Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Historical Society to present ‘Photography and Letter Writing in Civil War Brooklyn’

March 10, 2015 From Brooklyn Historical Society
Brooklyn Historical Society’s “Personal Correspondents” will feature personal stories of Brooklyn soldiers and their families during the American Civil War. Image from Bennett family collection; Brooklyn Historical Society.
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Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) will present “Personal Correspondents: Photography and Letter Writing in Civil War Brooklyn,” a new exhibition that reveals the personal stories of Brooklyn soldiers and their families during the American Civil War.

Stories are told through BHS’ extensive 19th-century photography and correspondence collections, uncovering tales that are often moving, light-hearted, and tragic at the same time. This exhibit will open to the public on April 9, the 150th anniversary of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War. It will remain on view through spring 2016. Gallery hours are Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. 

Between 1861 and 1865, more than 30,000 men departed Brooklyn to fight in the war, leaving behind spouses, sweethearts, parents, children, siblings and friends. In order to transcend physical distance, prolonged separation, and often the specter of death, they wrote tens of thousands of letters over the course of the war. Hundreds of these letters have been preserved in BHS’ archives. 

“Personal Correspondents” showcases the voices and faces of these Brooklynites — men and women, black and white, rich and poor — and transports visitors to the heart of Civil War Brooklyn. 

“The American Civil War is steeped in a rich history that not only reveals the political and social climate of our country at that time, it tells the tale of ordinary people living their lives in extraordinary times,” said Deborah Schwartz, president of BHS. “This exhibition does a phenomenal job of uncovering those stories through the lens of Civil War Brooklyn and the many ways loved ones communicated with each other during this difficult period. I hope that visitors are inspired to think about how communication has evolved and its significance today to those loved ones both in the military and at home.” 

To bring these intimate correspondences to life, the exhibition features audio stations with the recorded voices of United States Armed Forces veterans and actors Stephan Wolfert, Ed Walsh and Jack Eubanks reading the letters of three Civil War soldiers. The audio stations not only illuminate these soldiers’ Civil War stories, they also allow visitors to reflect on family relationships and how communication has evolved over a century and a half. 

Along with letters, “Personal Correspondents” features a large-scale installation of 136 cartes-de-visites, an innovative and inexpensive photography format that rapidly grew in popularity during the Civil War. During this time, many visited local photography studios where they took advantage of this new technology to capture and share images of themselves and their loved ones. Letters in which Brooklynites chat about this emerging fad of photography are juxtaposed with the photography itself, inviting visitors to consider how Brooklynites stayed connected to each other through words and images. 

In addition to letters and photography, the exhibition features some of BHS’s most prized artifacts, including political broadsides, patriotic Civil War stationery and envelopes, interactive satirical political cartoons and more. Artifacts like canteens, military kepi hats, artillery and a surgeon’s case reflect the military experience of the Civil War, while objects from the home front like handmade bookmarks and sewing kits are also featured. 

Following the Civil War, many institutions failed to collect and preserve artifacts from African-American Civil War soldiers and their families. “Personal Correspondents” was able to bring to life the experiences of black soldiers, thanks to a special loan from the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University. One such artifact is a remarkable letter from Edgar Dinsmore, a black soldier in the Massachusetts 54th Infantry, to Brooklynite Carrie Drayton, describing his pride in his and his fellow African-Americans’ military service during the Civil War. 

“Personal Correspondents” also features a letter-writing station complete with a recreation of a camp desk and 19th century stationery. This will allow visitors to sit down and write a letter to a loved one or to one of the 19th century Brooklynites they encountered in the exhibit.

“In a world saturated with emails, texts and social media posts, we forget that writing by hand takes time, feels different and often prompts more intimate exchanges between loved ones,” said Julie Golia, BHS’ director of public history and curator of the exhibition. “Rather than telling that to museum visitors, we want our patrons to experience this declining but important form of communication themselves.” The station will include instructions for writing to active-duty service members. 

In connection with the exhibition, BHS will feature a series of public programs, including screenings, panel discussions and book talks that, among other things, explore the experiences of veterans and their families as they communicate and remember each other across oceans today. All programs are open to the public. More information, tickets and registration for public programs can be found at 

And still on view at BHS is “Brooklyn Abolitionists/In Pursuit of Freedom,” a thought-provoking, interactive exhibition that uncovers the lesser-known stories of Brooklyn activists who fought for freedom and racial justice in the 19th century. 

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