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Tracing Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield, IL, footsteps- Part 4


By Gerri Nielsen

Fri, Aug 17th, 2012
Posted in Harmony Features

This story is the fourth in a five-part series about Gerri Nielsen’s trip to Springfield, Illinois.

THURSDAY: Dr. Cornelius amazed us again this morning with his presentation “Mary Lincoln--Well, Not Really.” He showed us a portrait painted in 1864 by F. Carpenter. It shows a plain-faced woman dressed in black wearing a cross necklace, gaudy jewelry on her wrists and fingers, and a floral headdress in her hair. But the painting didn’t always appear that way.

The Museum invites pro bono restorers to clean and restore documents and artifacts. When an accomplished restorer looked closely at this painting, he noticed there were some embellishments on top of the varnish on the painting. A big black hair bow had replaced the flowers, the jewelry had been toned down, and a locket featuring Lincoln’s silhouette had replaced the cross. The biggest change was the face--Mary Lincoln’s face had replaced the plain visage.

The restorer and museum historians discovered that a man named Lou Bloom--a man of all trades and an amateur painter--had sold this fake painting of Mary Lincoln to Bob Beckweith, a grandson of Robert Lincoln, for two or three thousand dollars. In 2010, the painting was stripped of the varnish and embellishments and restored to its original appearance. Now the museum staff is working to figure out who this mysterious lady is. Inspecting newly donated artifacts and discovering fakes is an interesting part of an ALPLM staff member’s job.

The Museum hires preservationists and conservationists to work with all its artifacts. Bonnie Parr is a conservator for the ALPLM. She demonstrated how she cleans 200-year-old documents, how she repairs tears in old maps, how she encapsulates paper documents in plastic film to protect them, and how she creates the perfect box or display equipment for books and artifacts in the Museum. She explained there are four rules for preserving the precious keepsakes: clean, cool, dry, and dark. All the materials and artifacts in the Library are stored in a dark environment that is kept at about 65 degrees with humidity at 43 percent.

Mark DePue, Director of the ALPLM Oral History department stressed the importance of interviewing eyewitnesses to history. He showed us examples of some amazing interviews with W.W.II veterans and one of Illinois’s first female basketball players able to play thanks to Title IX. DePue said we can preserve history with modern technology--oral history can show opinions, reflections, insights and emotional responses. The anecdotes bring history to life. He stressed the importance of designing a mission and a theme for the interview, and being sure the narrator is relaxed and comfortable relating his/her story. The interviewer must be knowledgeable and prepared. He/she has to guide an interview and be objective. He/she must ask leading questions and most importantly, must LISTEN. DePue gave us great sites on the ALPLM web site to create assignments in recording oral history for our classes.

The Museum features a temporary exhibit that changes each year; this year’s exhibit is “To Kill and to Heal,” a study of weaponry and surgical methods during the Civil War. Jack Navins, a retired navy physician and ALPLM volunteer, explained to us which of the Civil War medical tools are still used today in surgery, and which are obsolete. These included some nasty-looking amputation tools. “We have automated machines today for that--not those old fashioned saws,” Navins said.

He told us of the process of making a temporary exhibit, including choosing a topic and title, writing a script, selecting graphics, and arranging loans of artifacts, and finally cutting (there are loads of documents and photos to choose from!).

The sketchy history of Civil War surgeons is based on a weird system where medical school students paid the faculty directly. Doctors would pool together and open a school. They wouldn’t kick any students out because, of course, they looked forward to collecting students’ tuition money again the next semester. Students would take the same courses 2, 3, or 4 times.

In war, both sides were very unprepared to deal with injuries and sickness. At first there were no ambulances. The wounded would walk away from battle with one or two other soldiers supporting them. This would take not just one, but probably three men out of action.

The battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in American military history with no supplies for field hospitals. But this battle was the first to introduce ambulances. The Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, brought the first adequate medical preparation. Because of open terrain, casualties could not be evacuated until dark; many men lay bleeding and suffering on the battlefield from 6:00 A.M. until sundown. The Battle of Gettysburg fought July 1-3, 1863, is the largest battle ever fought in the New World. There were 160 hospitals, 45 of them in homes. Supplies were kept 25 miles away, and railroads were closed until July 6. Of the 650 Union surgeons, 544 left in pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s retreating men.

