‘The Civil War in America’ at Library of Congress

WASHINGTON — In the pursuit of justice, what is unjustified? Are there limits to what may be done in service to a righteous cause? Abstract philosophical questions, perhaps, but also political ones. And in thinking about the Civil War, the answers affect our understanding of that bloody conflict.

This is one reason the Library of Congress exhibition “The Civil War in America,” which opened late last year in honor of the war’s sesquicentennial, is so fascinating. It doesn’t explicitly ask questions about means and ends, but we can’t help thinking about them as the letters, diaries, documents and images accumulate....

We may like our heroes unchained, prepared to transcend ordinary restrictions, but history is another matter. What were the ends sought? How were they pursued? And what effects did that have? The Library of Congress exhibition tries to see the conflict from different perspectives. Its displays of over 200 items, we are told, “attest to the valor, sacrifices, emotions and accomplishments of those in both the North and South whose lives were affected by the bitter conflict of 1861-65.”

The war, it explains, “unfolds between two opposing ideologies,” with the Union opposed by a “confederacy of slaveholding states true to their own interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.” It is as if this show, presented by a national institution in the nation’s capital (with Cheryl Regan as exhibition director), wants to avoid — even after 150 years — any hint of partisanship....

“The Civil War in America” runs through June 1, and the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation will be on view through Feb. 18 at the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, 101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington; (202) 707-8000; myloc.gov.

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