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Making History: The Huntington Library and the Civil War

Huntington Library

As delivered.

I am honored to be here and to join the long and distinguished line of Founder’s Day speakers celebrating the birthday and the genius of Henry Edwards Huntington. My predecessors in this role have included an array of scholars, political leaders, museum and library directors, as well as, I discovered, a number of college and university presidents. Scholars in their own right, these academic leaders had devoted much of their lives to building and sustaining institutions committed, like the Huntington, to research and learning. On Founder’s Day, as we mark the 100th year of this remarkable place, it is worth contemplating how an institution that nurtures knowledge comes into being, what makes it thrive, and what enables its distinctive contributions.

Today I would like to address that question through the lens of of two aspects of my own life’s work: my scholarly endeavors as a Civil War historian in the nearly half century since I received my Ph.D and my efforts as what I might call an intellectual institutionalist in my years as a university leader. I want to explore how the Huntington Library became such an influential force in Civil War scholarship and to muse on some of the ways it has shaped the field.

It is worth pausing on this Founder’s Day to acknowledge and to trace the importance of institutions like the Huntington. I will look specifically at its impact on Civil War history, but we should also think more broadly; we should remember and affirm why history matters and why institutions matter. We find ourselves at a national and perhaps even global moment when humanistic learning, the institutions that nurture it, and indeed institutions more generally are under siege. Yet institutions play a critical role in making us greater than our own particular moment, connecting us to our predecessors and our origins and enabling us to inform and shape the future. They precede us and outlive us; they provide us with an invaluable inheritance and offer us the possibility of a legacy. So as we celebrate Founder’s Day and the Huntington centennial, let us also honor the larger principles and purposes it represents, as well as the many other organizations—libraries, museums, universities—that similarly strive to uphold them. As Princeton president Harold Dodds observed in his 1955 Founder’s Day address, the Huntington Library embodies an essential “appreciation of those human values which set men off from animals and which are revealed and cultivated by those branches of knowledge which we term the humanities.” Let us ensure that neither those values nor the structures that preserve and nurture them fall prey to the current ferment of “disruption” and instrumentalism.

The Civil War occupied a place at the Huntington from the very start. Henry Edwards Huntington was fifty years old before he began about 1900 to acquire a “few shelves of sumptuous books.” In little more than a decade, he had become engaged in book collecting of an intensity and scale that reflected the same drive—and some of the same strategies—that had made him a titan of industry. He recognized that if he hoped to amass a major collection after starting so late in life, he needed to acquire books rapidly and in great numbers, not just an attractive copy or two at a time. In an initial dramatic gesture, he purchased in 1911 the fabled library of Elihu Dwight Church en bloc for a million dollars. The world noticed. This “new man” in the book collecting game, The New York Times observed, “comes with a shovel.”

In the fifteen years that remained before his death, Huntington, under the guidance of a succession of experts, acquired some 175,000 volumes and 800,000 manuscripts, chiefly through the purchase of entire libraries. Through much of the 1920s, Huntington spent well over a million dollars annually on his acquisitions.

After an early interest in fine bindings and printings, Huntington soon came to focus on English and American literature and history. He hoped to document the origins and development of these civilizations and trace the origins of what he saw in the early twentieth century as their cultural and political ascendancy. The period of the American Revolution, the origins of the republic, and the heroic figure of Washington were critical in his mind. (One of the collections he purchased included 300 editions of Washington’s Farewell Address.) But Huntington saw the Civil War era and Lincoln as essential to the story of America as well. Among the libraries he acquired early in his frenzied decade and a half of accumulation were two of what were known as the “Big Five” existing collections of Lincolniana: that of Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s law partner, and the Judd Stewart Lincoln Library, which included more than 2000 books, as well as pamphlets, sheet music, broadsides, engravings, and manuscripts. One of the most famous items in the collection is the so- called Ellsworth letter, an 1861 condolence note in Lincoln’s hand sent to the parents of the first Union officer killed in the war. But it was not just high-profile Lincoln material that the Library was adding to its Civil War resources.

