Austin | Dallas | Houston
Re-discovering the past

Historical documents come alive at HMNS's Civil War exhibition, but Houston is avoided

Enlarge
Slideshow
News_HMNS_Civil War_Maine Drum
Rope Tension Side Drum with Infantry Eagle Made by Charles E. Town, Bath, Maine, ca 1862. This drum was used by Priv. Alpheus Holbrook, 19th Maine Infantry. The drum is fitted with modern replacement drum heads and rope, but the eight leather tugs are original. Courtesy of The John Nau Collection
News_HMNS_Civil War_Virginia Cavalry Officers Hardee Hat
Virginia Cavalry officer’s hat with black ostrich feathers plume Courtesy of The John Nau Collection
News_HMNS_Civil War_Union Defenders Certificate
This colorful “Union Defenders Certificate” was included with an application for pension by Hannah Hotchkiss, whose son, Leonard, died while serving with Company B of the 30th Iowa Infantry. Courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration
News_HMNS_Civil War_Dance Revolvers
Dance Army Revolver .44 Caliber and Dance Navy Revolver .36 Caliber, manufactured by J.H. Dance & Brothers, Columbia and Anderson, Texas. The company produced about 135 .36 caliber and 350 .44 caliber revolvers under contract for the state of Texas. Courtesy of The John Nau Collection
News_HMNS_Civil War_Amputation Kit
Amputation kit. By the end of the war, surgeons took less than a minute to amputate a body part. Courtesy of The John Nau Collection
News_HMNS_Civil War_African American Cavalryman
Unidentified Member of the Duryee’s Zouaves 5th New York Infantry. These hard-fighting soldiers fought in the Seven Days Battles, the Second Battle of Bull Run at Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville before mustering out on May 14, 1863. Courtesy of The John Nau Collection
News_HMNS_Civil War_Simplot Drawing
General Grant at the Battle of Belmont by Alexander Simplot. Alexander worked as a special correspondent for Harper’s Weekly and covered the war along the Mississippi River and in Missouri. He would send his drawings to New York so that they could be published. Harper’s Weekly considered it fast if they could print a picture within two weeks of it being drawn. Courtesy of The John Nau Collection
News_HMNS_Civil War_Drummer
Unidentified Drummer, 12th Wisconsin Infantry. Boys as young as 11 could enlist to carry the drum into battle. When not on the battlefield, these musicians would assist surgeons with medical needs such as amputations. Courtesy of The John Nau Collection
News_HMNS_Civil War_Maine Drum
News_HMNS_Civil War_Virginia Cavalry Officers Hardee Hat
News_HMNS_Civil War_Union Defenders Certificate
News_HMNS_Civil War_Dance Revolvers
News_HMNS_Civil War_Amputation Kit
News_HMNS_Civil War_African American Cavalryman
News_HMNS_Civil War_Simplot Drawing
News_HMNS_Civil War_Drummer

The billboard advertisements for the new Discovering the Civil War exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science strike a heavy tone, asking "What have we done?" in all caps.

There are many more questions raised inside the exhibit, put together in part by the National Archives, but while the events may be haunting, the visuals are designed to draw visitors in.

As the title suggests, this isn't about going over the facts of the Civil War as we know them — the battles, the politics, and the like. Instead, the exhibit focuses on the small-scale effects of the war, and how events affected real people of the time.

 Think all this is ancient history? Curators specifically avoided choosing an area near Houston to avoid potentially inflaming any old wounds. 

The walls layer photographs, letters and other documents of the era, blown up and grouped around specific events and personal experiences: Citizens arguing over secession, 14-year-olds writing letters from the battlefield, doctors securing patents for new prosthetic limbs. There's a lot to read, sure, but the focused subject matter and the interactive visual and audio displays are engaging.

There are some particularly interesting vignettes, including a section on Civil War spies, the tools they used to code messages and the scientific advancements spawned by the war. History buffs will want to check out the original declaration of secession by South Carolina from 1860, an original copy of the 13th Amendment and, from Feb. 16 to 21, 2012, Lincoln's original Emancipation Proclamation. (Until then, visitors can see a replica.)

There are also diplomatic letters, including one in Chinese, a census book that includes Confederate president Jefferson "Jeff" Davis, and a ledger of crimes committed against blacks in Texas and the response.

Think all this is ancient history? Curators specifically avoided choosing an area near Houston to avoid potentially inflaming any old wounds.

When you're bored of historic documents, head to the second part of the exhibit, which features an amazing range of artifacts assembled by Houston Civil War collector John Nau. There are Union and Confederate uniforms, guns (including one that doubles as a grinder) and other battlefield relics.

There's also a special section devoted to the battle for control over the port of Galveston and the USS Westfield, which was rediscovered in 2005 and is being excavated and restored by the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation at Texas A&M.

It's a big, splashy exhibit, and there are plenty of items to examine, but Discovering the Civil War struggles to escape the feeling that making it through is akin to eating one's vegetables. There's a lot to take in, but the work is worthwhile.

"Discovering the Civil War" is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science through April 29, 2012.

Newsletters for exploring your city

Daily Digest

Houston news, views + events

The Dining Report

News you can eat

Insider Offers

Curated experiences at exclusive prices

Promo Alerts

Special offers + exclusive deals

We will not share or sell your email address