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The Smithsonian During the Civil War, By Kathleen W. Dorman, Associate Editor, Joseph Henry Papers, Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 9

When the Civil War erupted in April 1861, the Smithsonian Institution itself was vulnerable. Located between the Capitol Building and the White House, the institution was not immune from the forces threatening to turn the city of Washington into an armed camp. Both the Smithsonian and Joseph Henry, its first Secretary, somehow persevered. "The interruptions and embarrassments," he wrote, "although frequent, and in some cases perplexing, have not prevented the continuance of the general operations of the Institution." However, were it not for his steadfast leadership, the institution might have suffered permanent damage.

The Smithsonian Building, physically cut off from the rest of the city by the Washington Canal, was close to the Potomac River, which divided the District of Columbia from Virginia and the rebel south. For its defense the secretary of war issued the following order: "The Colonel of Ordnance will cause to be issued to Professor J. Henry of the Smithsonian Institute twelve muskets and 240 rounds of ammunition, for the protection of the Institute against lawless attacks."

Trying to accommodate the sudden influx of soldiers, the government used a variety of public buildings and proposed that the Smithsonian Building also be used. Henry suggested that if the Smithsonian had to be used by troops, it would be "more in accordance with the spirit of the Institution" to use it as an infirmary. Fortunately, the building was not used.

Henry had always tried to keep the Smithsonian out of the controversies of the day and his political opinions private. It is clear, however, that he abhorred war and favored a peaceful separation over a bloodbath. His assistant, Spencer Baird, not only did not volunteer for the Union but also cautioned other young men not to volunteer. He also, like Henry, clearly saw the Smithsonian as an institution founded, in the words of James Smithson's will, "for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men," meaning, throughout the world. He thus expressed a sentiment undoubtedly shared by Henry: "Whatever power may control Washington, it is our hope to be allowed to carry out our sublime mission in the most catholic manner."

Living in the Smithsonian Building, Henry's family couldn't help but be affected by the many soldiers passing through Washington throughout the war. In her diary, his oldest daughter wrote of streets filled with soldiers and the sound of drums. Mary Henry found the flashy New York Zouaves "quite disorderly since their arrival." But, she found the nearby Union encampments "indescribably picturesque."

The Smithsonian soon began to feel the impact of the war on its programs. One of the first affected was its national network of volunteer weather observers. As soon as the war started, observers in the South and West stopped sending monthly reports. After the war, one observer in Richmond sadly informed Henry that when Sheridan's troops occupied his house, his barometer had been broken and the mercury taken out. Even in the North reporting was disrupted as some observers left for military duty and were unable to find substitutes. The program was also hurt by government preemption of the telegraph lines, which telegraph operators used to report daily weather information for display on a map in the Smithsonian Building and for publication in the evening paper. Henry wrote in December of 1861, "Our system of meteorology has been sadly broken in upon by the war."

The war affected the Smithsonian's pocketbook also. The institution had three main sources of income at this time. The first derived from the principal of Smithson's bequest and amounted to about $31,000 a year. The second was $141,000 remaining of the interest the bequest had earned prior to 1846. The third was an annual congressional appropriation of $4000. Throughout the war Henry worried whether the government funds would be late or not paid at all; the currency itself was devaluated; and the institution's investments in the state bonds of Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia stopped yielding interest. Henry feared that if Congress failed to appropriate money for the museum, "we shall be obliged to close the doors or charge an admittance to visitors." (Fortunately for us all, that precedent was not set.)

Although Henry lamented the human losses, he viewed the war as an opportunity for scientific research. He foresaw "investigations as to the strength of materials, the laws of projectiles, the resistance of fluids, the applications of electricity, light, heat, and chemical action, as well as of aerostation [ballooning]." Historian Robert V. Bruce has pointed out, however, that most of the technology used in the Civil War was invented before the war and that because the war was not expected to last long, little research was initiated. He also concluded that the war actually had a negative effect on science, by diverting personnel and resources, and on individual scientists, whose skills or even lives were given to the war effort. He mentions particularly the case of George Gordon Meade, best known as the Union commander at Gettysburg. Before the war, Meade had been a captain in the army's Corps of Topographical Engineers in charge of the Great Lakes Survey. Henry had cautioned Meade not to become "mere food for powder." Meade survived the war but never returned to science.

In early 1861, Henry promoted the work of the balloonist T.S.C. Lowe, believing he could be "of advantage to the Government in assisting their reconnaissance of the district and country around Washington." In mid-June, Lowe ascended from the site now occupied by the National Air and Space Museum to prove the feasibility of communicating by telegraph between balloons and the ground. With Henry's support, Lowe became head of a balloon corps that was to provide Union commanders with accurate information. According to historian Bruce, this was the first successful military air force in American history.

The height of the Smithsonian Building's highest tower made it a superior location to test signaling systems. Surviving manuscripts refer to the testing of different signaling systems between the Smithsonian and the Coast Survey office on Capitol Hill, between the Smithsonian and Fort Washington sixteen miles south of the city, and between the Smithsonian and the U.S. Soldier's Home, the second highest elevation in Washington.

A famous anecdote relating to signaling appears in Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln. He writes, "One dark night Lincoln with four other men climbed up the tower of the Smithsonian Institution. Toward hills encircling Washington they flashed signals. The next day an army officer marched into Lincoln's office a prisoner, Professor Joseph Henry, secretary and director of the Smithsonian Institution, the most eminent man of learning in the employ of the United States Government. 'Mr. President,' said the officer, 'I told you a month ago Professor Henry is a rebel. Last night at midnight he flashed red lights from the top of his building, signaling to the Secesh. I saw them myself.'

Lincoln turned. 'Now you're caught! What have you to say, Professor Henry, why sentence of death should not immediately be pronounced upon you?' Then, turning to the army officer, Lincoln explained that on the previous evening he and others had accompanied Henry to the Smithsonian tower and experimented with new army signals."

Although Henry devoted many hours of unpaid labor to the Union effort, he was a target of rumors questioning his loyalty. His opposition to a series of abolitionist lectures in the Smithsonian Building was one cause. His earlier friendship with Jefferson Davis was another. Davis had been a regent of the Smithsonian from 1847 to 1851 and proved to be one of Henry's most consistent supporters and an effective advocate in Congress of the Smithsonian's interests.

In trying to assert the Smithsonian's international scientific character, Henry may have seemed less than patriotic. He was criticized for not flying the United States flag over the Smithsonian Building throughout the war. His reason was that he wanted the institution to be viewed as independent. In addition, no Smithsonian employees actually served in the military. Spencer Baird was eligible but hired a "colored substitute" for three years at a cost of $278. Solomon Brown wrote Baird in September 1864 that he had received a draft notice but was "Exempted on the grounds of Physical disability." Chief Clerk William Jones Rhees and paleontologist Fielding B. Meek were also drafted but were excused by the examining surgeon.

Henry, somewhat bitterly, made this remark to Baird near the end of the war. "I know that I shall not be considered as good a patriot as some of your friends I could name, who, while expressing with one hand in violent gesticulations their devotion to their country have with the other been filling their pockets with the spoils of office."

Despite the turmoil of four years of war, the Smithsonian emerged in a surprisingly strong position. To explain this, we need to look to Joseph Henry, who never lost sight of what he wanted the Smithsonian to be. With his vision of an institution devoted to the support of basic research and dissemination of its findings throughout the world, he took the "interruptions and embarrassments" caused by the war and used them to further realize that vision. As a result, both the Smithsonian Institution and the nation became stronger.

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