More than a dozen other significant but less famous collections were acquired in the 19 teens and 1920s. This was an opportune time to procure Civil War material because more than a half century after Appomattox, veterans were dying off and their personal collections and memorabilia were necessarily changing hands. Many relatives were looking to sell or donate these often sizeable archives. For example, Lt. Colonel John Page Nicholson of Philadelphia, who had served in the 28th Pennsylvania during Sherman’s March to the Sea, had accumulated 9500 volumes related to the military history of the war. Upon his death in 1922, his widow Gertrude reached out to the Huntington, which she had happened to read about in The New York Times, and arranged for the sale of her husband’s entire library for some $30,000. Southern California turned out to be a particularly rich field for collecting soldiers’ papers during these years because it had become home for a large number of Civil War veterans. For example, Henry Robinson, chair of the Huntington Board of Trustees, donated 26 wartime letters from his father, who had served in the Ohio Volunteer Infantry and who had died in 1917. This correspondence offered, the library’s annual report noted, “a graphic picture of a common soldier’s life.”

By the mid-1920s, Huntington’s interest in rare books and printing had expanded to include a growing appetite for manuscripts, a development that was accompanied by his emerging recognition that his library must be about more than accumulation or even display. It must be an institution devoted to serious scholarship and research. An explicit statement from the Board of Trustees of the newly created non-profit organization for the Huntington defined research as a fundamental commitment for the Library and set forth an ambitious plan for a permanent research staff. Interestingly, the trustee most active in formulating this agenda and ensuring Mr. Huntington’s support a little more than a year before his death in 1927, was George E. Hale, a distinguished astronomer. The organization’s Third Annual Report in 1931 would state that “the Huntington Library is unusual, if not unique, through the special provisions in the deeds of trust for its becoming a research institution in the humanities, comparable to some of the great research institutions in the sciences.” Men of science like George Hale, or Robert Millikan, Nobel prize winning physicist, Cal Tech president and long-time Huntington Board chair, or Edwin Hubble, discoverer of galaxies, who served as Huntington trustee for 15 years, drew on their knowledge of the structures that had supported scientific research to build what they saw as a unique experiment to extend these practices and opportunities to the humanities. This was far from inconsequential for Civil War history for it meant that the Huntington would not just make invaluable books and manuscripts available. It would support a vigorous program of research and of researchers who would work individually and collectively to shape the future of the field.

Both scholarship and the Huntington were fortunate when the Library persuaded Max Farrand to serve as the first director of research. A former professor of American history at Yale and Stanford, Farrand emphasized from the outset the highest scholarly standards and emphasized the reach and range of the Huntington’s intellectual agenda. No disciplinary departments would isolate scholars or their inquiries. The purpose of the Huntington, he believed, was to explore the history of Anglo-American civilization in all its “economic and social, intellectual and spiritual, governmental and political” dimensions.

Farrand had a wide professional acquaintance and quickly attracted an array of distinguished scholars to the positions he had deemed so important to the Huntington’s identity. The eminent historian Frederick Jackson Turner spent most of the remainder of his life at the Huntington. And in 1931, nineteenth-century American historian Avery Craven of the University of Chicago accepted a research position. He promptly edited a series of Robert E. Lee letters from the Library’s collection and published a study of southern secessionist Edmund Ruffin that drew on Huntington materials.

But the Depression weighed heavily on an institution largely dependent on investment returns and required “rigid economies” taken in face of “a greatly reduced income.” Collecting of Civil War and other materials continued, but at a far slower pace, and the numbers of research appointments was constrained. Before the Depression had lifted, the trustees found themselves confronting another crisis—a world at war. The Library had built repositories to enable the Huntington’s treasures to withstand earthquake, heat, cold, and humidity. But it was entirely “unprotected”, the trustees reported, from “even light bombing.” There is an intriguing story to be told—though not by me today—about the massive relocation of collections, the shortage of groundsmen for the gardens and researchers for the Library during the Second World War. But for our present purposes, the war had another significance.

