Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2015


In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In September 2013, the Newberry Library in Chicago offered a new online exhibit to the public entitled Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North. This particular exhibit, focusing on the ways that the home front and battlefields were connected during the American Civil War, features items from the Newberry Library along with paintings from its partner for this project, the Terra Foundation for American Art. Home Front is one of nearly fifty online exhibits in the Newberry Library’s collection and may be found under the “Digital Resources” list on the library website.

The Home Front exhibit is set up with a menu bar to the left with nine main headings and a link at the end to credits. When users click on one of the main headings, the menu bar expands to show multiple subheadings within that topic. Site navigation can be controlled in several ways; a user can jump to topics of interest or click through the screens in order. From the “Introduction” section, users gain a sense of what the exhibit hopes to accomplish—to understand the impact of the Civil War on the home front and the relationship between the home front and battle front—using “objects of daily life [that] demonstrate the profound impact of visual culture in shaping individuals’ understanding of the war.” It is clear from the first few screens that the narratives of historical background or context are brief but the explanatory captions of each image are sufficiently thorough. This is not a website designed to teach a new learner about the Civil War, but rather to expose someone who already understands the background of the conflict to important artifacts across a variety of themes related to the northern home front.

The eight main subject areas are: “Cotton Kingdom”; “Contrabands”; “Indian Country”; “Stand by the Flag”; “Women’s Work”; “Chicago in the War”; “Autumn of War”; and “War’s End.” Some of the most interesting discussions within these topics include the seizing of southern cotton as a strategy of war, the impact of the Civil War on Natives in the territories, such as the 1862 hanging of thirty-eight men from the Dakota tribe authorized by President Abraham Lincoln, and the marketing of military-style fashion to middle class women in the North. One particularly powerful image, Samuel Colman Jr.’s Ships Unloading, New York (1868), features ships arriving at the docks of New York City with cotton from the South. A ship banner labeled “London & New York” emphasizes the relationship between southern cotton and two of the largest commercial ports on the Atlantic. The North’s complicity in the cotton trade, and thus slavery, is starkly clear in this painting.

On each page, there are generally between three and five images and related descriptions. When clicking on one of the images, users are taken to a page that resembles a library call card, with collection details and bibliographic information. A second click on the image from this page brings users to a larger version that can be studied closely. Providing the caption or description again at this stage would be helpful so that users can understand clearly the interpretation provided while viewing the image.

The “Indian Country” topic contains fascinating primary sources. From sketch artists’ renderings to fictional novel cover art, these will provoke discussion in classrooms and prompt an interest in additional reading. A short list of secondary source suggestions would be valuable for each topic. The exhibit also includes a number of songs, which are an exciting find for any historian, especially professors looking to engage students with the time period. The images that accompany the music are often the cover page of the piece or the sheet music itself. Occasionally, lyrics are presented as a part of the caption. A problem arose with the music, however, because the website is not compatible with all browsers. While using Google Chrome to view the exhibit, the play button and other controls did not appear for the songs. Instead, the music began immediately and there was no way to turn it off without switching to the next page. In one instance, on the page “Stand By the Flag,” three...