Yale collections capture the memories, music, and mayhem of the Civil War

As Yale commemorates the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, its collections illustrate the complexity of a historical event that ripped the nation apart.

On the afternoon of Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, in the small town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia, an immaculately dressed General Robert E. Lee met his mud-splattered rival, General Ulysses S. Grant, in the parlor of Wilmer McClean’s home to sign the documents surrendering his Confederate troops.

Elihu Washburne, a congressman from Maine who witnessed the surrender, recounted details of the final days of the war — from getting the “first information of Lee’s surrender” while on the road to seeing the last Confederate soldiers depart (“a terrible looking set”) to getting the “shocking intelligence of the assassination of the president” on April 15 — in a diary housed in Manuscripts and Archives at the Yale Library.

See also: Yale remembers the Civil War

Washburne’s daily entries, scrawled in pencil, are among thousands of Civil War memoirs, letters, photographs, maps, sheet music, medical supplies, paintings, sculpture, drawings, decorative arts, and medals in Yale’s museums and libraries. As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, Yale’s unparalleled collections illustrate the complexity of a historical event that ripped the nation apart.

“Yale’s Civil War collections are extraordinary, especially the Lincoln material,” said David Blight, the Class of 1954 Professor of American History and director of the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.

Recently, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library acquired the Meserve-Kunhardt collection, including the definitive assemblage of portraits of Abraham Lincoln. Among its “jewels” are Alexander Gardner’s 1863 photograph of Lincoln and Mathew Brady’s “Cooper Union” portrait. It also contains portraits of American politicians and army officers of both the union and confederate forces.

Alexander Gardner, “Abraham Lincoln,” 1865, photograph, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

“It is not an exaggeration to describe this collection as one of America’s first and richest national portrait galleries, but that description doesn’t encompass the many rare, often unique, images of Civil War battlefields and views of Washington, D.C., New York, and other American cities,” said Laura Wexler, professor of American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, in an announcement about the acquisition.

Yale students at war

Yale had its own close connections to the war. Of the more than 4,000 living graduates in 1865, approximately 22% served in the war, fighting for both the North and the South, according to “Yale; a history” by Brooks Mather Kelley ’53, a university archivist and curator of historical manuscripts.

Charles Griswold Gurley Merrill (Class of 1861, M.D. 1863) was a surgeon with the 22nd Regiment, United States Colored Troops, which became part of the Army of the Potomac. His letters to his family, housed in Yale’s library, describe deplorable conditions suffered by black troops during the war. Merrill later marched in Lincoln’s funeral ceremony and took part in the hunt for assassin John Wilkes Booth.

When Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was captured in Irwinville, Georgia, Merrill wrote to his father, “Tonight reaches us the news that Jeff Davis is taken — he will probably have a chance to stretch hemp — as you would call it and did once in a letter to me.”

Following the war, Merrill returned to New Haven where he worked for the Internal Revenue Service, and for several years taught night school for the city.

A medical perspective

Aaron Detweiler, aged 18, was wounded in the battle of Hatcher’s Run. From “Gunshot Wounds Illustrated,” Cushing Library.

Merrill described his experiences as a war surgeon in explicit detail. The conflict took an unprecedented toll on the nation, with more than 600,000 casualties, averaging 504 deaths per day, according to the Cushing Whitney Medical Library website. Approximately 3 million Americans fought in the war: 2.1 million for the Union and almost 900,000 for the Confederacy. Nearly one-third of soldiers died in combat or from accidents, starvation, and disease.

Most surgeons had little experience treating extreme war injuries from rifles, cannons, and sabers. The Yale Medical Historical Library’s website states that a number of the men who survived were photographed in the name of science. The library’s “Gunshot Wounds Illustrated” collection includes 103 photos of individual soldiers who were treated at Harewood Hopsital in Washington, D.C. The photographs — which were the focus of a 2013 exhibition at Yale called “Portraits of Wounded Bodies” — were compiled by Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou, the surgeon in charge at Harewood, and sent to the newly created Army Medical Museum as documentation.

Among the Medical Historical Library’s Civil War materials is the pocket-sized surgical kit of Dr. Samuel Rush Haven. An avid abolitionist, Haven volunteered in the first days of war and achieved the rank of colonel, serving with generals Grant, Heintzleman, Hancock, and McClellan.

As Yale collections illustrate, no one was immune from the Civil War, including noted authors and poets. The Cushing library has a first edition of Louisa May Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches” (1863), from when the renowned author of “Little Women” volunteered as a nurse in Georgetown for six weeks during the war.

The news that Walt Whitman’s brother, George, had been wounded in the battle of Fredericksburg sent the poet to a hospital in Washington, D.C., to care for him. Whitman continued to spend time with hospitalized soldiers for the next three years until the war’s conclusion, “offering company and small treats to the men,” according to the library website. He chronicled his time in “The Wound Dresser: A Series of Letters Written from the Hospitals in Washington During the War of the Rebellion,” part of the Cushing collection.

Songs of the Civil War

Music played an important role in the war. In 1861 the War Department passed a regulation that every regiment of the Union army should have a brass band and every company two musicians.

“All Quiet Along the Potomac,” (1863), Gilmore Music Library, Yale Univerity

“There were 28,000 musicians and 618 bands,” said Jay Gitlin, a lecturer in history and associate director of the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders. “One out of every 41 Union soldiers was a musician. There was probably a similar ratio in the south.”

