755 Myra Road, Walla Walla
A large kettle that held a hot meal to comfort a battle weary soldier a long way from home.
A small shaving mirror that once reflected the eyes of a soldier who’s seen too much blood and death.
And there are the rifles soldiers held — and by which, perhaps, their enemies died from — on killing grounds named Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg and others.
These are several of the many artifacts at the exhibit “Civil War: From the Battlefield to the Home” at the Fort Walla Walla Museum.
There’s a great deal to be learned about ourselves and our past from history and exhibits such as this.
“We need to be able to make these connections to who we are; it gives us a sense of place and defines who we are,” said James Payne, museum executive director.
Partly because of the recent movie “Lincoln,” there is renewed interest in this bloodiest period of American history that began when Confederate rebels shelled Union troops at Fort Sumter near Charleston, S.C., on April 12, 1861.
Four years later, with the South in tatters and a total of 625,000 soldiers on both sides in graves, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to U.S. Army Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va., on April 9, 1865.
President Abraham Lincoln died six days later by an assassin’s bullet. The Civil War was officially declared over on May 9, 1865.
“The Civil War was a time when the nation was crumbling and we had a president who kept it together,” Payne said. “There are not many presidents who could pull this off.”
Although on the other side of the continent, Walla Walla was not untouched by the war.
“All of the soldiers from Fort Walla Walla were sent back east to fight,” Payne said. “It’s an important part of our history.”
The western theater of the war mostly stopped with Mississippi and Tennessee, about 2,000 miles from Walla Walla, although some fighting occurred in the Western territories of Missouri, Texas, Arizona and Colorado.
“Troops would be sent out from Fort Walla Walla to the east to join the Union army,” said Payne. After the war, the fort was manned by a small caretaking staff who mostly performed maintenance. When tensions increased with renewed Indian wars in the West, the fort was again fully staffed.
Payne said feelings locally about the Civil War were about equally divided in favoring the North or the South, with southern states fighting to maintain its agrarian way of life that also included slavery.
“Articles in the [Walla Walla] Statesman at that time were about 50-50, it was a political debate. The big thing was state’s rights,” Payne said.
A portion of the exhibit is dedicated to U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, whose many battles included Gettysburg, considered the victory that turned the tide of the war in favor of the Union. He also was director of the Freedmen’s Bureau, in charge of integrating freed slaves into southern society and politics.
His local connection comes from his position as Commander of the District of the Columbia. Because of his position and his efforts to keep peace between settlers and Indians, he visited Fort Walla Walla many times.
What soldiers wore and took with them into Civil War battles also are prominent in the exhibit. The display includes a variety of firearms, bayonets and officer’s swords.
Like today’s soldiers, those in the Civil War carried a lot on their backs. A soldier serving in Afghanistan today might carry a pack weighing about 80 pounds, while Payne estimates a soldier 150 years ago would carry a pack weighing 40 to 60 pounds. People were smaller in stature then, so the weights are about in the same proportion, he added.
In the pack would be rations and folding utensils and personal items. Items from home could be a cherished photograph of a loved one, a mirror, mug and soap brush for shaving, or a personal handgun. In the exhibit is one soldier’s ivory pocket diary that fans out so each day of the week contains notes. Some of these notes written in pencil are still visible, though barely. When Sunday came the notes were transferred to a larger pocket diary and the individual days of the week were erased and a new week was begun.
Over the pack would be a blanket with clothing rolled up in it and strapped to the top. Soldiers would carry cartridges in a box slung over a shoulder. In the box were also tools to clean and repair guns after a battle — a necessity because the black powder they used was corrosive and, Payne said, “if your gun breaks during battle you’re left with a club.”
Larger pieces around the exhibit are a Civil War period stage coach and covered wagon.
The exhibit will run through Feb. 28, then return in the fall after an exhibition of native beadwork from Western tribes.
Payne said the exhibit, with Walla Walla on the heels of its sesquicentennial and the Civil War in the middle of its own, means a lot to him. “We got an anonymous gift last year and we wanted to do something special with it,” he said.