Martha’s Vineyard Museum sees Civil War as Islanders did

“Johnnie, we hardly knew ye” is a familiar anti-Civil War dirge. Now, thanks to extraordinary research scholarship by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, our Island’s complex experience in the War Between the States can now be known and experienced.

The ongoing exhibit, We Are Marching Along: Martha’s Vineyard and the Civil War, will begin with a reception on Saturday afternoon between 3 and 5 pm at the Museum, located at 59 School Street in Edgartown. The exhibit runs between April 23, 2011 and April 21, 2012.

Since we are an island, it’s easy to believe that the great events of the world pass us by but the Museum’s curatorial staff have produced a vivid picture of what life was like for Islanders at war and for those at home on the Island.

Island men

There is a richness to the material, painstakingly brought together by the museum curators. Anna Carringer, assistant curator, told The Times this week that two young Islanders, Elisha Smith and Charles Macreading Vincent, left behind diaries and letters that tell the story of war experienced by boys raised in Island bucolia. One of them, Elisha White, is a central character in Islander John Hough’s acclaimed novel “Seen The Glory.” Mr. White fought at Antietam and at Gettysburg, where he received a wound that ultimately took his life.

The diaries and letters of both men survived. “Charles Vincent saw some fighting but spent a lot of the war waiting to go to battle. He was a prolific and gifted writer, kept nearly a daily diary that details everyday military life during the Civil War. Elisha fought in several of the war’s great battles so we have sides of war from Island eyes,” Ms. Carringer said.

For life on the Island, before and during the Civil War, the museum relied heavily on newspaper accounts and opinions in the Vineyard Gazette, a major primary source regarding war sentiment. Then editor, Edgar Marchant, was vehemently anti-secessionist and his views about extermination of rebels produced a lot of commentary, particularly in the Letters to the Editor. There was divided sentiment.

“President Lincoln won the election here, for example, but he didn’t win in a landslide,” Ms. Carrington said.

“There are a lot of tantalizing clues about Island opinion regarding the war but it’s also interesting to read them side by side with everyday events of the period, like stories about the Ag Fair,” she said.

Memorials and memorabilia

In this 150th anniversary year of the Civil War, Ms. Carringer is expecting lots of museum exhibits on the conflict. “We are not telling the story of the Civil War, there will be plenty of exhibits doing that. We’ve endeavored to tell the experiences of people who were here then, to give a sense of what life was like on the Island and the war experiences of several residents,” she said.

The exhibit also includes a history of the Island’s two Civil War memorials. Veteran’s Memorial Park, commonly referred to as Cannonball Park, is at the intersection of Upper Main Street and the West Tisbury Road in Edgartown.

The other, a statue of a Union soldier at Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs, was actually donated after the war by a Confederate soldier who moved to the Island. Initially the gift caused some consternation among the Island’s Union sympathizers. “But over time, that gesture by a Confederate soldier, helped to put the [Civil War] issue to rest on the Island,” Ms. Carringer said.

There’s more in the exhibit. Military gear, medical instruments, some described as “gruesome,” and medicines used on the battlefields; photos, artwork, and handwritten accounts and letters are included.

Casual observers of Civil War history are aware of the division of opinion on the war in the north, best exemplified by deadly draft riots in New York and other cities. But we learn that the Island also chafed over draft quotas, difficult to fill since many Island men were at sea during the whaling heyday of the mid-1860s.

Yet, the historically murky rolls, replete with names like Vincent, Mayhew, and Rose, show that 200 to 300 men were signed up from the Island.

“But they weren’t all from the Island,” Ms. Carringer said. “Some were from foreign countries and we know that Island recruiters went to Boston and other places to find recruits who were brought back here and mustered in.

“We didn’t have grand battles fought here but we do have compelling stories and we wanted to tell them.”

Exhibit openings, Saturday, April 23, 3 to 5 pm, M.V. Museum, Edgartown. M.V. and the Civil War, and Spotlight Exhibition. $7; free for members. 508-627-4441; frontdesk@mvmuseum.org.

Jack Shea, of Oak Bluffs, is a regular contributor to The Times.