Wednesday, October 5, 2011

19th Century in the 21st?

            Massachusetts has always played a crucial role in the warfare of the United States.  The war for our independence began with the Boston Massacre and the Battle of Bunker Hill.  During the Civil War, Springfield was the manufacturing center for ordinance and artillery for the Union Army.  Two former Massachusetts governors, Benjamin Butler and Nathaniel P. Banks, were Major Generals in the Union Army.  Now, as the Civil War sesquicentennial is upon us, the Central Boston Public Library in Copley Square remembers this, the bloodiest war in our nation’s history, with a series of artifacts from the war, acknowledging both the role our state played, and the experience our split nation shared.  Topics range from cultural and literary influences to development in women’s rights.  This exhibit is for anybody who can look at an artifact, a sacred relic from a paradigm shift, and feel a visceral thrill as they mentally conjure the events this talisman has endured and shared.  To look upon the objects preserved is the thrill of feeling like one is reaching back 150 years to the glorious burden of bygone days, and to an era when titans walked the Earth.
            William Lloyd Garrison is one focus of the exhibit, for his role as a Bostonian of note in the war.  He ran the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator from 1831 to the end of slavery in 1865.  As was true for most radical speakers for and against slavery, Garrison held no public office, so he could afford to be hated by large sections of the population (think Ann Coulter or Michael Moore).  The Boston Public Library boasts several artifacts from Lloyd’s journey through this war.  The most catching was a large padlock, the size of a child’s head.  This was the lock to the Leverett St. prison, where he was held in protective custody by the Boston Police after he narrowly escaped capture and hanging by a mob of angry South Carolinians following one of his speeches.  A haunting demonstration of what could have happened that night is provided with Garrison’s death mask; this is a plaster casting of a person’s face taken immediately after death, commonly done in the 19th century to preserve a model of the face for future artists wishing to sculpt or paint the person as they lived.  Happily, this cast wasn’t taken until 1879, when he died peacefully in his sleep at his daughter’s home, at the age of 73.  His work is summarized by his magazine’s original typeset of the 13th Amendment (the Amendment abolishing slavery) in an issue from December, 1862.

Garrison's statue on Commonwealth Avenue

            The exhibit boasts original artifacts from the battlefield, as well.  The Civil War was the first war of the Industrial Revolution; this means rather than production of guns, cannons and ammunition by individual smiths, large factories were churning out more accurate weapons in greater volume and less time, and the identical process made parts interchangeable.  One of the innovations of this war was cannister rounds.   Prior cannons merely fired large, heavy iron balls, useful for attacking forts and large clusters of soldiers.  Cannister rounds, however, were large, explosive cylinders filled with large musket balls.  When fired, the cylinder immediately burst, spraying several dozen of these deadly projectiles, effectively turning a cannon into a giant shotgun.  One ball could take out several men, and one cannister contained 36 of these balls.  Like so many other Civil War innovations, this greatly increased the efficiency of killing enemy soldiers.
Effect on cannister round on the human skull

            The exhibit boasts an original Burnside Cartridge, as well, used with the Burnside Carbine (a rifle).  The Burnside Carbine increased the killing efficiency of the Union Army.  This was a breech-loading rifle (one that loaded from the rear).  Arming Union soldiers with these rifles gave them an advantage over Confederate soldiers, who often used muzzle-loading muskets.  Each time a Confederate soldier needed to fire his rifle, he had to a) load the powder; b) load the musket ball; c) force the ball down with a ramrod; d) install a percussion cap; and e) take aim and fire.  The musket balls were spheroid objects that weren’t perfectly fit to their rifles, and expelled hot gas from the rear when fired, which both posed a danger to the soldier firing and wasted explosive energy, making the bullets less accurate and lethal.  The Burnside Carbine used a Burnside Cartridge, which was both perfectly fit to the weapon and already contained black powder and a percussion cap.  The soldier needed merely to load the bullet, aim and fire.  The barrel of the Carbine was rifled (spiraled grooves etched in the weapon) and the bullet was cone-shaped, which made the bullet spiral as it travelled its trajectory, greatly improving distance and accuracy.  The joint between the barrel and breech of the rifle was sealed, as well, which eliminated wasteful expulsions of hot gas.  These bullets and rifles were manufactured in Bristol, Rhode Island.
The arduous process of musket-loading -- this was necessary for every single shot.

            To walk through the library is usually an ordinary event; its cool air conditioning, scores of computers and neighboring sky-scrapers give it the feel of an ordinary 21st century building.  To gaze upon these treasures from a terrible chapter in American History, however, is to be removed from all that.  Even if the cobbled streets and horse-drawn buggies are gone, the 19th century is vivid and real.  The events of the Great Rebellion are re-animated when you see a 1st edition copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a lock of hair from John Brown’s wife.  When the trance is lifted and 2011 resumes, one leaves the building with a vivid appreciation that Boston and the nation weren’t always what they were – they were once something very different.  One is suddenly quite aware of what that something different meant.

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