Special Report

Civil War Artifacts in the Smithsonian

The museum collections house many items from the Civil War, including photographs, uniforms and personal diaries

Lincoln's Top Hat (National Museum of American History)

George T. Garrison's Trunk, National Museum of African American History and Culture

George T Garrison trunk
(National Museum of African American History and Culture )

This well-preserved leather trunk, believed to have been kept for years in an attic before being sold at auction, once belonged to First Lt. George T. Garrison, son of the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and an officer with the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, an outfit of black volunteer soldiers. Lt. Garrison, a white officer leading a unit of black troops, fought in every battle “with an exemplary record” and was said to have led the troops through the streets of captured Charleston, South Carolina, in February 1865, singing the popular Union ballad the “John Brown” song.

Garrison enlisted in the Civil War over the protestations of his father, who argued that slavery should be ended through peaceful means, says collections specialist Michele Gates-Moresi. “It was kind of this weird tension [William Lloyd Garrison] had; no compromise but also no war. Coming from this family, it was probably a big decision for [George Garrison] to participate in the war.” According to Gates-Moresi, secondary sources reveal that the senior Garrison later accepted the necessity of war. “He supported his son at the end.”

“We thought that story was interesting, just to let people know that it’s not this sort of black-and-white story where there’s pro-slavery people and there’s abolition people,” Gates-Moresi says. “There’s lots of people in between who have these issues, and that’s a way to get at those subtleties and nuances of the history.”

This trunk, “very much a period piece,” used for traveling, helps unpack those hidden stories and complicated truths.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is slated to open in 2015.

by Arcynta Ali Childs


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