Newberry's Civil War exhibit moves beyond the battles

Library's exhibit offers fresh, engaging perspective

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In the landscape painting "Hunter Mountain, Twilight," context is everything.

It was painted in 1866, after the nation, too, had been denuded by the Civil War. And the artist, Sanford Robinson Gifford, had served in the Union Army and lost a brother in the war.

So the purple twilight means more than just the dimming of a day in New York's Catskill Mountains. And the stumps in a field that occupy the image's foreground are more that just the remnants of felled trees.

Somber and mournful, the painting is the powerful closing image of a new exhibition at the Newberry Library, "Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North," that itself paints a nuanced picture of what the war was like for those not directly involved in battle or statesmanship.

When we think of the Civil War, it is often in terms of blues and grays battling grimly in a field or, thanks to recent popular culture, of President Abraham Lincoln steering the nation through it.

But "Home Front," opening Friday, delivers a fresh and thoroughly engaging perspective.

It uses paintings of the period, scores of documents from the Newberry's trove, the era's patriotic sheet music and new recordings of some of the songs, and objects ranging from a woman's dress showing the seepage of military uniforms into fashion to a Myriopticon, a postwar Milton Bradley toy that encouraged children to revisit grisly scenes from the conflict via a backlit, box-mounted scroll.

The historical library, in organizing the show in conjunction with Chicago's Terra Foundation for American Art, wanted to tell a Civil War story that visitors might not be so familiar with, said Daniel Greene, exhibit co-curator and the Newberry's vice president for research and academic programs.

Separate sections address the cotton trade in advance of the war, the concurrent American Indian Wars in the west, the role of women and how the war played out in Chicago.

"What this show shows is that even if you're at a distance from war, you are intimately bound with it," Greene said.

And if that happens to make you think about the distance we've had in contemporary America from our wars, well, that's just fine with Greene and co-curator Peter John Brownlee, the Terra Foundation's associate curator.

Three years in the making, "Home Front" is timed to run during the 150th anniversary year of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and is, the library reminds us in a news release, "Chicago's Only Major Sesquicentennial Civil War Exhibition." (Springfield's Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum has a pretty full agenda planned around the speech's Nov. 19 anniversary date.)

Too commonly, the war is thought of as a battle to free the Southern slaves, says Greene, a historian by training.

"I would like to reframe it as a contest over the westward expansion of slavery," he says, and the exhibition makes the point with maps showing the vast West, neither slave nor free, and with the poignant section on the wars with American Indians, often overlooked because of the country's primary conflict.

The Newberry is, primarily, a documents collection: books, maps, sheet music — flat things you are not allowed to touch.

But it does remarkably well mixing it up in this show. This is not to say an original copy of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" is anything to sneeze at (or, certainly, on). And the maps are, in fact, fascinating as depictions both of physical reality and of mindset.

But, Greene allows, "it's hard to look at documents too much in an exhibition."

So many of "Home Front's" objects have a noticeable third dimension, and the material isn't only on a wall or under glass.

In addition to the children's toy and the dress (borrowed from the Chicago History Museum, with an 18-inch waist), there's a printing press of the era and a real vintage stereoscope along with replicas that visitors can try. The dominant type of stereoscope, you may learn or be reminded, was invented by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Stereograms (or -graphs) and the scopes used to view them were the popular 3-D technology of the day. People would collect cards bearing side-by-side images, mount one on the device and move it back and forth along a pole until the two pictures became one to the viewer's hooded eyes. If nothing else, trying these out will remind museumgoers to never again complain about a dearth of TV viewing options.

Visitors can also participate, via a terminal in the exhibition and on their computers at home, in a crowdsourcing project: the transcription of some of the letters the Newberry has from Illinois Civil War soldiers (publications.newberry.org/civilwarletters). "Aid research and help enrich the historical record," it urges.

Many of the show's wartime songs will play on your smartphone after you scan the QR code, or you can just use the exhibition's iPad to hear the likes of "The Bonnie Flag With the Stripes and Stars" and "The Empty Sleeve."

The lyrics, as with most things in a wartime culture, tend to be direct: "That empty sleeve, it is a badge/ Of bravery and of honor." And: "We do not want your cotton, we care not for your slaves/ But rather than divide this land, we'll fill your southern graves."

The curators note that depictions of amputees and of war dead were commonplace, a striking contrast to the active suppression of such images in recent American conflicts.

The exhibition's many illustrations from the popular magazines, especially Harper's Weekly (the self-proclaimed "Journal of Civilization"), are, like the songs, explicit in depicting and sometimes guiding popular sentiment.

So in the section on women, we see Winslow Homer's illustration of women sewing havelocks — cap extensions — for Union soldiers, the traditional sewing circle given patriotic purpose.

The paintings from the Terra Foundation — its Michigan Avenue museum closed in 2004 but it continues to show the collection via shows such as "Home Front," which the foundation also underwrote — offer more subtle messaging.

Homer's "On Guard" shows a boy on a fence, watching over ominous empty fields, presumably in his father's absence. Frederic E. Church's "Our Banner in the Sky," which opens the exhibition and is used as its title image, depicts the American flag as colors in the sky, evanescent and tattered, with only a bare tree serving as flagpole.

Church painted it intending to stir patriotism after the confederate attack on Fort Sumter, S.C.

So it is fitting that in the exhibition's final section, on the war's end and effects, the magazine illustration of another flag at Fort Sumter shows it in one piece again, properly mounted.

It is a hopeful, stirring image. But the materials around it, including the Hunter Mountain painting, suggest a new and much more complicated reality for the country. How it got there is a story that "Home Front" tells well.

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter@StevenKJohnson

'Home Front:

Daily Life in the Civil War North'

When: Friday through March 24

Where: Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St. (312) 943-9090, newberry.org

Tickets: Free

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