During its first two decades, the literature and history of the English Renaissance had become what the Annual Report described as “the favorite field for investigation” by researchers, as well as the most widely recognized jewel of the collections. But the war years witnessed a shift in readers’ projects towards American history, a reflection in part of the patriotism and national self-consciousness the war had generated. The realities of ongoing war sparked increased interest in aspects of the conflict that had consumed the nation less than a century before. The Huntington Library Quarterly published articles on such relevant subjects as censorship in the Civil War, rules of war, soldiers and the ballot. As the military moved to the center of American life, the Quarterly noted that the Library ranked among “the great repositories on the military history of the Civil War.”

The preponderance of American history researchers that Huntington staff first reported in 1942-3 persisted long after the war came to an end. Numbers of the era’s most prominent American historians and, in particular, Civil War historians, appear in Library records during the 1940s and early 1950s. As visiting researchers or speakers or contributors to Library publications, men—still all men—like James G. Randall and William Hesseltine delved into Lincoln materials; another group of scholars explored the history of the Confederacy. Bell Wiley, distinguished professor at Emory University and powerful voice in Civil War studies was a researcher, author of an article in the Quarterly, a Founder’s Day orator, and an advisor to the Library on acquisitions. Renowned as the first historian to produce serious scholarship on the experience of the common soldier in his two now classic books, The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank, Wiley celebrated the “value and rarity” of a newly accessioned collection of letters from a Union infantryman that the Quarterly described as “perhaps the largest extant Civil War correspondence of a soldier on either side.”

From the earliest days of Civil War collecting, with the 1922 gift from Trustee Henry Robinson of his father’s papers, the Huntington had valued and sought to document the lives not just of prominent generals and statesmen but of ordinary participants in the war. A 1962 publication entitled “Ten Centuries of Manuscripts” explained that the Library’s commitment to American history extended well beyond the powerful and the privileged. “But not always are the most significant documents associated with illustrious names,” it declared. “In a democracy such as ours it is fitting that many a lesser figure also helped bring the United States into being and make it great. There were the actors who played obscure but dramatic bit parts in the moving picture of history. Many of them now are all but forgotten; others are remembered by posterity only because their letters have survived.” This commitment would take on growing importance and influence in decades to come as historians increasingly focused their work on ordinary people. As it grew in influence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this emerging direction in historical studies was dubbed “the history of the inarticulate,” but collections like those at the Huntington made it evident that great numbers of these past actors were not inarticulate at all.

Among the prominent historians visiting the Huntington, the name Allan Nevins begins to appear in Library publications in the late 1930s. A journalist turned historian, a professor at Columbia and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Nevins was at work on a multi-volume history of the Civil War, which would become the magisterial Ordeal of the Union. By at least the early 1950s he had become a Huntington regular. In 1956, he delivered the Founder’s Day lecture; the following year he was listed as a visiting research fellow.

Upon his retirement from Columbia in 1958, Nevins took up fulltime residence as a research scholar at the Library. He was not an inconspicuous presence. Ray Billington, the distinguished historian of the American West, was also based at the Huntington during these years, and he wrote vividly of his colleague. “His entrance each morning,” he declared, “was a spectacular event.” Laden with books and papers, Nevins was too impatient to wait for the elevator, and instead sprinted up the stairs and ran down the hall to his office. At the end of the day, it was all but impossible to get him to halt his labors, so the staff began to set the clocks on his floor several minutes fast so that he would leave the building before he got locked in. He believed fervently in exercise, and at lunchtime would often recruit others in the cafeteria for what was generally referred to as a “death march” at breakneck speed through the gardens, an excursion during which “panting scholars” struggled to keep up with the pace—of the walk and of the intellectual conversation.