The advances that came from medical trial-and-error in the Civil War included organization, pavilion-style hospital design (the pavilion makes a good triage center during traumatic crisis), production of smallpox vaccinations, experiments with quinine to prevent malaria, improvement of surgical skills, and development of neurology as a medical specialty. Also, nursing switched from being an all-male profession to a female-dominated profession.

We learned most deaths during the Civil War were due to disease, not gunshots. Dysentery, diarrhea, consumption, and typhoid fever were the #1 killers. 28 percent of the wounds were treated with amputations.

Mark DePue returned and gave facts in his “Lincoln: Commander and Chief” presentation regarding Lincoln’s two objectives when elected President: preserving the Union with the Confederate states rejoining, and continuing the great American experiment.

Lincoln swore the Union would not fire the first shot in the Civil War; thus, it began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. The Union army had 16,000 troops; they were scattered, regimental-sized, led by inexperienced officers, and commanded by a very old military advisor who had a tiny staff. Lincoln didn’t call up a large number of men to serve because he didn’t want to spread fear about a long upcoming battle. Every white, able man aged between 18 to 45 served in the militia.

Lincoln’s own war experience included being elected commander in the militia fighting the Blackhawk War. He shot no one in his wartime experience. He knew nothing about the President’s role as Commander-in-Chief but became a self-taught strategist. He sat down with military experts and asked them questions.

To win the war, Lincoln needed economic, technological, social, political, and diplomatic strategies. Technologically, he made use of railroads, telegraph, steam-powered ironclads, rifled muskets, new minne ball ammunition, and improved artillery with faster-loading weapons. Socially, he needed the will of the people to persevere. The South had the advantage based on culture, politics, religion, and beliefs. Politically, he had to convince the secessionist states to rejoin the union. He said, In a letter to Horace Greeley dated Aug. 22, 1862, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that . . . “He needed to preserve the border states (Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware).

After each major battle, the goals changed. His generals--McClellan at Antietam, Burnside at Fredericksburg, Meade at Gettysburg, and Grant at Vicksburg--each made different forms of progress that affected the next strategy.

Keeping track of all the history Lincoln created is Kathryn Harris, the ALPLM Director of Library Services. She gave us a tour of the spectacular three floors of facilities. Springfield’s Presidential Library started in 1889, and it has always kept Abraham Lincoln documents. The Library holds over 200,000 books and maps in its first floor reading area and the climate-controlled basement. The basement floor had to be reinforced to support the magnificent weight of the compact shelving full of bound books.

The Library holds over 12 million manuscripts, 400,000 audiovisual documents, and over 100,000 reels of newspapers on microfiche. Thanks to generous donors, The Library owns 120 copies of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin--several are 1st editions, and several are printed in many world languages. The Library owns over 15,000 artifacts about Abraham Lincoln.

Not only Lincoln history is documented at the Presidential Library, but so is all of Illinois history. As Harris’s assistant, Jane, noted, “If you were born in, lived in, died in, or even passed through Illinois for a couple hours, you’re recorded in this Library.”

An amazing capper to the day was our delicious catered dinner in the large plaza of the Museum. While we ate and visited, the Lincoln family dressed in their best stood guard, and we sat in the crossroads of Abe’s log cabin and the White House. We were awarded certificates, souvenir coins, silver bookmarks, and photos, and then a special guest appeared: Harriet Tubman. Kathryn Harris, as it turns out, is not only an amazing librarian, but also a gifted speaker who brought Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad conductor, to life before our eyes. She told her stories of helping slaves escape to freedom and made it clear she “never got caught, and never lost a passenger.” All the teachers agreed we learned more from her 20-minute oratory than we could ever have gotten out of reading a book or watching a video. She was enthralling.

Read the last installment of the series in next week’s Fillmore County Journal!

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