Smithsonian Perspectives

In its early days, the Smithsonian faced the Civil War, a disastrous fire and a vastly uncertain future

Smithsonian Castle
Looking out from the Smithsonian Castle in the middle of the National Mall, one has a bird's-eye view of much of the pageant of American history. Library of Congress

One of my predecessors as Secretary of the Smithsonian, S. Dillon Ripley, titled this column "The view from the castle." I understand why he did. Looking out from the Smithsonian Castle in the middle of the National Mall, one has a bird's-eye view of much of the pageant of American history as it has unfolded in our nation's capital.

There were times, of course, when the Smithsonian's location put it a little too close to the events of the day. Perhaps no greater example of this was the era of the Civil War, when the Smithsonian shared the nation's agony and the capital's vulnerability. And the Smithsonian was not just vulnerable in a physical sense. It had been launched in 1846, not quite 15 years before the start of hostilities, and it had only begun to fully enjoy its first building, the Castle, completed in 1855. By no means did it feel secure as an established institution in the national life.

Although the Smithsonian had not taken a position on the great issues of the day, slavery and union, Secretary Joseph Henry's friendship with Jefferson Davis, leader of the Confederacy, led to suspicions about Henry's loyalty to the Union. Davis was a former Regent and an enthusiastic supporter of the Smithsonian during the 1850s.

Early in the war, Henry ran into added difficulties because of the abolition lectures held at the Smithsonian. Educational and philanthropic groups traditionally had been allowed to use its lecture hall providing they did not discuss religious or political matters. Despite its agreement to these rules, the Washington Lecture Association used the hall for a series of lectures that turned into an abolitionist forum. Among the speakers were the newspaper editor Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher and Wendell Phillips. Henry was criticized both for allowing the lectures to continue and for disavowing Smithsonian responsibility for them.

Ultimately, there was no question but that the Smithsonian would share the fate of the Union cause. James Conaway, in his fascinating book commemorating the Smithsonian's 150 years of history, notes that within a week of the fall of Fort Sumter, Spencer Baird, who was then Assistant Secretary, "prepared for a possible Confederate assault on the city by packing away rare eggs and birds."

The usefulness of the Smithsonian to the war effort was pondered by some in the federal government. One proposal, never accepted, would have converted the Castle to a war infirmary. That is, in fact, what temporarily happened to the United States Patent Office Building, now the site of the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art.

That beautiful building, which predated the Castle by a few years, housed within its walls Clara Barton, an outstanding war nurse who later founded the American Red Cross, and Walt Whitman, who saw temporary service as a nurse to injured Federal troops treated in the Patent Office Building during the first months of the war. The building's Great Hall and what we now call the Lincoln Gallery would also serve as the site of Lincoln's second Inaugural ball.

Although the Smithsonian was never taken over for war purposes, it did make itself useful throughout the war. One of Secretary Henry's more dramatic contributions to the Union cause was his introducing President Lincoln to the balloonist Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, whose ideas on the military uses of balloons for the observation of Confederate troop movements would contribute to the creation of the Union's Aeronautic Corps. Henry himself served on the U.S. Navy's Permanent Commission, evaluating inventions for their potential military usefulness.

Lincoln was an occasional visitor to the Castle, enjoying the diversion of watching Secretary Henry and his colleagues test signaling devices, and Henry sometimes called on him at the White House. On one occasion, the two were confronted by a man wishing to report lights shining at midnight from one of the Castle towers. He was convinced that these were signals to the Rebels by Secretary Henry, who he felt was clearly a Confederate sympathizer. Lincoln then introduced the caller to Henry, who explained that the lights were lanterns for reading meteorological instruments on the tower. Lincoln could not restrain his laughter at the look of dismay on the visitor's face.

Other Smithsonian work went on, enlivened during the middle of the Civil War by a group of young and occasionally rowdy scientists who resided in the Castle while pursuing research in natural history. But the uncertainties and requirements of wartime dominated the Smithsonian mood.

With the ending of the Civil War, the Smithsonian faced an unrelated catastrophe. In January of 1865, a fire broke out, collapsing the central roof of the Castle and destroying the second floor. Lost in the flames were most of the papers of the founder, James Smithson, many of Secretary Henry's files, and the priceless collections of portraits of Native Americans by Charles Bird King and John Mix Stanley.

After the shaky circumstances of its creation, the trials of war and the devastation of fire, the Smithsonian faced the country's postwar future. We who can look back at the Institution's subsequent growth take pride in what the nation and the Smithsonian would soon accomplish. But how uncertain it all must have seemed in 1865.

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