Death isn’t a subject that most people search out.
But in the mid-1860s, it was everywhere. Nearly 30 percent of all children failed to reach their fifth birthday. Mothers often died while giving birth. The Civil War was killing off an entire generation of young men by the hundreds of thousands.
How to mourn, what kind of dress or suit to wear and how to honor a loved one was stitched into the fabric of life.
In its newest exhibition, the Indiana State Museum addresses grief, mourning and attitudes about death as filtered through the national tragedies of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
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“So Costly a Sacrifice: Lincoln and Loss” looks at a time in the nation’s history when death seemed to envelope everything and everybody. Even Lincoln, a man who many called the “nation’s savior,” couldn’t escape.
“It’s not a light, fluffy story. But it’s a critical part of our history, maybe the most critical moment,” said Dale Ogden, chief curator of history and culture. “We tend to look at historical events from a detached perspective — like something that happened a long time ago, that’s just a date in a book. But we lose sight of the fact that it’s people who were dealing with this.”
The exhibition is comprised of items from the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, a $20 million trove of historic objects, books, art, documents and photographs focused on Lincoln’s life.
The Indiana State Museum supplemented those with pieces from its own collection. As a result, organizers have tried to paint a complete picture of the nation in the spring of 1865, said Susannah Koerber, vice president of collections and preservation at the museum.
“Looking at the strengths in our own collection and the strengths of the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, then thinking about how ordinary people at the time responded,” she said. “We thought the issue of how mortality was portrayed was interesting.”
The exhibition will include 120 pieces, ranging from photographs to sculptures to clothing. The objects themselves are interesting on their own, even before factoring them into the over-arcing conversation about death.
A black mourning dress is shown that also was used by a woman as her wedding dress. The woman was mourning her mother when she got married and didn’t feel right abandoning her grief for a white dress.
The museum displays a popular decoration at the time, a hair wreath. Woven from the hair of a deceased loved one, the wreaths were often hung on people’s homes as a reminder.
“It was looked as a decorative art, and some of them could become extremely ornate,” Ogden said. “It’s a remembrance of your loved one, who was here one year and gone the next.”
Civil War mementos, such as an artillery shell from the Battle of Chattanooga that killed a corporal in Eli Lilly’s 18th Battery, Indiana Light Artillery, also are on display. A banner that flew in Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was shot, a “Wanted” poster for John Wilkes Booth and a notice that was distributed to Indianapolis residents announcing Lincoln’s death are all included.
“Those things are very dramatic and visual that bring this to life,” Ogden said. “Lincoln himself is such a compelling figure that people are attracted to him. The fact is, he was murdered. The story doesn’t have a fluffy ending, and the Civil War was horrific.”
Museum officials thought that 2015 was an ideal time to approach the subject, Koerber said. This year is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, as well as Lincoln’s assassination.
“It gives us something to anchor an exhibition around,” she said. “We wanted to recognize the end of the war and the end of administration.”
At the same time, Ogden wanted to avoid repeating what many exhibits do telling the story of Lincoln’s assassination — Ford’s theater, John Wilkes Booth and the shooting itself.
Instead, he chose to frame the tragedy around the mindset of society at the time.
“We talk about mortality in the 19th century. Death was an integral part of life at the time,” he said. “People were familiar with death, so we wanted to talk about the context of it in people’s lives.”
The Civil War added another layer to that thinking. Around 620,000 healthy young men died during the war, cutting down 2 percent of the population at the time.
“Society had to learn how to deal with that,” Ogden said. “You had hundreds of thousands of young men dying far from home, and there were extreme efforts by society to find those men, identify them and bring them back to their homes to bury them.”
Tying it all together was Lincoln’s assassination. He was the first U.S. president to be assassinated, and many people saw him as a martyr. He was referred to as the “savior of the nation.”
A popular viewpoint at the time was that it was God’s final retribution for the evils of slavery.
“The speculation was that perhaps the war was a penance that God demanded for the sin of slavery,” Ogden said. “A lot of commentators picked up on that, that Lincoln was the last drop of blood as payment for slavery.”
Organizers weren’t scared of approaching an uncomfortable subject such as death, since they’d frame it around one of history’s most studied figures and events.
The hope is that people can look at the way that death was approached during one of the country’s most difficult times and compare it to how people live today.
“The nature of the country, the nature of God, the nature of the nation of itself was being debated,” Ogden said. “It’s a complex kind of project, but we try to set the context of mortality.”
“So Costly a Sacrifice: Lincoln and Loss”
What: A examination of grief, mourning and death in Civil War-era America, featuring items from the war itself, clothing and other everyday objects illustrating society’s views towards death, and mementos from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Where: Indiana State Museum, 650 W. Washington St., Indianapolis
When: Feb. 6 to July 5
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $13 for adults, $12 for seniors, $8.50 for children.