History is in the interpretation, and the new exhibition at the Historical Society of Princeton, “Princeton’s Civil War,” is more than the sum of its artifacts, documents, engravings, and photographs. The curators of the show, a husband and wife team, Howard and Julie Green, were particularly sensitive to two contemporary realities — that the United States is now at war and that racial equality remains an unresolved issue for our country. As a result, they worked hard both to emphasize the realities of war and to uncover the role played by Princeton’s African-American population, which the Greens estimate to have been 17 percent of the 4,000 residents at the time.
On Wednesday, November 29, the Historical Society of Princeton will present “Lincoln’s Suspension of Habeas Corpus: Citizenship in the Civil War,” a reading and panel discussion with distinguished scholars James M. McPherson, professor emeritus at Princeton University; Mark Neely, professor in the American Civil War era at Penn State University; Robert P. George, professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton, and Mark S. Weiner, associate professor of law at Rutgers School of Law. The event, which is free and open to the public, takes place in the Computer Science Building auditorium (near Olden Street).
In collaborating on the show, Howard, an American historian, and Julie, an American art historian, achieve a balance between text and artifact, historical overview and Princeton specifics, a blending of their scholarly backgrounds with the availability of artifacts and documents. Julie has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in art history from Rutgers, where her focus was on American 19th and early 20th-century art.
Howard has a B.S. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a master’s degree in history from the State University of New York, Albany, and has done additional graduate work in history at Rutgers. He worked for 25 years at the New Jersey Historical Commission in Trenton, and while he was research director he wrote “Words That Make New Jersey History,” a book of primary source documents on New Jersey history. He left to found a consulting firm, Public History Partners.
During the Civil War, Princeton was populated primarily by shopkeepers, artisans, and farmers. And yet, perhaps because the town was home to a former and current senator and the sitting governor, and was the location of the College of New Jersey as well as the headquarters of the powerful Delaware and Raritan Canal Company, some perceived the town had an “aristocratic air.”
Needless to say, the prominent people left more evidence of their lives, and they appear throughout the exhibit, but the Greens did what they could to provide a broader sweep of Princeton residents and how they were affected by the war. Howard says that providing coverage of African-American Princetonians in the exhibit became a balance between finding objects and telling the story. “We were short on objects, but mentioned wherever we could that they played an important role.”
Early in the exhibit is a photograph with an accompanying story about James C. “Jimmy” Johnson, who had escaped from slavery in 1843 in Maryland and ended up in Princeton. Unfortunately, a college student who lived near Johnson’s owner recognized him and a court deemed that Johnson had to be returned to Maryland. At that point, a Miss Theodosia Prevost donated the $550 necessary to buy him out, tantamount to about $14,000 today, and Johnson paid her back with the money he earned as a licensed campus fruit vendor.
The Greens also included documents about African Americans trying to get benefits for their family members who died in the U.S. Colored Troops. Legally both widows and mothers who had been supported by their sons were eligible for benefits but they had to prove their identities. A woman named Elizabeth Baird wrote a letter in support of an employee of the Edgehill School, calling her “a worthy servant in the institution.”
Pointing out a recruiting poster for African-American soldiers, with the words “Come and Join Us Brothers” across the top, Howard says that in his research he came across no signs of recruiting among the students at the College of New Jersey.
One of the Princeton locals who merits a short biography in the exhibition is David Hunter, grandson of Richard Stockton, a Princeton signer of the Declaration of Independence, who did a lot for African Americans during the war. Once they were recruited in 1863, says Howard, the South made it clear that it would treat harshly any African Americans it captured; in response Hunter wrote a letter to the Confederate General Beauregard that he would retaliate if any of his men were ill-treated. Hunter also abolished slavery in the area under his command but had his order countermanded by Lincoln for political reasons.
The exhibition describes Hunter’s “pioneering racial politics” — the African-American veterans of Princeton named their Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) post after him. It is telling that there was a separate post for the white veterans, and the curators suggest that Princeton was not unambivalently anti-slavery, by any means. Indeed the closing words of the exhibit, which follow a description of the changes wrought by the Civil War, suggest we may not have come as far as we think: “The largely unresolved issue of racial equality was left to future generations, including our own.”
The section of the exhibit titled “The Long War in the Field” comprises photos and artistic renderings of battle scenes, with cards underneath identifying Princetonians who participated, were wounded, or were killed. There are several examples of what were the most up-to-the minute pictorial reflections of the war — engravings from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly.
Maps indicating the sites of battles also helped people visualize how the war was progressing. One such map, showing the northern part of the eastern front, is on the wall in the second of the three rooms housing the exhibition. It came to light when a board member of the Historical Society mentioned at a meeting, “I own something you might want.”
The Civil War was one of the first wars to be photographed and several disturbing pictures are on display. Since the exhibition will be visited by schoolchildren, the curators and the board struggled with how realistically to depict the battles and casualties of the war. Since one of the goals is to “show how the war was experienced on the home front,” they decided to include battlefield photos but to put the more difficult pictures — like one showing a Federal soldier disemboweled by a shell — above the line of sight of younger children. The only photo that is at eye level is a blow-up of a battlefield scene that serves as background for the smaller mounted photos and illustrations. In it, most of the dead men are hazy shadows, and although the two in the foreground are quite clear, no wounds are visible.