Nevins seemed in every way indefatigable—engaging not just in his own writing and research but assuming an array of broader responsibilities that would have an impact on the Library as well; during these years Nevins served as President of the American Historical Association, founder of American Heritage magazine, director of the Lincoln Sesquicentennial, and, most important for the Huntington, chairman of the Civil War Centennial Commission. Observances of the war’s anniversary which began to be planned in the late nineteen fifties had gotten off to a rocky and contentious start. Segregationist southerners resisting Brown v. Board and growing civil rights activism embraced a pro Confederate stand on Civil War memory that was sharply at odds with the views of those who identified the roots of the twentieth century movement for integration and equality in the Civil War era. As historian—and recent Huntington fellow—David Blight has put it, the Centennial struggled to balance “Civil War remembrance with civil rights rebellion.” “Pro Confederate, racially divisive, and Cold War impulses,” plagued the effort. When John F. Kennedy appointed Nevins as Commission chair late in 1961, the president hoped to shift the focus from politically charged issues to rigorous and respected scholarship. This appointment brought not just Nevins, but the Huntington more generally, into a prominent place in the war’s anniversary. In the spring of that year, the Library mounted a centennial exhibit featuring its “rich collections” of Civil War material. Reflecting the official stance that characterized the centennial overall, the exhibit made no judgments about the justness of the Confederate cause, and the Library proudly reported that “both sides of the conflict were skillfully and impartially presented.” As Nevins himself observed, “A host of white southerners died for what they believed a just cause; a host of northerners died for what they held a sacred duty; a host of Negroes died, many in the uniform of the United States, for the achievement of freedom and human equality. We must honor them all.” Nevins assumed what he regarded as an impartial—and, in its explicit inclusion of African Americans, he believed, even a progressive—stance on the Centennial’s racial and sectional politics. We now wonder how it was possible to be impartial about bondage and freedom. In 1883, Frederick Douglass had proclaimed that he would never “forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery,” but on this fundamental and searing question, the Civil War Centennial committed itself to willful amnesia.

Nevins felt no such need to be impartial on matters of historical practice. He held strong views about the particular subjects a history of the war should encompass, and deplored what he called the “drum, bugle and cannon-smoke” focus of the Commission’s early work. “If the National Commission tried to reenact a battle,“ he declared, “my dead body will be the first found on the field.” Everyone knew who Beauregard was, he noted, but how many, he asked, understood the critical part Walt Whitman had played? Whitman’s war diary and manuscripts were, of course, among the Huntington’s treasures.

Nevins’ approach to the Civil War reflected the broad, interdisciplinary approach to scholarship that the Huntington had long nurtured. As one of his signature initiatives, Nevins launched a book series with the prestigious publishing house Alfred A. Knopf on the impact of the war, and he commissioned volumes on law, medicine, science, literature, public welfare, labor, agriculture, women and African Americans. Not every one of his fifteen recruits ultimately delivered the promised manuscript, but Nevins brought a half dozen of the authors for extended research fellowships at the Library to support them in their efforts. Mary Elizabeth Massey, for example, came to write her book Bonnet Brigades, often considered, despite its quaint title, the first modern treatment of women and the war. Nevins worked closely with her, even to the point of line editing, “smoothing the English and removing the excess verbiage.” Daniel Aaron held fellowships for two different years as he researched and wrote what would become his classic, The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War.

Nevins was also active in identifying Civil War collecting opportunities for the Library. An uptick in Civil War acquisitions coincides with Nevins’ arrival in 1958, and the 1960s brought more than a 50% increase over any earlier decade in numbers of Civil War collections added to the Library. Some of this material documented the lives of prominent Civil War figures such as the nearly 4000 items in the papers of Union General Joseph Hooker or the rich collection of papers of Admiral David Farragut. But many of the acquisitions recorded far humbler lives: the heart-rending correspondence of James Alvin Bell and his fiancé Augusta Anna Hallock Elliott who wrote one another more than 400 letters during his time of service in the 8th Illinois but never reunited to marry before his death in an army hospital in 1863; or the 13 volumes of pocket diaries carried by Union soldier Obadiah Ethelbert Baker that comprise the bulk of a collection that also includes a journal written by his wife Melissa. If you look for these materials in the Library catalogue you will of course find them under the names of James and Obadiah, the soldiers whose experiences librarians and scholars of the 1960s were eager to document. But in both these and many other similar collections, the voices of women are prominently featured. As the history of women drew increasing attention in the 1970s and beyond, it would be figures like Augusta and Melissa, not just James and Obadiah, who would attract researchers to these materials.

