BENNINGTON, Vt. - The American Civil War was a watershed of technology, tactics, human rights and political determination at the state and federal level. But more than anything, it was about individuals. The Bennington Museum has opened two new summer exhibitions that will demonstrate its grass roots effects.
Jamie Franklin, the museum's curator of collections, said the two shows tell an American story that could, historically, be found in any small town or rural area in the country.
"We don't mean to glorify war, and in the process of organizing the themes of the shows and selecting items from our permanent collection, we tried to stay ambivalent to war per se, and use it instead as a backdrop to tell smaller, human stories, and thus reflect its real costs" Franklin said. "However, the history of mankind is inextricably tied to conflict, and the Civil War was devastating and changed our nation's course. Still, in that realm there are many stories to tell far past what we are used to in popular culture."
Franklin went on to say that when one thinks about the Civil War, the common vehicles to explore it are battles, dates, and generals. Veering away from that, Franklin said he told the story from the chronological end, and then moved to the start.
The first exhibition, "The Fabulous General Ripley: Gen. Edward H. Ripley and the Capture of Richmond," focuses on the Rutland native whose leadership journey was typical of educated citizen soldiers who found success in wartime service.
Ripley, a student at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. at the start of the war, was commissioned into the Vermont Volunteer Infantry after enlisting, and rose through the ranks to the level of Brevet Brigadier General by the time Richmond capitulated.
Franklin said much of the exhibition was well-chronicled and based on passages from a new History Press book by Vermont historian Bill Morgan.
"On April 6, 1865, the Bennington Banner announced that Richmond had fallen," Morgan wrote.
Among other priceless items on display, the aforementioned key to the notorious Libby Prison sits next to the Confederate flag which flew there, an artifact also in the museum's permanent collection.
Green Mountain tales
The second exhibition, "Bennington Boys (and Ladies Too): The Local Civil War Experience," mostly harkens back to the early years of mobilization and raising militias in southwest Vermont, the experiences of local individuals during the war, and the human element of brother fighting brother.
"From the perspective of my research, one thing that struck me was that for the most part, the fighting was not personal between soldiers," Franklin said. "Yes, they fought for causes and comrades, but there also seemed to be a lack of venom for the individual on the other side of the line, and that reflected a common national heritage. Also, these young soldiers grasped that they were thrown into the fire, as in many wars, to satisfy grander pursuits of those of greater societal stature and influence."
Here the exhibition gets nearly microscopic, with the snare drum of Norman Puffer, of Bennington, who enlisted in 1861 at age 14 to play in the band of the 2nd Vermont Regiment. However, when bands were eliminated due to money constraints, he re-enlisted, participating in every major conflict his regiment fought.
Franklin said Puffer was also at Ford's Theater the night of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, and witnessed the killing in great detail.
Several other items on display spoke to the lethality of improved infantry rifles and field artillery ammunition. One was a wrought iron prosthetic arm with a hooked end fitted for a Vermont soldier who had his arm blown off in battle.
Another artifact, Franklin continued, left a very deep impression in him when preparing the exhibition: a two-sided wooden splint made in Vermont for a soldier with a leg wound requiring lengthy immobilization.
"Talk about visceral," Franklin said. "The man's sweat marks and the mold from them are still on it."
The centerpiece of the second show is the ceremonial American flag made by Vermont women for local troops, and whose history was described in Morgan's book.
"On the stripes they embroidered the words: ‘Presented to the Bennington Boys of ‘61 by the Ladies,'" Morgan wrote. "The flag was publicly presented to Company A of the 2nd Vermont Regiment on June 5, 1861, at the Old First Church, with former Governor Hiland Hall presiding. The flag was used frequently in town parades but was never carried into battle. It was also used for decades after the war in ceremonies and was commonly draped over the coffin at each veteran's funeral."
In all, Franklin said what he hoped the public takes away for the two exhibitions is that the Civil War was an incredibly difficult event in American history, and the lives of local men and women were dramatically affected by it on a personal level.
"Despite the fact that most of the battles were fought in Virginia, the war wasn't some far-off event, but had profound impact locally." Franklin said. "From a scholar's perspective, we selected specific objects and stories with which the public may not be familiar. But those items give us a richer, deeper understanding of local contributions to the war effort and, really, the overall tenor and atmosphere of the war as a whole."
"The Fabulous General Ripley: Gen. Edward H. Ripley and the Capture of Richmond, and "Bennington Boys (and Ladies Too): The Local Civil War Experience," run through Oct. 27 at the Bennington Museum. Info: 802-447-1571 or visit benningtonmuseum.org.