Newberry's Civil War exhibit moves beyond the battles

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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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