8 Cool Civil War Artifacts

Rare photographs, casts of Lincoln's (giant) hands and more

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The Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University is hosting an exhibit of artifacts from the American Civil War. The show, up until the end of August, was designed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. For those of you who can’t make it to Boston in the next couple weeks, we’ve assembled a small sampling of items on display. They address a range of intriguing questions about the war, not least of which is this: Were Abraham Lincoln’s hands really that big? Yes, yes they were.

Plaster of Paris Casts of Abraham Lincoln’s Hands

Abraham Lincoln was a towering figure, both intellectually and physically. These plaster of Paris casts of his hands were made in May 1860, shortly after Lincoln received the Republican nomination for president. His right hand, already fittingly large from his 6’4″ frame, appears slightly swollen from intense campaign handshaking.

The Devil and John Wilkes Booth

On April 15, 1865, the actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln with a pistol at Ford’s Theater. Here, the decision to assassinate Lincoln is depicted as the devil’s work, with a curiously dressed Satan helpfully telling Booth to use that gun in his hand on the man sitting over there. Satan is also balancing a peacock feather on his head for some reason. Extra evil? Not sure.

Letter from Lincoln to Secretary of War Stanton

This is a letter from President Lincoln to his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, concerning an order to replace the man in charge of military police. It’s super-boring official business! The countless memos, minor letters, and official documents that make up the minutia of war are often left out of the exciting dramatizations, largely because they are dull. Here’s the text: “Some days ago, upon the unanimous request of our friends in Congress from Connecticut, and upon what appeared to be good reason, I ordered a change of Provost Marshall and Commissioner under the enrolment law…they are complaining now that it is not done- Let it be done.” History is exciting, but the documents that make it happen aren’t always.

Lincoln Meets General McClellan Outside Sharpsburg

Taken October 3, 1862, this picture shows President Lincoln meeting with General George B. McClellan. Sharpsburg was the site of the battle better known as Antietam, where about 80,000 Union forces successfully defeated an army of about 40,000 Confederate forces. The battle halted Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland, though the ever-cautious McClellan failed to pursue Lee’s army. The battle was a Union victory, but an incomplete one. Eager to see McClellan continue the attack against his retreating foe, Lincoln met with the general to urge him forward. Frustrated by either McClellan’s inability or refusal to do so, Lincoln would remove him from command just a month after this photograph was taken.

Reading the Emancipation Proclamation

This painting depicts Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Look at all those beards, those skeptical, skeptical beards. Following the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln announced the emancipation of all slaves in Confederate-held territory, starting January, 1863. It was a partial move towards abolition, but it finally cemented the war as one to end slavery, at least in the mind of slave-free European countries contemplating support for the Confederacy.

Bust of Abraham Lincoln

Today Pete Souza works as the White House photographer, taking Instagrams of the first dog and capturing intimate moments of the first family. Leonard Volk, the artist responsible for this bust, the plaster hand casts, and a bronze life mask of Abraham Lincoln, instead captured his subject with plaster. Here, Lincoln is depicted in a toga, so that his bust can better blend in among depictions of classical Greeks and Romans.

Happy Birthday Lincoln

This photograph was taken on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 9, 1864. He looks exactly as excited as a man facing an election cycle in the middle of a civil war would be. It’s entirely possible that his dour expression is just the nature of the long exposure times required for early photography, though I think maybe he had some other weighty concerns on his mind.

Bronze Life Mask of Abraham Lincoln

Life masks capture a person’s face in plaster, namely by having him sit around with plaster on his face until the mold is complete. That can take a loooong time. This one is a bronze casting of the original plaster mask made by sculptor Leonard Volk. It has a solemn dignity to it, though that won’t stop me from imagining this really being the face of a civil war robot named Mecha-Lincoln.
Kelsey D. Atherton
Kelsey D. Atherton

is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.