In our new exhibit, “Discovering the Civil War,” you can examine the hospital muster roll card of Christianna Batts, who was one of at least 2,000 African American women who worked in U.S. hospitals. Identified on the record as an “adult female contraband,” she was most likely a runaway slave seeking safety behind Union lines. You can also compare the pictures of Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye dressed as herself and her alias, Frank Thompson. She proved her military service and was granted a $12 monthly pension for the life-long disability she suffered as a result of the war. The Congressional bill granting her pension is also on display.
I hope your experience in this space will lead to new insights or provoke a deeper understanding of the complexity of the war. It’s the personal nature of our own discovery that is so interesting to me. The Civil War ended almost 150 years ago, but individually and collectively, we are still grappling to understand the immensity of what took place.
Walt Whitman said, “The War of Attempted Secession has, of course, been the distinguishing event of my time.” Certainly for Christianna Batts, Sarah Seelye, and all who were swept up in it, the Civil War was transformative. The records preserved in the National Archives provide documentary evidence of the remarkable stories of ordinary people as well as generals and statesmen.
Walt Whitman’s Memoranda During the War: Written on the Spot in 1863-’65, is his account of visiting the wounded and sick in the field and in hospitals around Washington, D.C. He kept notes of those he spoke with and documented the stories of those he met. The experience for him was significant, he says, “somedays I was more emotional than others; then I would suffer all the extra horrors of my experience; I would try to write blind, blind with my own tears.” He speaks of the dead, some never buried at all.
In the Memorandum, “The Million Dead, too, summ’d up–The Unknown,” he writes:
And everywhere among these countless graves–everywhere in the many Soldiers Cemetaries of the Nation, (there are over seventy of them)–as at the time in the vast trenches, the depositaries of slain, Northern and Southern, after the great battles–not only where the scathing trail pass’d those years, but radiating since in all the peaceful quarters of the land–we see, and see, and ages yet may see, on monuments and gravestones, singly or in masses, to thousands or tens of thousands, the significant word
Whitman’s powerful writings give us a glimpse into the difficulties, horror, and scale of death. His writings help us imagine what Christianna Batts and Sara Emma Edmonds Seelye would have experienced in hospitals and on the battlefield.
I encourage you to learn more by visiting “Discovering the Civil War” in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. and online at http://archives.gov/exhibits/civil-war/.
Watch the Archivist reading Walt Whitman’s
“The Million Dead, too, summ’d up–The Unknown.”
Read the Transcript of the Video.