10 Boston lives tell the tale of the Civil War

A multimedia library exhibit takes personal route to history

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By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / June 10, 2011

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For them, the Civil War was a profound, heroic, and sometimes tragic extension of a deeply held cause to which they were wholly committed.

Together, these Bostonians came to epitomize the Yankee North and its resistance to slavery.

Some were famous; some were not. But 150 years after the war, the efforts of 10 local men and women will be showcased, beginning tomorrow, at the Boston Public Library with artifacts that rarely, if ever, have been displayed to the public.

They include William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist firebrand; Louisa May Alcott, author of “Little Women’’; Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., an Army lieutenant and future US Supreme Court justice; and Julia Ward Howe, who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’’

Titled “Home Front: Boston and the Civil War,’’ the multimedia exhibit combines treasures from the library’s special collections, short continuous videos, and the stories of its subjects to show how a war many miles away became intertwined with this city’s daily life.

“Rather than telling the war through numbers, we’re telling it through people,’’ said Beth Prindle, curator of the exhibit.

What visitors will not see are the traditional pieces of a Civil War display — casualty figures, battlefield maps, and profiles of legendary generals — that have long been used to describe this national watershed event.

Instead, as patrons enter the library from Boylston Street, they will be greeted by outsize images of the 10 men and women.

The object, Prindle said, is to provoke the question: Who are these people?

“It’s supposed to be an immersive experience,’’ the curator said. “We have tried to approach the war through different lenses.’’

In addition to the Bostonians, visitors can glimpse a lock of hair from John Brown, the antislavery leader who was executed after his 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry, W. Va.; a steel-blade pike that Brown used as a model for 1,000 other weapons; and Garrison’s plaster death mask.

“It’s these kinds of physical things that I think are important,’’ said Prindle, the library’s exhibitions and outreach manager. “If they could talk of what they’ve seen.’’

The artifacts also include lead type set by Garrison to publish the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, in his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator; a first edition of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’’; a collection box for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society; and Brown’s handwritten diary from 1859, which records a watch-repair errand in Boston as well as a request that Frederick Douglass, the freed slave and abolitionist leader, accompany him to New Bedford.

“Not only are we a site to finance your revolution, but also a place to get your watch fixed,’’ Prindle said about 19th-century Boston.

A handwritten report by the US Sanitary Commission, which inspected Army camps, is also notable for its jarring bluntness. A visit to a New York regiment produced this eye-opening assessment: “The surgeon is a drunken brute.’’ And then: “Dr. Weiser is a good-natured old granddad. Did not know a ball forceps from an instrument for extracting stone in the bladder.’’

The exhibit, which will run through Dec. 31, has been funded with $50,000 from the Associates of the Public Library, a nonprofit group that works to preserve the institution’s vast special collections and expand the library’s role in the community.

“These people really, really made a difference,’’ Vivian Spiro, chairwoman of the associates, said of the exhibit’s 10 subjects. “They pushed the whole initiative forward. When you look at the names of the Bostonians who got this whole antislavery fervor underway, they’re not household names in the rest of the country. They’re not like Grant and Lincoln. Who’s heard of Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis outside of Boston?’’

Otis, one of the lesser-known subjects, was a flamboyant socialite who directed the massive Boston relief effort for Union soldiers. At close to 70 years old, she reported to her post nearly every day for the duration of the war, Prindle said.

That relief work raised $1 million in goods and services, including 19 pairs of mittens that are acknowledged in an 1861 certificate to a Mrs. Appleton “for the soldiers who leave Boston.’’

The exhibit also features Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a white Bostonian who led a black regiment and was an activist and author. “He’s a rock star, but no one’s ever heard of him,’’ Prindle said.

“Having been in the presence of these materials for the last six months, I’ve fallen in love with these people,’’ Prindle continued. “They’re alive again, and I think that’s part of our responsibility as a library.’’

The artifacts have benefited from a $500,000 anonymous donation given to the associates for ongoing conservation and digitization of manuscripts, books, and objects. Such private support is invaluable, Prindle said, because the city-run library does not receive a budget specifically for preservation work.

The exhibit, which will join three other Civil War themes at the library, is viewed as a chance to share rare treasures with a broader audience.

“I’m thrilled that researchers can use our collection, but it’s important that all Bostonians know these materials are here,’’ Prindle said.

MacQuarrie can be reached at