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Civil War’s Words Come to Life


Long after they’ve died, their words still resonate, although the letters are faded and the newspapers yellowed.

The letter Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote declining a Union Army command.

As soldiers, wives, journalists, and generals, they described the terrible forces threatening to rip the nation apart, and then the ensuing war.

Now, 150 years after the start of the Civil War, you can read their words, starting on Nov. 6, in a unique blog “Today in the Cvil War,” http://rosenbach.org/civilwar, which will post materials from the Civil War on the same date as the day it was written. The papers are part of the collection of the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia.

The posts will continue daily for five years – the duration of the war. A picture of the letter, journal, newspaper or manuscript will appear, along with the text of what it says.

A companion exhibit, “The Civil War Begins,” takes place at the Rosenbach Museum from Dec. 15, 2010 to July 17, 2011.

That exhibit examines the themes – slavery, state’s rights, the election of Lincoln and the Battle of Fort Sumter, among others – that ultimately led to the Cvil War.

“Through the words of the people, you can really get a look inside their head,” says Katherine Haas, an assistant curator at Rosenbach. “It’s really interesting to see what this felt like on the ground.”

The exhibit includes key documents such as General Robert E. Lee’s letter of resignation to Winfield Scott, who had offered him a command in the Union forces; General P.G.T. Beauregard’s report on the First Battle of Manassas; and the papers of Elmer Ellsworth, the first to be killed in the conflict as he attempted to remove a Confederate flag in Arlington, Va.

After Ellsworth was killed, people from all over the country wrote tributes.

“I find them really poignant because in May of 1861, people had the time and energy to mourn this one person,” Haas says. “They thought the war would be short – they didn’t realize that tens of thousands would be dying.”

The exhibit focuses on writings; journals comprise part of the exhibit, and some of their entries will be posted on the blog project.

The wealth of materials was the biggest challenge for the exhibit’s curators.

“Our collection is really, really rich in materials, so it’s been hard to narrow it down,” Haas says, explaining that materials will be swapped during the exhibit to limit their exposure to light.

As part of the celebration, jazz pianist and composer Dave Burrell will perform “Portraits of Civil War Heroes,” a suite of five new compositions inspired by the museum’s Civil War materials. The performances will take place from  6pm to 8pm on Wednesday, January 19, 2011 and from 3pm to 5pm on Saturday, January 22, 2011.

The Rosenbach Museum and Library is housed in an 1860s townhouse in the Rittenhouse-Fitler historic district in Center City Philadelphia. It contains the collections of the Rosenbach brothers, who collected everything from letters from George Washington to Bram Stoker’s notes for “Dracula,” along with paintings, textiles, furniture and maps.

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