Civil Discourse

A new Folkways album is one of many offerings for the war sesquicentennial. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

The threat of a Confederate attack on Washington was on the minds of many in the capital city 150 years ago this summer, including Mary Anna Henry, daughter of the Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry, who was provided with 12 muskets to defend the Smithsonian Castle. The Castle’s tower was a good vantage for looking beyond the Potomac into Virginia, so Mary was anxious after climbing up on July 16, 1861, and spotting Union soldiers crossing the river to confront nearby Confederate troops.

President Lincoln himself ascended the tower to participate in military signaling experiments and, encouraged by Secretary Henry, he met T.S.C. Lowe, an aeronaut who sent the world’s first air telegram to Lincoln from a balloon near today’s National Air and Space Museum. As a result, Lincoln supported plans to form a Union Army Balloon Corps. The museum’s celebration of these events will include a Civil War family day on June 11, with hands-on activities and an actual balloon, and a symposium on June 17.

The Smithsonian will offer many Civil War sesquicentennial programs over the next five years, with extensive coverage in these pages. The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) occupy the former Patent Office Building, which served as a Union hospital. Walt Whitman and Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, cared for wounded Union soldiers there. In March 1865, the building was the site of Lincoln’s second inaugural ball. On July 28, SAAM will commemorate its Civil War heritage with actors portraying Whitman, Barton and Lincoln, and an NPG exhibition recounts the death of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, the first Union officer to be killed in the war, and a friend of Lincoln’s.

Smithsonian Folkways recently released “A Treasury of Civil War Songs”; the National Postal Museum’s Web site has war-related material and a virtual tour of Lincoln stamps; and the Smithsonian will offer free resources on iTunes U. The National Museum of American History (NMAH) explores the war in a large section of “The Price of Freedom” exhibition, and until July 29 a diary, photo albums and letters of Civil War nurse Amanda Akin will be on display. Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and NMAH director Brent Glass will be blogging about the Civil War for the Washington Post.

Through our collections and with the help of experts in a wide variety of disciplines, the Smithsonian aims to offer many insights on the Civil War, insights that we hope will help Americans think critically about our country’s present and future challenges. More information about the sesquicentennial can be found at

G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

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