Civil War Stories

About the Tour

This tour of Civil War artworks and artifacts in the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture of the New-York Historical Society is designed to enrich the study of American writers such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott. Intended for students in American literature courses, the tour uses Whitman’ s observations of the Civil War as a springboard for the examination of relevant paintings, sculptures, and swords and other weapons used in the War. The tour illuminates the Civil War stories that artists have told in their works and that we can glimpse by looking at military artifacts—stories of men and women in the North and South, cavalry charges and maritime combat, African-American leaders, popular culture, heroism and devastation.

Note: Because the New-York Historical Society is undergoing renovations, the Luce Center permanent collections are open by appointment only through November, 2011. To make an appointment, please email Joshua Perea at

Annotated Bibliography of Printed Resources

Alcott, Louisa May. Civil War Hospital Sketches. New York: Dover, 2006.
Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Brodhead, Richard H. Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover, 1995.
Elkins, Stanley M. Slavery: A Problem in American  Institutional and Intellectual Life. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.
Fahs, Alice. The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Frederickson, George M. The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems and Other Writing. Ed. J.D. McClatchy. New York: Library of America, 2000.
Marius, Richard, ed. The Columbia Book of Civil War Poetry: From Whitman to Walcott. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Massey, Mary Elizabeth. Bonnet Brigades: Women in the Civil War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
McPherson, James M.  Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press,  1988.
Melville, Herman. Bartleby and Benito Cereno. New York: Dover, 1990.
Melville, Herman. Battle Pieces: The Civil War Poems of Herman Melville. Ed. Lisa Lipkin. New York: Castle, 2000.
Reynolds, David. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Samuels, Shirley. Facing America: Iconography and the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons.  New York: Norton, 1993.
The Civil War Songbook: Complete Original Sheet Music for 37 Songs,
Selected and with an Introduction by Richard Crawford. New York: Dover, 1977.
van Agtmael, Peter. 2nd tour Hope I don’t Die. Portland, Oregon: photolucida, 2009.
Whitman, Walt. The Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: The Library of America, 1982.
Whitman, Walt. Specimen Days, With an introduction by Ian S. Maloney. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007.

Additional Materials, Activities and Exercises

Civil War Stories

Jane Mushabac

Ancillary Activities

1.  Go to 122nd St. and St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem to see the Tubman statue. How does it look different or affect you differently from the maquette in a case in the museum? How do the outdoor setting and size affect your reaction to it? Describe the simply landscaped  natural setting especially designed for this traffic triangle. Do the blocks in the immediate vicinity appear clean, or dirty, shabby or modern? To get another perspective stand right next to the statue and make notes on  the great variety of objects and faces on her skirt. Look at the mosaics along the border of the pedestal, which obviously do not appear in the museum’s small model. Also,  look up at Tubman’s face and to the sky, and think about the emotions the sculptor wanted you to feel.  After you’ve jotted down your reactions,  read the information sign about the sculpture, and learn some new things about it. Your notes should include what time and day of the week you’re here.  Question a passerby or two about their impression of it as they go by. Do they live or work near the spot? Do they know what the statue represents, or have they looked at the information about it? Had they heard of Tubman before, or the Underground Railroad?  Write a short essay on your observations and what you wish to say about this sculpture.

2. Jot down a list of new words you encountered while looking at the paintings, sculptures and artifacts in the N-YHS, or while reading  the related works. For each word give a brief definition and write a few sentences describing what is memorable about it in the Civil War context or why it is of interest to you. Examples of words are front,  underground railroad, scout, musket, cavalry, charge, ironclad, mine, torpedo, lieutenant, sabre, maquette, model,  secesh, specimen.

3. Choose one painting from those we viewed, and one photograph in Peter van Agtmael’s 2009 book, 2nd Tour, Hope I Don’t Die (about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan)  and in a one-page essay, explain with reference to several details in each,  specifically why you find it hard to look at these works. Refer to details concerning  both wounds and facial expressions or other painful indicators.  In a concluding paragraph, analyze why you think each artist created this particular artwork, and what you are basing your thoughts on.  What is the artist’s attitude to the painfulness of his subject?

