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)

The Spotsylvania Stump, National Museum of American History

The Spotsylvania Stump
(National Museum of American History)

Shorn and riddled with bullets from one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, the Spotsylvania Stump is a reminder of the brutality and viciousness of war.

Mere feet divided Confederate and Union soldiers during the Battle of the Spotsylvania Courthouse, on May 12, 1864. An oak tree, its trunk measuring 22 inches across, ended up on the receiving end of hundreds of bullets, shattering and splintering until it was reduced to just a stump.

“It was a full-grown, live tree when the Battle at Spotsylvania Courthouse started, and within 20 hours it was shot to pieces,” says curator David Miller. “Over 2,000 men died within a couple hundred yards of that tree. It was some of the worst fighting of that whole campaign.”

According to Miller, Gen. Nelson Miles, who fought in the battle, acquired the stump for the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Museum. Sometime later it was transferred to the Smithsonian, where it currently resides in the National Museum of American History. Its location in the gallery is strategic—across from a case displaying all the new types of weaponry available during the Civil War and next to a case about Civil War medicine that shows the surgical tools and prosthetic limbs used on wounded soldiers. “It’s kind of in that area that shows the horrors of the Civil War,” Miller said. “I think it just symbolizes the incredible violence.”

by Arcynta Ali Childs


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