The List: What You Didn’t Know About the Smithsonian in the Civil War

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By now you know that this year marks the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the Civil War. And you're probably aware of the variety of events, exhibitions and programs taking place across the Smithsonian Institution commemorating that pivotal time in United States history. But what you may not know is that the Smithsonian Institution itself, not yet 15 years old when the war began in 1861, has its own chapter in Civil war history. So, this week, the ATM blog team has compiled a list of the most interesting (and little known facts) about the Smithsonian during wartime.

1. In 1861, the entire Smithsonian Institution was housed in one red sandstone building, designed by James Renwick Jr. to look like a castle.  To the east of the building was what would become the Capitol and to the west, lay the foundation for what would become  the George Washington Monument. A mere mile from the White House, views from the Smithsonian overlooked the Patent Office, the Potomac River, and the rooftops of neighboring Alexandria, Virginia, the hometown of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

2. Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Institution, was in a tricky situation. Born and bred in the North, Henry opposed both slavery and the war and "favored colonization in Africa over abolition." More than anything, though, he wanted to keep the Institution apolitical, and protect its collections, even as it was sandwiched between two different realities—secession flags waving over parts of Virginia and war waging in nearby Baltimore. Secretary Henry, despite his reservations about the war, began aiding the Union cause. He introduced balloonist T.S.C. Lowe to the Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and later to President Lincoln. Henry believed that Lowe's balloons could help the government with its reconnaissance missions. Lowe tested the feasibility of communicating between the balloons and the ground from what is now the Air and Space Museum. Lowe went on to head the tactically successful balloon corps, which, unfortunately imploded due to a series of inner turmoil.

3. One night, someone saw lights flashing from the Smithsonian tower and reported to President Lincoln that Secretary Henry was a traitor, signaling the enemy. President Lincoln reportedly replied that the previous night, he and a few others went with Henry to the tower to experiment with new army signals, or so one story goes; there are several versions. But Secretary Henry was indeed accused of treason, a claim of which he defended himself.

4. In 1861, the Washington Lecture Association, a group of prominent Washingtonians opposed to slavery, wanted to use the Smithsonian lecture room for a forum. At the time, there were restrictions placed on its use and when Henry learned that the forum was about the abolition of slavery, he requested they read a disclaimer. According to Carl Sandburg's biography of Abraham Lincoln, "the chairman of the lecture series would open each lecture by saying: 'Ladies and gentlemen: I am requested by Professor Henry to announce that the Smithsonian Institution is not in any way responsible for this course of lectures. I do so with pleasure, and desire to add that the Washington Lecture Association is in no way responsible for the Smithsonian Institution.' The hall would rock with laughter at Henry's expense." Afterwards, the use of the hall was restricted to student awards ceremonies.

5. During the Civil War, the Old Patent Office Building was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers, temporary barracks and a morgue. President Lincoln also held his second inaugural ball there. It was given to the Smithsonian in 1962 and is now the site of the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

For more on the Smithsonian during the Civil War, check out the CivilWar@Smithsonian site.

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