4. Read Bob Herbert’s New York Times article, “The Ultimate Burden,” August 25, 2009, about Peter van Agtmael’s book, 2nd Tour, Hope I Don’t Die. Write an essay summarizing this article. Compare Herbert’s key points to Walt Whitman’s in the 70-page Civil War section of Specimen Days.

5. Timothy O’Brien has written an unforgettable collection of short stories about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried. Read the title story and make a list of the actual and metaphorical things those men carried.  Why does this author give this “carrying” such meaning? Why does he carefully note how much each item weighs? How would you compare the impact of seeing the military artifacts in the Luce Center’s Case 33 and 37 with the impact of the story? What happens in O’Brien’s story? What strong feelings do you think O’Brien is trying to evoke all through his story and at the end?

6. Choose a blog from the Iraq war, and an entry from Whitman’s Specimen Days. Choose one with a similar focus, for instance, on one person, or on one hospital ward, and note the descriptions and observations in each case. Perhaps juxtapose sentences from the blog and Whitman entry, and then at the end, write several sentences about the similarities and differences, and anything you’d like to comment on about that.

7. See The Messenger and single out one scene from this movie about delivering bad news in a war. List ten details you observe in the scene, and explain how they would make the scene a powerful painting to hang in a museum.

8. Recalling Victor Nelig’s painting, An Episode of War—The Cavalry Charge of Lt. Henry B. Hidden, compare the letter to Hidden’s mother on the death of her son, which is in the    N-YHS library, with two other beautiful letters to bereaved mothers: Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby (1864) and Whitman’s to the mother of a Pennsylvania soldier, Frank H. Irwin (1865, pp. 74-75 in Specimen Days).  What do you notice in each of these letters of notification and condolence  that might help the grieving mother?  Consider each writer’s purpose and the ways he finds to offer comfort.  For a longer essay, also discuss the current film, The Messenger, and how it makes viewers feel about the whole phenomenon of bereavement notification.

9. In an essay, compare the historic Dred Scott whose portrait we saw, and the character Babo in Melville’s “Benito Cereno.”  Use your notes from seeing the painting, or look at the painting again online,  to briefly suggest your image of Dred Scott.  Describe in two or three detailed pages what Melville tells us about Babo, and why Captain Delano obliviously fails to grasp Babo’s purpose as a man.  What are the immediate and long-term effects, do you think, of each man’s approach to claiming his own and his people’s freedom?

10. What is the significance of Louisa May Alcott’s work as a nurse in the Civil War? Read her book, Civil War Hospital Sketches,  to analyze her purpose and what her work and writing in these sketches achieved.

11. Read Mary Elizabeth Massey’s Bonnet Brigades: Women in the Civil War. Using the book as your source, write a five-page paper analyzing the importance and impact of women’s activities in the Civil War.

12. Read a published CUNY student’s essay, “Pioneers, Patriots, and Ladies: Origins, Social Issues and Impact of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps,”  by Sarah Pollack, which is available online on the CUNY Website in City Tech Writer, Vol. 3, pp. 3-9. Use Pollack’s article as a springboard to write an essay on your thoughts regarding women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

13. Study Edward Cronin’s 1888 historical oil painting “Fugitive Slaves on the Dismal Swamp”  (Case 112 in the Luce Center) and compare it with the Rogers statue we examined on the audio-tour. Based on details in each work, what was each artist’s purpose; what feeling was the artist trying to arouse in the viewer, and why?

14. Read Abraham Lincoln’s “Cooper Union Address” of February 27, 1860, or listen to a video of Sam Waterston’s rendition of it online or at the New-York Historical Society. Avoid researching online discussions of the speech; work exclusively from your reading of the speech itself. Analyze Lincoln’s critical thinking and how, step by step, he structured his argument. Precisely what do you think was Lincoln’s purpose in this historic speech, and how did he achieve it?


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