Senate exhibit shows an active chamber during the Civil War

Of all the Civil War narratives, few focus on Congress’s activity during that era, but a new exposition on Capitol Hill is striving to change that.

“The Senate’s Civil War,” an exhibit in the first-floor corridor of the Capitol’s Senate wing, chronicles Congress’s part in this seminal era of American history.

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“Part of the story that’s left out is what was happening in Congress — it was an active and productive time,” said Associate Senate Historian Betty Koed, whose office collaborated with the Office of the Senate Curator (OSC) and the Government Printing Office (GPO) to create the display.

In planning this presentation, Koed added, they wanted to “shift the focus to what the Senate was doing to deal with secession and continue the legislative process during this crisis time period.”

The exhibit, positioned between the crypt and the Senate appointment desk, is made of 13 separate panels displaying photos, paintings and drawings centered around the upper chamber from the 1850s onward.

Accompanying each piece is a paragraph of description; taken together, the passages weave a coherent narrative of the Civil War and the legislature’s role in it. Each panel is crowned by quotations from senators, journalists and members of the Architect of the Capitol’s office, and finished with a florid display.

Images in the display show scenes ranging from the bloody Battle of the Ball’s Bluff to President Lincoln’s first inauguration. In one cartoon, for instance, Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) is splayed across the Senate floor as Sen. Preston Brooks (D-S.C.) bludgeons him with a cane. In another image, a portrait of Sen. Hiram Rhodes Revels (D-Miss.) depicts the first black senator perched regally on a wooden armchair, peering out at the world.

Beginning with the conflicts and compromises of the antebellum era and finishing with Reconstruction, the exposition touches on Sen. Jefferson Davis’s (D-Miss.) 1861 resignation from Congress, the Confederates’ surrender and Lincoln’s assassination, among other watershed moments. The exposition also features visual aids such as a bird’s-eye view of Washington in 1861, a chart of senators’ recorded military service in the war and a copy of the 13th Amendment (which officially abolished slavery), as proposed, from the National Archives.

Ultimately, the exposition suggests that even though senators were seceding from the chamber and the military was largely propelling the events of the Civil War, Congress continued to fulfill its legislative duties during those years, even passing several pieces of landmark legislation.

The exhibit was launched in December 2010, exactly 150 years after the first senators left the chamber as their states seceded. The display is part of a four-year effort by the Senate Historical Office, in collaboration with the OSC, to recognize the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. The commemoration includes a series of online features and a 32-page booklet to be released within the next month.

The “collaborative process” of assembling the display was complicated, Koed said. About a year ago, Koed’s office, the OSC and the GPO began thinking about the approaching sesquicentennial, which museums, schools and libraries nationwide planned to recognize as well.

The Senate Historian’s office began by writing a narrative of the entire Civil War, which it handed off to the curators to find complementary images. From the Senate Historical Office’s collection of 40,000 images, woodcuts and drawings — in addition to the Library of Congress’s vast collections — the curator’s office compiled an illustration to accompany the entire story. Then, Koed said, the team set about “boiling it down.”

“It’s a very large story that we had to tell in a few paragraphs of text and a few precisely chosen images, and that’s always a very big challenge” in creating exhibits. However, she added, “it’s also a fun part of the challenge — it makes you work at your writing and storytelling skills to get a complete story in a short amount of space.”

Koed noted that the team also sought to include a variety of image types to make the exhibit aesthetically interesting. “We wanted to bring faces to people. Faces on the wall pull people in,” she added of the portraits in the display.

Indeed, passers-by seem to readily notice and enjoy the exhibit. On a recent visit to the Capitol, Honolulu native Carla Thomas said she liked exploring the Senate’s story throughout the Civil War. “There’s so much to know and learn about, so it’s nice to have little excerpts,” she said.

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