A number of the collections added to the Library during the 1960s were gifts or purchases from family members. Henry Isaac Colyer’s papers documenting his service in the 157th New York infantry were sold to the library by his son; James Herbert George’s records of his experiences as a fifer in a military band came from Genevieve George; Thomas Sumner Greene’s experiences in the 47th US Colored Infantry were a gift of Isabel Greene. The activities and press coverage generated by the Civil War Centennial led many individuals who had been holding historic material to recognize both their value and fragility and to transfer them to archives where they could be both used and preserved. Allan Nevins’s prominence in the observances made him an obvious contact and conduit for such transactions.

By the late 1960s, as centennial observances ended, the Library’s annual report noted that “The wide interest in the American Civil War period of recent years has declined markedly.” Allan Nevins himself was declining as well and in 1969 became an honorary research associate before retiring from the library altogether. When he died in 1971, the Library mounted a memorial exhibit of his life and work in his memory.

A considerable portion of the attention of librarians and staff seemed to shift from the conflicts of the 1860s to the upheavals of the 1960s. “Whatever the rights and wrongs about the disturbances in universities and colleges”, the Library’s Annual Report observed in 1970, “it is clear that productive research is one victim of the tumult.” The Huntington could be a haven for scholars above and apart from the fray. But even the Huntington made its concessions to a changing era, declaring that “persons who don’t wear shoes are no longer excluded.”

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Civil War was not a central preoccupation for American historians or for the nation more broadly. The Huntington continued to enrich its Civil War collections, but at a more measured pace than during the Centennial, and researchers continued to consult the assembled treasures. But an explosion of interest in the war and a new era of Civil War studies was about to appear.

In 1977, Princeton professor James McPherson took up a fellowship at the Huntington Library. Over the next 35 years it would become a second academic home. During his first visit, he did research and writing for Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction which appeared in 1982. Much of that material proved valuable as well as he prepared Battle Cry of Freedom, published in 1988, just after McPherson’s second Huntington residency. The book caught the public imagination, won the Pulitzer Prize and became a runaway bestseller.

Growing popular interest in the war was both reflected and intensified by the success of McPherson’s book, and in the fall of 1990 it would be further amplified by the appearance of Ken Burns’ nine part TV series The Civil War. Released on the eve of the Gulf War as Americans contemplated sending troops into battle once again, the series attracted more than 39 million viewers and became the most watched program ever on PBS. The Huntington had made important contributions to the film. In my references to the Library’s collections I have so far spoken chiefly about manuscripts and books. But over the years the Huntington has also acquired unrivaled visual material portraying the war—photographs, scrapbooks, sketchbooks, watercolors, drawings, prints. Burns drew copiously from these for both his film and the accompanying book. The Library’s acquisitions in this area in the years since 1990 could provide even more remarkable visual resources for depicting the war. Perhaps it is time for another TV series that would make use of them. An exhibit of photographs from the Library to commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial in 2012 has certainly whetted our appetites.

The impact of McPherson’s book and of Burns’ series was enormous, fueling a burgeoning interest in the War in both popular culture and in scholarly investigations. But the historians undertaking this work were in important ways different from those who had preceded them. Since the burst of Civil War studies at the time of the centennial, social and cultural history had taken on new importance; women’s history and African American history had become established and vibrant fields; history “from below”—focused on the experiences of ordinary people—had become central; interdisciplinary work was now commonplace. The Huntington’s longstanding commitment to the broadest possible conception of what mattered in the past ensured that its collections would be a rich resource for this new historiography. And the Huntington’s unique structure as both a library and a research institution enabled it to support and build a community of scholars who influenced one another in redefining the field.