Howard feels it is important to bring forward the reality of death (there were 620,000 fatalities in the Civil War, which would be proportionate to 5 million today). “Particularly at a moment like this, it is important to make people understand that war is about bloodshed,” he says.
The curators also include vivid texts that bring home the grim consequences of war. For example: a description in the Princeton Standard of a soldier, part of a prison exchange, who had been held in Andersonville, Georgia: “He is so enfeebled and has lost so much flesh, that he is almost a skeleton, and stands to-day a living monument of the barbarism of the slave holders rebellion.”
Some pieces in the exhibit bring the past right up into the present. A Civil War era picture of Nassau Hall and the fence along Nassau street could have been contemporary, but for the two men standing in the foreground in cricket uniforms.
Many of the Princetonians featured in the exhibit will be familiar to viewers as the sources of Princeton street names. One example is Robert Field Stockton, who led an expedition that brought Liberia under the control of the American Colonization Society, a group whose goal was repatriating emancipated slaves to Africa. Another, Charles Olden, was elected governor in 1859. A third, Charles Hodge, was a Calvinist theologian. Although he originally defended slavery because the Bible sanctioned it, he eventually became an abolitionist and supporter of Lincoln. As Howard tells it, “He finally concluded that the American institution of slavery in the plantation South should end because it was so degrading, but not because it was inherently a sin to own other human beings.”
A telegram sent by the father of a student from Canton, Mississippi, to the university reminds us that Princeton was already a college town in 1861: “Send John and Willie Dawes home immediately if safe. I will remit money to pay all expenses, give them necessary advice.”
Another “college town” story, illustrated by several documents and pictures, recounts an incident in which three perhaps overly patriotic pro-Union students doused a Southerner with water from a pump and were expelled as a result. Here is a news commentary on the event, labeled as “correspondence of the New York Times”: “The Union-loving students could not suppress their patriotic indignation, and, accordingly, upon Thursday seized one of the most ultra Secessionists in the institution, and, placing him under the college pump, endeavored to put out the secessionist fire which had so seared his heart.”
The exhibit also contains the more expected types of artifacts: a uniform (unusual in that it was found in a Princeton attic of a descendant of the man whose name was written on the inside of the trousers), musket and bayonet, canteen, sewing kit, games, swords, a knapsack. But two items are a little different. One is the visiting card, complete with a miniature picture, of the wife of a Dr. Satterthwaite; he carried the card with him and inscribed in tiny script the names of the battles he witnessed on the back. The other is an early version of the dog tag, made of oil cloth. These started to be used midwar, after 4,000 bodies could not be identified after the Battle of Gettysburg.
Although the majority of items comes from the Historical Society of Princeton’s collection, the curators used a variety of sources. John Shaw Pierson, Princeton Class of 1840, collected ephemera right after the war and eventually donated his collection to the university, where it is held in the rare books collection. They also used archives at Princeton and Rutgers. John Kuhl, an historian in Hunterdon County who has been collecting artifacts of the New Jersey Civil War for 50 years, was generous with his time, says Howard. So was Joe Bilby, curator of the National Guard Museum in southern New Jersey and an expert on weaponry and how warfare was conducted during the Civil War, and Terry Nelson, the local history librarian at Princeton Public Library.
Eileen Morales, staff curator at the Historical Society of Princeton, worked with the Greens on the exhibit. Morales, who has a bachelor’s degree in art history from Bryn Mawr and a master’s from CUNY, worked for the Museum of the City of New York for 11 years as the head of its research department. She says that Gail Stern, the former director who died recently of cancer, initiated the grant application to the New Jersey Historical Commission to help fund this exhibition.
Howard Green has thought a lot about the role of the Civil War in American history. “I spent a lot of time trying to appreciate why the Civil War has a hold on the American imagination the way it does,” he says. It’s not like the issues were crystal clear. The typical Southerner, he explains, did not own slaves but fought to preserve the rights of the Confederate states to own slaves and extend slavery into the territories. And the Northern emphasis on preserving the Union, he believes, was “at best an abstract concept.” After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 the war “became about ending slavery in the rebellious states,” yet “there was an ambivalence on the part of the men fighting.” Howard suggests that most of the men in the north “didn’t give two hoots about slavery.”
Whatever the motivations, it was a time of agony for the nation, a time when “brothers fought brothers for ill-defined purposes.” And perhaps this exhibition, which shines the spotlight on Princeton during the Civil War, is trying to chide us a bit that we, as Princetonians and as Americans, are still fighting each other for ill-defined purposes, both within our country and with other nations.
“Princeton’s Civil War,” through July 15, Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street. Exhibition featuring images and newspaper accounts documenting the town and university’s response to the outbreak of the war. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Free admission. 609-921-6748, www.princetonhistory.org.
Also, “Lincoln’s Suspension of Habeas Corpus: Citizenship in the Civil War,” Wednesday, November 29, 7 p.m., Computer Science Building auditorium (near Olden Street), a reading and panel discussion with scholars James M. McPherson, Mark Neely, Robert P. George, and Mark S. Weiner. Free and open to the public. RSVP via E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 609-921-6748.