“With his horses killed, his men dead, and his supports overwhelmed and driven back, the enemy rushed upon the battery. Van Pelt, as the last act of his young life, drew his sword and sprang to the front of his pieces, with that inexplicable frenzy which supplies with strength as with courage, he cried with a voice of thunder, ‘Don’t dare touch these guns.’ Onward the inexorable wave of glistening bayonets surged, over and past him, burying him under his lost guns.”
- New York Herald newspaper, 1863
Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln, General Custer. You probably learned all about these names in history class. But had you ever heard Lieutenant George Van Pelt’s story, or know why he defended the battle guns in the Loomis Battery right to the end of his life? He was willing to die for this battery because it was a source of pride for Michigan during the Civil War and in several key battles for the Union.
Hidden stories like these are a central part of Discovering the Civil War, the traveling exhibition on display this summer at Henry Ford Museum. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the war, and for the first time, this exhibit – which usually tours the country in three parts – has come together for the ultimate Civil War buff to dive into.
Artifacts like letters, diaries, maps and petitions straight from the vaults of the National Archives are the main focus of this display; it isn’t a typical exhibit where a timeline is laid out of the major battles and moments in history. Instead, it’s an in-depth look at the people and mysteries of the Civil War, sharing little-known stories, seldom-seen documents and unusual perspectives from this tumultuous time in America’s history.
But we don’t want you to merely look through the exhibition; we’re hoping you’ll really explore it, examine and think about why the Civil War ripped apart our fledgling country and how its outcome eventually brought us together as one united nation.
A distinctively modern element is blended in to the exhibit as well. Computer touch-screens connect you to a live Twitter stream (@discovercivwar), manned by National Archives volunteers back in Washington, encouraging you to share what you have learned during your visit or to ask a question about anything you have seen. If you’re already an avid Twitter user, you don’t have to wait to visit the exhibit; you can connect with the @discovercivwar team anytime. Each day they share information about an artifact from the Discovering the Civil War exhibit, just look for #dcwdoc each day in their Twitter stream!
We’re also proud to have a host of special events and lectures with well-known Civil War experts throughout the exhibition’s run, to give you an even deeper perspective of the people and places of the Civil War – keep an eye on our website and blog for more details.
On June 20-22, a truly historic event will take place: for 36 straight hours, people from all over the country will be able to view the original Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Lincoln, ensuring freedom for slaves across the Union. We’ll share more on this soon; stay tuned for details!
I hope you’ll be able to join us for this once-in-a-lifetime look at an influential part of our shared history – and that you’ll take pride in the contributions of Michigan soldiers and commanders like Lieutenant Van Pelt.
What stories or people of the Civil War have you always wanted to know more about?
Brian James Egen is the manager of special programs & equine operations at The Henry Ford.