James McPherson continued to mine Huntington materials and to benefit from the Library’s research environment and support. The steady accumulation of Library collections documenting the lives of common soldiers would provide substantial material for What They Fought For, published in 1994 and then For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, which appeared two years later. These two studies inaugurated a wave of new scholarship on men in the ranks. Since his first fellowship at the Huntington, McPherson has published fifteen books on the war and is recognized as the doyen of the field. Many of these make significant use of Huntington treasures, as for example his recent work, War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, “enriched,” in McPherson’s words, by the David Farragut Papers purchased during the Civil War Centennial and the David Dixon Porter Papers, acquired by Mr. Huntington at the very outset of his collecting in 1912. McPherson has also succeeded, I would argue, more than any similarly respected academic historian, in reaching beyond an audience of scholars to attract a wide public to serious engagement with the war. In many ways, McPherson has realized Allan Nevins’ fond hopes of bringing rigorous, serious scholarship to general readers.

The late 1990s and the initial two decades of the twenty-first century have been an era of strong, steady popular and scholarly interest in the war. Professional historians have found that writing about the war can open a broader audience for their work, and the war years have offered an extraordinarily rich environment in which to explore many of the newest questions and emphases of historical inquiry. The Huntington has provided essential material and research support for these efforts. Throughout these years, the library has continued active collecting of Civil War materials, adding regularly to the inventory of letters and diaries of common soldiers, as well as military and government records, family papers, and a remarkable archive of Lincoln’s telegrams.

During the past two decades, Civil War scholars have also been prominently featured among the groups of fellows supported by year-long residencies that have enabled collaborations and conversations and generated new insights and changed perspectives. Exploring such varied topics as medicine, religion, family life, memory, refugees—both black and white, prisoners of war, emancipation as well as more traditional military and political subjects, these fellows have made use of their time at the Huntington to produce a stream of books for both general and academic audiences. But the Library’s sphere of influence has extended beyond those lucky enough to spend time as fellows or those who benefited from short term visits to use rare library materials.

Beginning in 1999, the Huntington has sponsored seven conferences on the Civil War, including one specifically to commemorate Lincoln during the bicentennial year of his birth. The most recent of these occurred in 2018, and I understand another is now contemplated. Each gathering has brought a dozen or so scholars to the Huntington to share and discuss their work with one another and with audiences made up of other academics, Civil War “buffs”, and an enthusiastic general public. Historians Gary Gallagher and Joan Waugh have been the major organizing force behind all of these events, providing intellectual imagination and continuity. Like James McPherson, Gallagher is a highly distinguished figure in Civil War history. His time in residence at the Library for several fellowship years has made him the hub of a community of scholars whose work has been shaped by the Library conferences, by shared fellowship years, and by the book series and edited volumes he has produced in addition to his own influential single-authored works. The Huntington has become an essential node in the network of Civil War scholars and scholarship.

What might we anticipate for the Huntington and the Civil War in the years and decades to come? At a time when student enrollments in the humanities have significantly declined, when history courses in high schools are being replaced by a social studies curriculum that may contain no historical component at all, when vocational pressures are undermining liberal arts commitments and institutions, there is reason for worry that extends well beyond the domain of history. In a time when facts seem not to matter, truths about the past threaten to become expendable as well. Yet we have seen dramatically in recent months how the words and intentions of our forbears as they created our government carry an immediacy that transcends centuries. And we can see too how the constitutional revolution embodied in the Civil War amendments—the 13th, 14th and 15th—fundamentally shape our national commitments. The new birth of freedom Lincoln called for in his Gettysburg address is an unfinished work we still struggle to realize. And in a moment of what might seem to be unprecedented division and partisanship, it is consoling and enlightening to explore how we have survived other such times.

Mr. Huntington intended for his Library to document and illuminate English and American history and culture. We have never needed that illumination more, and many parts of this institution—from the Ellesmere Chaucer to Pinky and the Blue Boy—contribute to it. But in this fraught moment in our national life, the history of the Civil War has a very special role to play. As then, we find ourselves assessing our national purposes, our notions of citizenship, of national power and federalism, of the meanings of slavery and freedom. There can be few better places to undertake this work than here, in these collections that connect us to others who have struggled as we must, and who fought and died for ideals and principles that are not just our heritage and but now our responsibility.