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NYS Museum exhibit looks at New York’s role in Civil War

Sunday, September 23, 2012
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This cross-stitched potholder celebrated President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It is part of the exhibition “An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War” at the New York State Museum. (photo: Courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society)
This cross-stitched potholder celebrated President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It is part of the exhibition “An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War” at the New York State Museum. (photo: Courtesy of the Chemung County Historical Society)

The horror of the battlefield seldom made it north of the Mason-Dixon Line during the Civil War, but that doesn’t mean that the North, particularly the state of New York, came away from those four tragic years unscathed.

“There were no battles fought here, but New Yorkers made a huge contribution on the battlefield, the political arena, and in the arguments and ideas that the war was fought over,” said Aaron Noble, a history collections technician at the New York State Museum in Albany.

“John Brown, coming out of North Elba near Lake Placid, really ignited the war, and we had many generals, most notably Phil Sheridan, who were New Yorkers.”

Brown, Sheridan and others with strong ties to New York, such as William Seward, the U.S. secretary of state and former governor, and abolitionist leaders Gerrit Smith and Frederick Douglass, are among the subjects sharing the spotlight in an exhibit titled “An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War.” The display opened to the public on Saturday and will remain in the museum’s Exhibition Hall for a full year.

While many individuals from New York played an important role in the war effort, the state’s major contribution came in lives lost.

‘An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War’

WHERE: New York State Museum, 222 Madison Ave., Albany

WHEN: Through Sept. 22, 2013. Museum open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: 474-5877, www.nysm.nysed.gov

“New York was the most populated and most industrial state in the Union, and it contributed more money, material and men to the cause than any other state,” said Noble. “More New Yorkers were killed during the Civil War than from any other state.”

Along with numerous historic images from the Civil War era, the exhibit includes artifacts and various articles of clothing.

“We have the state militia uniform that was worn at the First Battle of Bull Run, and we have uniforms from the New York Zouaves and the Scottish Highlander

regiments,” said Noble. “We also have Abraham Lincoln’s life mask, and we touch a lot on Lincoln and his relationship to New York. During the elections of 1862 the state turned to the Democrats, and in 1864, when Lincoln was running [for re-election] against General George McClellan, he carried New York but by a much smaller margin than in most of the other states.”

The exhibit isn’t restricted to just the state museum’s collection. The Lincoln life mask is on loan from the New-York Historical Society, and a number of images and artifacts are from other museums around the state.

New approach

“This exhibition is kind of a new model for the museum,” said Noble, a native of Canton up by the St. Lawrence River. “We’re using exhibits from different libraries and archives, and we’re borrowing items from smaller museums and historical societies all across the state. Our latest count was up to 27 different institutions being included, and that was one of our goals. We really wanted to make this a statewide exhibit, so we have items from the Buffalo area, St. Lawrence County and down to the Southern Tier. Every part of the state is represented in this exhibit.”


When General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife were unable to attend Ford’s Theater, the Lincoln’s invited the Clara Harris, the daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris and a friend of Mrs. Lincoln’s and her fiancé, Maj. Henry Rathbone. Rathbone, a veteran of the war, struggled with John Wilkes Booth and suffered severe knife wounds before Booth made his escape. (photo: New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections)

Among the photographs on display will be images of Elmer Ellsworth, a Malta resident, personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, and the first Union officer to be killed during the Civil War. Also, two other Capital Region men, Albany’s Maj. Henry Rathbone and Union College professor Elias Peissner, will be featured in the exhibit. Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, were with the Lincolns at Ford’s Theatre the night of the assassination, and Peissner was a popular professor at Union and a colonel with the 119th New York Infantry Regiment before being killed at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863.

“Many of these are from private collections, so they’ve never been seen before by the public,” said Noble. “Elmer Ellsworth, a Capital District guy who was close to the president, is in the exhibit, and we also have many images of Lincoln, some of them prior to him taking office.”

Those people interested in the history of the abolition movement will appreciate a rare photo of Douglass, who spent much of his life in the Rochester area.

“One of the things I thought was really exciting was one of the earliest known images of Frederick Douglass that we’ll have on display,” said Noble. “It’s on loan from the Onondaga Historical Association out in Syracuse, and it’s a great picture of him as a young man. We believe it’s from as early as 1850, and that it was taken in Boston prior to him going to London.”

“An Irrepressible Conflict” also points out the disunion during the war within the North itself.

“New York City had the worst civil disturbance during the war because of the draft riots,” said Noble, “but what people may not know is that Troy also had some riots over the draft. They had to call in the militia to stop it. It’s a good example of how not everyone was on board with the war effort in the North.”

Prewar years

The exhibit also gives visitors an idea of what life was like just before the outbreak of the Civil War, as well as the war’s aftermath.

“We take you through the history of New York during the antebellum period, the prewar years, then obviously the four years of the war, and then through Reconstruction and the war’s legacy,” said Noble. “It was America’s bloodiest war up to that time, and while it did a lot to address slavery and racial issues, did it really solve them? During the 1960s, the country was still struggling with those issues.”

The name of the exhibit refers to a statement by Seward in which he opined about the inevitability of war three years before the South fired on Fort Sumter. An 1820 graduate of Union College, Seward delivered a speech in Rochester in October of 1858 and said of the impending hostilities, “It is an irrepressible conflict, between opposing and enduring forces.”

 
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