Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War opens April 16
Charleston and Fort Sumter get all the attention this week, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s inception, but no blood was shed–as you probably learned as schoolchildren in Baltimore–until the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment marched to Camden Station along Pratt Street in the infamous Pratt Street Riot. The rest of us, schooled in far-flung districts, probably didn’t learn about that until we moved here.
Baltimore’s (and Maryland’s) role in the Civil War is important and fascinating, and while most of us know the big stories–the riot, the guns on Federal Hill, the mayor and members of legislature jailed at Fort McHenry when President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus–it’s the smaller stories that stand out in the Maryland Historical Society’s new exhibit Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War, which opens this Saturday.
Take Clara Barton, for example. The founder of the Red Cross, Barton was a nurse who grew to prominence treating wounded soldiers. She was one of the first to tend injuries on Pratt Street. Or the story of Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood, a “free person of color” and Baltimorean who received the Medal of Honor for rescuing the flag during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm near Richmond. City Paper got a peek at the exhibition Wednesday, and actor Kofi Owusu brought Fleetwood to life for a moment, giving the assembled reporters a taste of the museum’s straightforward approach to the complex war.
Divided Voices focuses on Baltimore and Maryland’s divided nature, naturally, and leads visitors through the war’s early phases–”The Romantic War,” the grisly realities of war, and “The Long Reunion,” the decades-long struggle to reconcile Union and Confederacy in the Free State.
There’s not much in the way of high-tech here–the exhibit’s lone gimmicky exhibit consists of a video presentation of period stereoscopic cards that depict the Massachusetts Infantry defending the Patapsco Viaduct. Museum-goers fit a pair of simple cardboard 3-D glasses and gawk at a screen, and instead of having mortars explode at them, grim-faced Union troops stand slightly forward in the frame for the minute it took the camera to expose their image. It’s low-tech but kinda history-geeky cool.
Instead, the exhibit relies on historical interpretation, relics, photographs, and testimonials–similar to way Ken Burns told the story of the Civil War–and it’s a rather engaging, well-assembled collection. It includes a carbine rifle from John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, period clothing–including a hoop dress with hidden compartments where smugglers and spies could conceal messages and medicine–and a Union flag a Baltimore man hung from his Baltimore Street window for Lincoln’s 1860 and 1864 inaugurations, as well as the funeral procession. This was a risky statement in a city full of Confederate sympathizers, Chief Curator Alexandra Deutsch said. Fewer than 2 percent of the city’s voters cast their ballots for Lincoln in 1860, she said, which made for tense times in Baltimore, when expressing Southern sympathies could land you in a jail cell.
The Maryland Historical Society, formed in 1844, drew from its large collection of Confederate relics. Many of the society’s founders and contributors were Southerners–both soldiers and sympathizers, Deutsch said–and the Historical Society has added Union artifacts over the years. What’s emerged is a fairly comprehensive view of the fissures within the city and state.
The exhibit preview over, CP chatted up Deutsch and museum director Burt Kummerow. Kummerow, as it turns out, marked both the 100th and 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and even spent time as a re-enactor, a hobby he now dismisses as a “trivialization” of war: “It’s just guys playing with guns.” After pondering the medical portion of the exhibit, included in “The Real War,” and the war’s aftermath, particularly the story of a popular song of the era, “The Vacant Chair,” that conclusion is obvious.
Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War opens April 16 at the Maryland Historical Society.