Military bands supported troops through long marches, aided in drilling exercises, and helped while away the hours in camp between battles. In fact, George Ives, the father of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Charles Ives (Class of 1898), was the youngest bandmaster in the Union army and at the age of 17 traveled with the First Connecticut Heavy Artillery Band.

On the home front, music was central to parades and rallies in support of the troops. It also brought people together, gave hope to families, soothed broken hearts, and expressed longing for loved ones far away.

The Gilmore Music Library’s collections of sheet music includes hundreds of compositions from the Civil War years illustrating the range of music, from energetic marches to sentimental ballads.

A young country, America had a tradition of appropriating English melodies, among others, since the time of the Revolutionary War.

“The tradition of reusing familiar tunes continued in the Civil War, which is how the music for ‘John Brown’s Body’ was adapted to become the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,” said Suzanne Lovejoy, assistant music librarian for public services. “‘Dixie’ began as a northern minstrel tune and became the anthem of the South. It was rehabilitated at the end of the 19th century in an effort to reunite the country.”

The library has published copies of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home;” the popular love song, “Lorena,” and “All Quiet on the Potomac.”

“The Civil War saw the beginnings of mass manufacturing of sheet music and Tin Pan Alley,” said Gitlin, adding that the war also gave rise to the popular band. Patrick Gilmore, the noted bandleader who wrote the lyrics to “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” formed his own proprietary band in 1858 and traveled around the country performing in large bandstands.

“Thousands of people would come to hear them play. It became the model for later conductors like John Phillip Sousa.”

What war looks like

Numerous visual representations of the Civil War are housed in the collections of the Yale University Art Gallery in the forms of paintings, sculpture, photographs, drawings, decorative arts, and medals.

“Portrait of a Veteran” by Thomas Eakins; “In Front of Yorktown” by Winslow Homer; and “Abraham Lincoln” by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Yale University Art Gallery.

A striking grouping of two paintings and a sculpture live in the late 19th century American art galleries. At the center is “In Front of Yorktown” by Winslow Homer, painted sometime between 1863 and 1866. An artist reporter for Harper’s Weekly Illustrated, Homer traveled with one of the New York infantry regiments for a period of two months, living amongst the soldiers and witnessing battles and camp life first hand.

Homer depicts a small group of soldiers on a scouting assignment. They gather around a fire near a makeshift fort; only a couple of the men manage to sleep while the others stare into the flames, lost in their own thoughts.

“You get the sense of anticipation. Homer selected a moment of quiet waiting, but you feel as though something could happen any minute,” says Keely Orgeman, acting assistant curator of American paintings and sculpture. “You feel as if you’re glimpsing a moment that no one else was able to witness.”

To the left of Homer’s painting hangs “The Veteran (Portrait of George Reynolds)” by Thomas Eakins, painted 20 years after the end of the war. Reynolds served as a private in the Union army, receiving a Medal of Honor for capturing the enemy’s flag in battle. His haunted face is a living testament to the war.

“It was unusual during the Reconstruction period to find portraits of individuals who had served in the Civil War,” said Orgeman. “Memorials were more common reflections on the subject of war at that time.”

One such memorial is Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, which completes the grouping in the art gallery. The premiere sculptor of the Reconstruction era, Saint-Gaudens received several commissions to create memorials, including one for Lincoln Park in Chicago in 1887.

According to Orgeman, it was part of Saint Gaudens’ practice to produce reductions of his large-scale sculpture in order to generate additional income. The art gallery’s sculpture was the second reduction Saint-Gaudens made of his famous Chicago statue (the first is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The sculpture features a meditative Lincoln, looking as if he is about to say something momentous. “It evokes key events in Lincoln’s presidency, such as his inauguration or his famous Emancipation Proclamation,” said Orgeman.

An enduring legacy

It would be five more weeks after Lee surrendered in Wilmer McClean’s parlor that the last battle of the Civil War was fought at Palmito Ranch in Texas on May 13, 1865.

Never before in the history of the country had an event affected so many lives. Yale’s collections reflect the immense complexity of the Civil War, from its origins to military campaigns to its aftermath and Reconstruction. Personal memoirs, photographs, art, and music housed at Yale provide color and context to a complicated chapter in American history that still reverberates today.

“There are a lot of connections between these stories,” said Orgeman, reflecting on the breadth of Yale’s collections. “You don’t have to dig very deep to find them.”

There at the beginning and the end

Elihu Washburne, a senator from Maine with close ties to Abraham Lincoln, witnessed Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in the home of Wilmer McClean. In Washburne’s diary — housed in the Manuscripts and Archives collection at Yale — he recalls that McClean, a grocer and Confederate sympathizer, “came from Prince William Co., Va., near Blackburn’s Ford, where Beauregard had his headquarters for the battle July 18, 1861.”

The reconstructed parlor of Wilmer McClean’s house at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, where Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate troops to Ulysses S. Grant. The tables are reproductions of those used during the surrender; the left one was used by Lee, the right by Grant. Photo (2008) courtesy Wikimedia Commons

McClean’s land in Prince William Co. was the site of the first major clash between the Union and Confederate armies in Virginia — the First Battle of Bull Run. McClean had moved 150 miles south to the town Appomattox Court House to escape the intense fighting. To his surprise on that momentous morning 150 years ago, he was asked if his home could be used as the site for its conclusion. McClean later reflected on the irony, “The war began in my front yard and ended in my parlor.”

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Media Contact

Amy Athey McDonald: amy.mcdonald@yale.edu,