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Discovering the Civil War

Photographs of the exhibit Discovering the Civil War which opened in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery April 30, 2010 at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

All are photos by Earl McDonald for the National Archives.

Entrance to the exhibit Discovering the Civil War which opened April 30, 2010 in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

In 1859 the prospect that the United States would break apart and plunge into civil war seemed remote. Few Americans could have imagined a war that would last four years, destroy much of the South, kill 620,000 soldiers and sailors, and free 4 million slaves. Yet just two years later, it happened.

In early 1861 the U.S. Army consisted of only about 14,000 men. The U.S. Navy was even smaller and scattered around the world's oceans. The new Confederate States of America had to create an army and navy from scratch. Just four years later, millions of men had fought on both sides.

Photograph of the exhibit Discovering the Civil War which opened April 30, 2010 in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis faced a Herculean task in raising and training huge armies and navies on very short notice. Although it was relatively easy to train privates and seamen, it was much more challenging to find and nurture capable officers who could command hundreds or thousands of men.

Through diplomatic negotiations and naval conflicts, the Civil War's impact extended far beyond U.S. borders - to London and Beijing, Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro. While Union and Confederate troops battled on American soil, a global diplomatic battle ensued.

Photograph of the exhibit Discovering the Civil War which opened April 30, 2010 in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

Photograph of the exhibit Discovering the Civil War which opened April 30, 2010 in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

Photograph of the exhibit Discovering the Civil War which opened April 30, 2010 in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

The Civil War transformed the lives of all who were swept up in it - whether on a battlefield or in a hospital, on a farm or in a factory.

cipher disc Cipher disk used to protect Union Army communications. This disc functioned by aligning the letters on the upper two disks with the numbers on the two lower disks. National Archives, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer

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