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W.Va. Collection Exhibits Lincoln Links

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
August 7th, 2007

The Dominion Post, August 6, 2007

By J. Miles Layton

Attention Civil War buffs.

An exhibit in the West Virginia and Regional History Collection at WVU offers visitors an engaging glimpse of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War era in which he lived.

“For people looking for a historical experience in Morgantown, we have a great deal to offer here at the West Virginia Collection,” said John Cuthbert, the collection’s curator.

The exhibit, “Abraham Lincoln and West Virginia: Selections from the West Virginia and Regional History Collection,” will be open for the next several months at WVU. The exhibit is located in the James Horner Davis Family Gallery (No. 1) on the sixth floor of the Wise Library on the Downtown Campus.  It is free and open to the public from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues-Saturday, and until 9 p.m. Tuesdays, according to the WVU Web site.

The figure of Lincoln looms large over West Virginia and WVU. WVU’s newest residence hall is named after the 16th president, and the 2007 Festival of Ideas series focused on Lincoln as man, myth, martyr and American hero.But in 1860, few people thought Lincoln would be elected president, according to The Virginia Weekly Star, Morgantown’s local newspaper at that time.  On display is its front page, which contains reports on the 1860 presidential election.  Lincoln won the election with only 39.8 percent of the popular vote, soon finding himself in the midst of the U.S. Civil War and with a growing list of enemies.  Cuthbert said that coverage focused mostly on Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge, and dismissed Lincoln.

“Many people at the time said ‘a vote for Breckinridge is a vote for Lincoln,’” he said.

Featured in the exhibit is U.S. Sen. Waitman T. Willey’s May 29, 1862, presentation to the U.S. Senate that proposed the formation of West Virginia.

“The new state of West Virginia is a fixed fact,” said Willey, whose words are preserved beneath his portrait, which greets people as they enter the museum.

In 1863, Confederates didn’t exactly appreciate Willey’s contribution to the Union.  When rebel soldiers invaded Morgantown, they found this portrait of Willey and thrust their bayonets into the painting.  Though the artwork was later painstakingly restored, Willey’s face clearly bears the scars of history.

Across from Willey’s portrait, a black and white photograph of Union General Thomas M. Harris is standing watch over a display of artifacts from his life.  Harris fought in several campaigns – and served as a member of the military commission that tried and convicted the assassins and conspirators involved in Lincoln’s death.  Harris wrote the book, “Assassination of Lincoln.”

Before e-mail and telephones existed, written words commanded the armies of the Confederacy and the Union.  Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s writing kit is on display, a rare find for any museum, Cuthbert said.  The wooden box is about the size of a Wheeling-Marsh cigar box, though narrower.  Inside the box, there are many little compartments and places to hold pens – the type that are dipped in ink.  Jackson used this writing kit to dispatch letters and orders during his numerous legendary campaigns.

“Back then, battles and fighting didn’t last but a few hours or days, so generals spent a lot of their time writing correspondence,” Cuthbert said.

Handwritten words preserve the surrender negotiations between Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General Ulysses Grant.  At the time, copies of these letters were sent to Francis H. Pierpont, who was governor of the Reorganized Government of Virginia – the part that didn’t secede from the Union.  Like e-mail, Lee and Grant replied back and forth to each other to work out the details to end the war.

“This is the Civil War equivalent of e-mail,” Cuthbert said.

Within the Civil War collection there are numerous journals from soldiers, personal papers from many of the state’s early politicians, and a rare 35-star American flag, one of only five known to still exist.  This flag is traditionally thought to have been carried to West Virginia by soldiers returning to Shepherdstown from the Battle of Gettysburg, Cuthbert said.

One of the many highlights in the collection is drawings by Davis Hunter Strother, an eyewitness to events at Harpers Ferry. In the days before photography could capture an image instantly, Strother was a journalist who drew pictures for the leading publications of the day.  When abolitionist John Brown was seized following his raid on Harpers Ferry, Strother was there capturing the stark images of his execution with words and pencil strokes.

Cuthbert said Strother, a Martinsburg native, was given more or less an all-access pass to talk to Brown and those involved in the raid while they were in jail waiting for trial.  When one of the men in the raid complained about his injuries and asked for a doctor, Cuthbert said, Strother wrote that a guard said to the injured man, ‘“you should have thought about that before you got involved in that raid’ and kicked the man.”’ There is a hand-sketched picture of Brown and others being hanged.

Though not part of the Civil War exhibit, there are other treasures to be discovered by patrons of the collection.  Photos of West Virginia people and places past and present adorn the walls.  There is a display featuring actor and comedian Don Knotts that includes a few scripts from his movies and an autobiography.

“I encourage anyone to come out and see what we have to offer,” Cuthbert said.

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