Discoveries from the Vault

Select images from the American Civil War

In October 1862, Mathew Brady opened a photography exhibition at his studio in New York City. Entitled The Dead of Antietam, the exhibition attracted large crowds and brought the war home in a way that news articles and casualty listings could not. On October 20, 1862, an editorial in the New York Times explained that “the dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams.

Food Conservation during WWI: “Food Will Win the War”

When most people think of wartime food rationing, they think of World War II. However, civilians were encouraged to do their part for the war effort during World War I as well. This colorful poster by artist Charles E. Chambers was issued by the United States Food Administration to encourage voluntary food conservation. “Food Will Win the War” was the name of the campaign initiated by the newly appointed head of the agency, Herbert Hoover.

Patriotic Verse in a Schoolboy’s Math Book during the Revolutionary War

Between the pages of his math exercise book John Barstow jotted down a patriotic tune called “The Amaricans Challing” on January 2, 1777. Carefully written in a youth’s unsteady hand, the text appears to be a transcript of a popular camp song from the Revolutionary era. How this declaration of patriotism found its way into Barstow’s math lessons is unknown.

Civil War–era sketches by David Stauffer

When the Civil War broke out, David McNeely Stauffer (1845–1913) was only sixteen years old. While attending Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania from September 1861 through June 1863, he served brief, emergency enlistments when the state of Pennsylvania was threatened by Robert E. Lee’s forces. He joined the 2nd Pennsylvania Emergency Regiment in September 1862 and served until winter. In June 1863, he joined in the defense of Gettysburg with the 
Independent Battery of Pennsylvania.

Mother’s Day, 1919: “may you never get another letter from France as long as you live!”

What would be a better Mother’s Day present than learning that your child would be returning home from war? In 1919, thirty-year-old Lawrence Hopkins of the 305th Engineers was at the Forwarding Camp in Le Mans, France, awaiting orders to return home. On Wednesday, May 7, he wrote his mother in Ashtabula, Ohio, an early Mother’s Day letter in hopes he would be at sea by Sunday. With great excitement he announced the possibility of being home by Decoration Day (Memorial Day):

Abraham Lincoln, Mary Owens, and the accidental engagement

In 1836, Abraham Lincoln found himself in a tenuous situation. He was engaged to a woman he barely knew and didn’t want to marry. Mrs. Elizabeth Abell had been pushing for a romance between Lincoln and her sister, Mary Owens, whom Lincoln had met briefly in 1833. When Elizabeth went home to visit her family in Kentucky three years later, she said she would bring Mary back to Illinois if Lincoln would agree to marry her. Lincoln jokingly agreed. He realized the consequences of his rash statement when Mary came to New Salem and considered herself engaged.

Washington Dodge: Titanic Survivor, April 1912

One hundred years ago this weekend, the RMS Titanic sank, claiming the lives over 1,500 passengers and crew. In this account, Dr. Washington Dodge recounts his tale of survival. Written on board the RMS Carpathia during the three-day journey back to New York, this eyewitness account is one of the earliest and most compelling accounts of the disaster. Dodge’s handwriting and sentence phrasing offer a glimpse into his state of mind as he penned his testimony.

A Civil War soldier’s letters: “Save them if it cost the farm”

George Tillotson from Greene, New York, enlisted with the 89th New York Infantry in November of 1861. This ambrotype (photograph made on glass) and a series of letters from the summer of 1862 remind us that soldiers and their families faced hardships on the home front as well as on the battlefield. George had been in the army for five months and was stationed at Roanoke Island, North Carolina, when his wife, Libby, sent him the photograph featured here. The photograph was damaged in the mail and began a heartbreaking series of correspondence. 

Women in the Civil War: Vivandieres

Vivandieres, sometimes known as cantinieres, were women who followed the army to provide support for the troops. Ideally, a vivandiere would have been a young woman—the daughter of an officer or wife of a non-commissioned officer—who wore a uniform and braved battles to provide care for wounded soldiers on the battlefield. 

Romeo Smith: Slave, Soldier, Freeman

Born a slave, Romeo Smith of Windham, Maine, entered the Continental Army with the promise of freedom in exchange for military service. He served in the 7th Massachusetts for three years and was supposedly manumitted. Yet in January 1784, the threat of being reclaimed as a slave surfaced and Romeo sought the assistance of General Henry Knox. The document featured here is Knox’s retained draft certifying Smith’s freedom.

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