Our understanding of Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition in 1876 suffers from an ironic condition. The first American world’s fair was so thoroughly documented that the sheer amount of material keeps better understanding at bay. To come to terms with the significance of the event considered one of Philadelphia’s shining moments, researchers too often drown themselves in information. There’s just that much of it. Consider what’s online here at the Free Library of Philadelphia and here at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Offline, these and other institutions preserve even more. At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania there’s 30 vintage volumes and as many boxes listed in this 17-page finding aid (see the .pdf). Last year, PhillyHistory.org added the Free Library’s collection of 1,600 images, mostly all by the Centennial Photographic Company. These document the Centennial’s hundreds of buildings and thousands of exhibits.
With such multitudes of stuff, forays into this rich corner of the past tend to leave us out of balance, thrilled by discovery but still wanting discourse. And who could blame us from enjoying the simple sledding through the archival avalanche?
But there’s more here than stuff. So how do we get at the deeper meaning? Let’s parse the narrative of 1876, looking at less to see more. After all, here’s a defining event in the life of the city and one that remade the idea of the nation after a devastating Civil War. Only a decade before, the nation and the American people were rent asunder; the war killed or wounded nearly one in thirty citizens. Since surrender at Appomattox, there hadn’t been an event of national healing. Philadelphia and the celebration of the nation’s birth in 1876 finally offered a chance. Here and now, 10 million visitors would gather to see the new, post-Civil War America.
So we have to ask: why was a colossal, granite figure of a Union soldier posted at the entrance of the Main Building? To the company that produced the monument (and others like it) this 21-foot tall, 30-ton statue titled “The American Soldier,” “The Volunteer Soldier” or sometimes “The Private Soldier Monument” was about patriotism, but it was more about business. James G. Baterson and his New England Granite Company were developing a lucrative niche in the Civil War monument market. Inside the Art Building, now known as Memorial Hall, Commissioners had forbidden references to the Civil War. In reality, that taboo had been violated several times in the American displays, especially with Peter F. Rothermel’s huge depiction of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. But here, outdoors, stood a Union soldier for all to see. He stood at rest, but still he was armed.
After the Centennial, Baterson shipped the American Soldier Monument to Sharpsburg, Maryland, where it stands at the center of the Antietam National Cemetery. It marks the bloodiest single-day battle in American history: 4,000 dead and 19,000 wounded. Physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. visited Antietam in the raw days after the battle to search for his wounded son, who had left Harvard to fight. “The slain of high condition, ‘embalmed’ and iron cased, were sliding off the railways to their far homes,” wrote Holmes, “the dead of the rank and file were being gathered up and committed hastily to the earth.”
Holmes the younger, though shot through the neck, survived to return to Harvard and later served as a justice on the U. S. Supreme Court. But thousands of other families lost sons and couldn’t afford to either find or return their bodies. They had only one option: burial at Antietam. And there, on September 17, 1880–the 18th anniversary of the battle—families that could travel gathered to dedicate the “Private Soldier Monument.” But every last one of those families that showed up was from the North. Confederate causalities were banned from burial at Antietam National Cemetery.
In the sorrowful days and weeks after the battle, the Union first took care of its own, identifying and burying. Meanwhile, as Alexander Gardner’s photographs at the Library of Congress so graphically illustrate, the Sharpsburg landscape remained strewn with Confederate bodies. After quick and dirty burials where they fell, these bodies were later dug up and carted a dozen miles away to a Confederate cemetery in Hagerstown, where nearly every soldier was laid to rest without name or monument.