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Thursday, October 27, 2022

Dark Souvenirs of the Civil War

Members of the 19th Illinois Regiment, from The Nineteenth Illinois: a Memoir of a Regiment of Volunteer Infantry Famous in the Civil War, James Henry, 1912. At least eight Lake County men enlisted in this regiment.

A charged object or "dark souvenir" is an object collected to share as a witness to historic events such as a natural disaster or military battle. The term “charged object” is used by museums to denote artifacts “charged” or permeated with the energy of an event. These Victorian terms may sound odd to the modern ear, but still represent the sentiment of how people collected and preserved what affected them.

The bullet-ridden battle flags of the 96th Illinois Infantry as photographed for the History of the 96th Illinois Regiment, 1887. The regiment consisted of four companies from Lake County and six companies from Jo Daviess County, IL. 

Battle flags, also known as the colors of a regiment, were one of the most common objects collected during the Civil War. By preserving and commemorating flags, charged with the energy of battle, the veterans of the regiment were able to honor the memory of their bravery and of their dead comrades. 

The Dunn Museum has over two dozen charged objects in its permanent collections of which at least sixteen pertain to the American Civil War. In caring for these items, the museum takes into consideration age, condition, and provenance.


Provenance is particularly important, since without the object’s history we would not know its’ connection to an event or person. The Dunn Museum’s Civil War relics represent conflict, loss, suffering and death, and therefore need special consideration when exhibited. Collections staff take into account how to represent souvenirs of war to give proper context and respect for those involved.

Tree stump from Kelly Farm (cannonball fragment not shown), Battle of Chickamauga, Sept 18-20, 1863. A paper note identifying the object is attached to the front right of the stump and was likely placed there after it was collected from the historic battle site. Dunn Museum, 2006.0.6 (1958).

Battlefields are rife with the memory of loss and victory. One object in the Museum’s collections is a tree stump taken from the Kelly Farm on the site of the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia (September 18–20, 1863). The Battle of Chickamauga was especially significant to Lake County, since so many of its enlisted men fought there. 

George Smith of Millburn with the 96th Illinois, wrote to his sister Susie after surviving the battle: "When I get to thinking about it I will choke and tears of gratitude come into my eyes to think that one of us after feeling such a storm of lead and Iron should have escaped, but such is the chances of every battle." 

Chickamauga was the most substantial Union defeat in the Western Theater of the war, and had the second highest number of casualties of the war. At Chickamauga, the 96th Illinois suffered the third highest percentage of losses at 54 percent killed, wounded, or missing. The most casualties in a single battle of the war were sustained just two months earlier at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1–3, 1863.

The Kelly Farm tree stump has an additional identification painted on top: "From Kelly Farm Chickamauga." Dunn Museum curators suspect this was done by Charles S. Bentley of La Grange, IL when the object was added to his Civil War relics museum in the early 1900s. Dunn Museum 2006.0.6 (1958). 

Many veterans returned to the battlefields where they had fought to collect souvenirs such as bullets and tree stumps imbedded with shot. These items became touchstones for remembering and commemorating the war and were believed to be “charged” with the energy of the event.

According to historian Anna Denov Rusk, "soldiers collected items that told a specific story or part of their war experience."
  • Andersonville Prison, Ga., August 17, 1864. East view taken from the stockade as photographed by A.J. Riddle (1828-1897). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C
  • The deplorable conditions in prisons (both in the North and South) were a volatile subject during and after the war. William "Billy" Lewin of Russell, Illinois, served with the 96th Illinois and was a prisoner at Andersonville from May to September 1864. He recalled that he had “suffered even more than death [at] that prison, above all other prisons… [which has] no parallel in the world’s history.”

  • Camp Sumter in Georgia, commonly known as Andersonville, was used to imprison Union soldiers from early 1864 to May 1865. Though the prisoner camp was only in operation for fourteen months, 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned there, and nearly 13,000 died.
  • Wood from the stockade at Andersonville prison, presented to Charles S. Bentley in 1913. Dunn Museum 70.586 (1958).

  • A section of a wooden post (shown above) was sawn from the Andersonville prison stockade as a souvenir by Corporal George W. Healey (1842-1913) of the 5th Iowa Cavalry, Company E. The cavalryman became a prisoner at Andersonville after he was captured at the Battle of Brown’s Mill in Georgia on July 31, 1864. Healy and Billy Lewin were imprisoned at Andersonville during the same period, but it is unknown if they ever met, since the prison held tens of the thousands of men. 

