Historical Society of Princeton Presents Civil War Exhibition

Linda Arntzenius

"Princeton's Civil War," a newly installed exhibition at the Historical Society of Princeton, documents the impact of the 19th century's most lethal conflict on the town and the University, then called The College of New Jersey.

Curated by historian and art historian husband and wife team Howard and Julia Williams Green, and presented against a backdrop of blue and gray, together with an eye-popping shade of yellow, the Historical Society of Princeton's latest exhibition opened yesterday, Tuesday, October 17.

It depicts a history of this variously named conflict  The War of the Rebellion, the War Between the States, the Civil War  that is by turns a sorry tale of wasted youth, courage, heroism, and pragmatic politics.

Fighting came as close as 200 miles to the town and few families were untouched.

"I found the numbers who died most distressing; it's all so sad," said Ms. Green, "But there is also much that is inspiring in the stories of bravery and extraordinary commitment."

The exhibition's first panel reports the story of James C. Johnson, the campus fruit seller who escaped slavery in 1843. Mr. Johnson was almost sent back under the Fugitive Slave Law after being recognized by a student whose home in Maryland was near that of Johnson's "owner." Princeton resident Miss Theodosia Prevost secured Mr. Johnson's freedom by donating his purchase price of $500  that's about $14,000 in today's value and no small gesture. "Uncle Jimmy," as he was known, eventually repaid Ms. Prevost with the money he earned as a licensed campus vendor, his job for more than 50 years.

Mr. Johnson's story serves as an emotional counterweight to views attributed to some of Princeton's founding fathers  those of Charles Smith Olden (1799-1876), for example. Governor of New Jersey from 1860 to 1863, Mr. Olden supported strict enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law that would have returned Mr. Johnson. He took the position that states should have the right to decide on slavery for themselves.

Olden's views and those of other Princeton patriarchs are juxtaposed in the exhibition with photographs of students with bad haircuts and pasty faces, looking uncomfortably formal in their bow ties and frock coats. The stories of these students and their teachers represent the dilemmas created by the Civil War. The exhibition presents the pull from both directions felt, particularly on campus, where there were allegiances on both sides.

Southern students -comprised about a third of the student body at the time, and John MacLean Jr., then president of the College, trod a fine line between the sympathies of its northern constituencies and the sensibilities of its Southern families. He hoped that the students called home to fight for the Confederacy would return after the war.

According to one exhibition note, late in the war MacLean "joined other town fathers in urging African-American young men to enlist in the Union Army." "There is no evidence," the commentary notes, "of his similarly encouraging the students of the college to join in the fight."

In January 1863, when Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation turned the war to save the Union into the war to end slavery, much of the response in the North, including Princeton, was lukewarm.

When the Union began recruiting African-Americans that year, New Jersey did not form a black unit. African-Americans from Princeton served in units organized by other states, or in the United States Colored Troops.

Another Princetonian, Charles Hodge (1797-1878), a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary for more than 50 years, was among those who defended slavery on the grounds that it was sanctioned in the Bible. Described as "the leading voice of Calvinist orthodoxy in the United States," Hodge held views that were influential in the South. To his credit, however, he later became an abolitionist and supported the Lincoln administration after deciding that "the level of degradation which American slavery imposed on its victims removed it from Biblical sanction."

Even before war broke out, the campus was divided. Three pro-Union students were expelled for abusing another who favored secession. When the national flag was taken down from Nassau Hall in an attempted show of neutrality, the local metalworker who reinstalled it became a hero.

After shots were fired at Fort Sumter, support for the Unionist cause increased in Princeton. Townspeople marched on the homes of well-known Democrats, demanding that they declare their position. War fever ran high as fellowship dissolved into enmity.

At the start of hostilities, each side was optimistic that it would dispatch the other in short order. In April, the Lincoln administration planned to suppress the rebellion with 75,000 three-month volunteers. In May, realizing its mistake, the administration called for additional enlistees to serve for three years, or for the duration. More than 10,000 men from New Jersey enrolled in 1861. Most of Princeton's young men fought for the Union and saw action in the major engagements  Shiloh, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg.

Touching Images

Laid out in three rooms of Bainbridge House, this small exhibition packs a lot of impact compared to its size. Designer Steve Tucker has installed large panels depicting military encampments and post-battle carnage. An 1864 map, "Panorama of the Seat of War," shows that nearly every major battle of the Civil War involved Princeton men.

Photographs taken at the start of the war as family keepsakes show young men carefully dressed and on the verge of manhood. Those taken during the war show unnamed soldiers waiting, standing in doorways, grouped with similarly maimed and injured men in front of a makeshift field hospital.

"Princeton's Civil War" also suggests the boredom of the soldier's life. Besides uniforms, swords, a knapsack, a canteen, there are dice and playing cards. The curators also present a glimpse of work on the home front, where women knitted socks and mittens, canned food, and made bandages, and other items for the troops.

Newspaper clippings, posters, letters, and photographs tell stories such as that of the Union spy Timothy Webster (1822-1862) who came to America from England as a boy of seven and later became a Pinkerton agent.

According to the exhibition notes, "His most notable achievement was sending information that foiled a plot to assassinate Lincoln as he changed trains in Baltimore en route to his inauguration. Working under cover in Richmond, Webster insinuated himself with leaders of the Confederacy, from whom he extracted valuable information. When he was exposed and captured in 1862, it was a great embarrassment to the Confederate leadership, and very upsetting to the Lincoln administration, which tried in vain to get him back." In spite of their efforts to have him returned, he was hanged in Richmond.

On the difficulty of finding documents to share regarding the involvement of Princeton's African-American community, Ms. Green said: "There is not a lot of detailed knowledge about local African-American soldiers," she said.

A list of the names of Union Army volunteers, both black and white, is taken from John E. Hageman's 1897 chronicle, History of Princeton and Its Institutions.

Princetonians who distinguished themselves during the War include Margaret Breckinridge (1832-1864), who set out on her own for Lexington, Kentucky in 1862 to serve as a nurse. Princeton's own Florence Nightingale, Ms. Breckinridge twice sailed down the Mississippi on a hospital ship to bring sick and wounded troops from the front before dying herself in 1864.

David Hunter (1802-1866) was badly hurt in 1861 at the first Battle of Bull Run. A graduate of West Point, General Hunter was a grandson of Richard Stockton, the signer of the Declaration of Independence. Called Lincoln's "abolitionist general" for his own efforts to abolish slavery in the area where he was in command, Hunter went on to raise a black regiment in South Carolina. His pioneering racial politics were recognized when African-American veterans of Princeton recognized him by naming their G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) post in his memory.

A year-and-a-half in the making, "Princeton's Civil War," was initiated by the Historical Society of Princeton's late director Gail Stern. Funded by a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission, with support from Princeton Financial Systems State Street, and the American Legion, Princeton Post No. 76, the exhibition's advisory committee included Joseph G. Bilby, Jeanette Cafaro, Elric J. Endersby, Wanda S. Gunning, James M. McPherson, Eileen K. Morales, Shirley A. Satterfield, and Stephen M. Williams.

"Princeton's Civil War" will run through Sunday, July 15, 2007. The Historical Society of Princeton is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 4p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call (609) 921-6748 or visit www.princetonhistory.org.

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