maryland is found in the panel on the Fifteenth Amendment—“Six years after Maryland freed its slaves . . .”)

It might be argued that the long and complicated story of Maryland emancipation is unsuited to interpretation in an exhibition and that the exhibition focuses primarily on the military conflict and its repercussions, but the primal issue of slavery is invoked from the exhibition’s opening panel (and in the first sentences of the Society’s exhibition publicity). And rightly so, since the abolition of slavery in Maryland is as direct a consequence of the Civil War as the casualties of its many battles.

Of course, the struggle for emancipation preceded the war. But over the four years of brutal, bloody war, the conviction grew that Union victory must bring with it the death of slavery. This feeling established itself not only in President Lincoln, his cabinet, and Congressional leaders, but also among the hearts and minds of the rank-and-file of the Union army. The ratification of the constitutional amendment emancipating Maryland’s slaves in November 1864 was due to the votes cast by the state’s white Union soldiers. In his magisterial study, The Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson notes that “the men in blue also decided the outcome in several congressional districts, and the votes of Maryland soldiers for a state constitutional amendment abolishing slavery more than offset the slight majority of the home vote against it.” So, if the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 is worthy of note, how much more so the destruction of Maryland slavery. Yet the voices of slaves and freedmen on this decisive issue are muted.

The silence echoes, most obviously because of the Maryland Historical Society’s sponsorship of Fred Wilson’s landmark exhibition, Mining the Museum, in 1993. As Judith E. Stein reflects in Sins of Omission (Art in America, October 1993), Mining the Museum used the Society’s artifacts “to raise our awareness of institutionalized racism, making visible the subtle and insidious ways these attitudes affect the decisions museums make about what to collect and how to display it.” But Wilson had another, more positive point to make as well: African American history is American history (and all Americans should know and understand that history).

After nearly two decades of progress in acknowledging the centrality of the African American experience in Maryland, the Society seems to have taken a pause in Divided Voices, and this has skewed its curatorial emphasis and the interpretive focus of the exhibition. If the Society had, perfectly legitimately, chosen to restrict its narrative to the experiences of those who fought and died, I would raise no objection. But instead, the Society has chosen to open up the subject—the Civil War in Maryland–and then not followed through as effectively as it could.

Neither the 1864 Maryland Constitution nor the Civil War itself brought an end to racism. Neither transformed the ingrained attitudes of the white majority or the awareness of those attitudes by the black minority. Decades of segregation, discrimination, and injustice followed the war and remain among the state’s legacies of slavery and racism. But the Civil War did have a profound and lasting impact in Maryland: it freed nearly 90,000 enslaved people and put an end to efforts to legally re-enslave 90,000 free blacks.

In Adam Goodheart’s new book, 1861. The Civil War Awakening, he quotes a July 1861 colloquy between the Unionist author Nathaniel Parker Willis and an elderly black slave at Arlington House, newly evacuated by Robert E. Lee and his family and now occupied by Federal troops.

Willis: “Well, uncle, what do you think of the war?”

Slave: “Well, massa, it’s all about things we’ve been so long a putting up with.”

One hundred and fifty years of “putting up” still stand between us and the Civil War, but we can see that, here in Maryland, the Civil War was a milestone on the long, challenging road to a more just and equal society. With some modest revisions, Divided Voices can provide an even more insightful, meaningful narrative for contemporary visitors, white and black alike, for the duration of the Sesquicentennial.

By Avi Y. Decter, Contributing Writer

Avi Decter is executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, in Baltimore

Exhibit now at the Maryland Historical Society

April 2011 through Spring 2015 (with annual updates)

Main Gallery: 4,000 s.f.; Introduction Area: 950 s.f.

Curators: Burton Kumerow, Alexandra Deutsch, Heather Haggstrom, and Iris America Bierlein

Exhibition Design: Charles Mack Design

Graphic Design: PJ Bogert Graphic Design


Figure Notes:

 Figure 1. A display of photography equipment and photographic practice, c. 1860-65, introduces visitors to the first war in which photojournalism played a major role—bringing in the carnage of battle home to the public.

 Figure 2. Floor Plan. As this floor plan indicates, Divided Voices is laid out in a linear fashion with a room-size glass case at its center. Visitors follow a counter-clockwise path through the narrative, concluding their journey back at the entrance to the exhibition gallery.

 Figure 3.Lincoln won less than 3% of theMaryland vote in the 1860 presidential elections.Lincoln’s victory precipitated a secession movement across the Lower South, raising fears for “the safety of theUnion” among border state residents.

 Figure 4. The Pratt Street Riot in April 1861, in which Southern sympathizers attacked troops traveling to Washington in support of the Lincoln administration, led to the imposition of martial law in Baltimore for nearly four years.

Figure 5. The exotic Zouave jackets worn by several regiments of Union soldiers (right) had come into women’s fashion even before the war began as seen in the woman’s dress with Zouave jacket to the left.  A remarkable display of Civil War-era costume is presented in this central glass case. The mannequin on the left reveals the underpinnings of fashionable costume, including the use of “pockets” that were worn under the wearer’s skirt

 Figure 6. One of the most compelling objects on view is this tattered battle flag of the 4th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops, juxtaposed with a portrait of Medal of Honor winner Christian Fleetwood.

 Figure 7. The “vacant chair” became an abiding symbol of loss. BothUnion and Confederate veterans set out empty chairs at gatherings in remembrance of lost comrades.

 Figure 8. A large, bucolic oil painting of Harper’s Ferry by Augustus C. Weidenbach (1863) dominates the opening of Divided Voices. The painting serves as backdrop for weapons and other memorabilia associated with John Brown’s polarizing raid.

 Figure 9. The interplay of quotes, photomurals, objects, and casework in Divided Voices create a powerful effect. Note the canvas litter used to carry the wounded from the field of battle.

 Figure 10. The accoutrements of everyday life in the army are effectively set off against the photo mural in the background. Note the haversacks at center right and a bottle of walnut catsup at the far left.

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