    Healy likely collected the dark souvenir as a veteran returning to the site. In 1913, he presented it to Charles S. Bentley (1839-1924), veteran of the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry, Company D, who had a Civil War museum in his home in La Grange, Illinois. The object came into the Dunn Museum’s possession through Robert Vogel, who purchased it at the auction of Bentley’s collection in 1958. Vogel, who founded the county's first history museum, undoubtedly understood the object's significance and connection to those who had served from Lake County.

    One of the most compelling charged objects in the Dunn Museum’s collections relates to the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln. Just five days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, President Lincoln was fatally shot at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. 
    Floral and textile remnants from President Lincoln's funeral catafalque, 1865. Dunn Museum 70.29.2

    • Charles Partridge of Waukegan with the 96th Illinois remembered the soldiers’ reactions to the terrible news: “The day before had seemed to these brave veterans the gladdest in all their lives; and now an unspeakable grief had blotted out their happiness and a gloom that seemed well-nigh impenetrable was upon them.”


      Citizens were desperate to make sense of the tragedy and millions stood along the route of the president’s funeral train as it made its way to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. On May 1, the train made a scheduled stop in Chicago. 
    • President Lincoln's Funeral—The Catafalque at the City Hall, Chicago” as sketched by William Waud on May 1, 1865. Published in Harper's Weekly May 20, 1865. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

    • An estimated 125,000 mourners viewed the late president’s “mortal remains” at the Cook County Courthouse in Chicago. The framed ribbon and floral remnants are from the decorated platform, known as a catafalque, on which President Lincoln’s coffin rested. People eager to find solace in their grief and overwhelmed by the tragedy of the president's death solidified the moment by taking bits of the decorations from the platform. 

      Leonard Doolittle of Fremont Township, Lake County was convalescing at the U.S. Army Hospital in Chicago after being wounded at Chickamauga while serving with the 96th Illinois. Doolittle left the hospital on crutches to go "down to the city" for the viewing. He remarked in a letter that "I think that I never saw as many men women and children at one time in my life... as I saw today." Though the dark souvenir in the Dunn Museum's collection is not directly associated with Leonard Doolittle, the object's provenance suggests that the materials were collected at the viewing of the late president's remains in Chicago. 

      According to historian, Robert I. Girardi, while the Civil War was not fought in Illinois, “the state was actively and vitally a participant in every aspect of the conflict.” Illinoisans “sent more men per capita into the army than any other state.” These men collected souvenirs charged with the events they had seen and experienced. 

      Dark souvenirs can teach us about history and human nature. They are a window into the lives of those who experienced these events and spent their lives trying to come to terms with them. It is important for museums to collect such objects in order to preserve the memory of what "our boys" went through in the Civil War and to explore the war's continuing significance.

    • - Diana Dretske, Curator

    • Sources: 

      • Bess Bower Dunn Museum, Libertyville, Illinois.
      • Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., online collections.  
      • Letter of George Smith to Susie Smith, October 6, 1863, Bess Bower Dunn Museum (93.45.460).  
      • Letter of Leonard Doolittle to David Minto, May 1, 1865, Bess Bower Dunn Museum (93.45.407). 
      • "150 Year Old Items Go On Auction Block: Historical Collection to Be Sold Today," Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1958. 
      • Girardi, Robert I. "Illinois and the Memory of the Civil War." Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-) Vol. 104, No. 1/2, Civil War Sesquicentennial Issue (Spring-Summer, 2011), pp. 8-13.
      • Rusk, Anna Denov. "Collections the Confederacy: The Civil War Scrapbook of Henry M. Whitney." Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 47. No. 4 (Winter 2013), pp. 267-296. 
      • Wilson, R.C. "Gen. Bentley Has Real Museum: La Grange Man Has Wonderful Collection of Photographs, Letters, Fire Arms and Articles of Historic Interest." Uncited newspaper.  
      • Dretske, Diana L. The Bonds of War: A Story of Immigrants and Esprit de Corps in Company C, 96th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2021.
      • Partridge, Charles A. History of the Ninety-Sixth Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Chicago: Historical Society of the Regiment, 1887. 

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