Ten miles north of Antietam/Sharpsburg is the city of Hagerstown. The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts currently features a one-year special display of items related to the Civil War, along with their regular displays of art, sculpture, etc. The museum is nestled in the beautiful City Park on the shore of a lake, near the location where Jonathan Hager first settled.
My Rotary Club this week had its luncheon and program in the atrium of the museum, affording our membership the opportunity to be briefed upon and view this special display entitled “In the Valley of the Shadow.” Items speak especially to the variety of issues and circumstances of particular interest to our area – many having a connection to the local community – as well as the broader Civil War. The idea for this exhibit is to have the presentation run roughly for the period of time from the sesquicentennials of Antietam through Gettysburg.
Displays include combat and military life, Civil War medicine, African-American history, everyday life during the war, post-war commemorative objects, photographs, period publications, stereographic images, art, music and literature.
Having recently in this blog quoted from the history of the 51st Pennsylvania Regiment, I was drawn especially to a portrait of this unit’s Colonel John F. Hartranft. It is loaned for this display from the nearby Pennsylvania school Mercersburg Academy (then called Marshall College), where Hartranft was once a student. Among other displays on loan are items from the Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, and pictures and cards from the collection of our own Battlefield Guides founder Steve Recker.
But the items I was especially interested in were a collection of four statues from the Rogers group. This piqued my interest due to my former book project research on the life of Abner Doubleday, who referenced these in some papers I found in the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Though I am an “artsy” person in the area of music – having an undergraduate B.Mus. degree – I am NOT astute whatsoever in the area of visual arts and sculpture. So this reference of Doubleday sent me researching. The following text in blue is an excerpt from my first chapter on the life of Doubleday – writing this in an extended section on his spurious connection to the history of the sport of baseball.
One reference actually does exist of Abner Doubleday penning the word “baseball.” Near the end of his military career in 1871 he was stationed at Fort McKavett, Texas as the colonel in command of the 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment. This was one of four army units that were entirely African-American. To the Army’s Adjutant General in Washington he wrote:
“I have the honor to apply for permission to purchase for the Regimental library a few portraits of distinguished generals, Battle pictures, and some Rogers groups of Statuary, particularly those relative to the actions of the Colored population of the south. This being a colored regiment, ornaments of this kind seem very appropriate. I would also like to purchase baseball implements for the amusement of the men and a Magic Lantern for the same purpose. The fund is ample and I think these expenditures would add to the happiness of the men.”
Referring to bats, balls and bases as “implements” hardly sounds like the vocabulary of the “alleged” inventor of the sport! The Rogers Groups of Statuary referenced a very popular form of durable plaster sculpture. The images pictured ordinary people performing ordinary deeds of life—depicting amusements, social customs, literary topics, historical figures, etc. The statues varied in size from eight inches to forty-six inches. Practically anyone of means in Victorian America possessed them, and the announcement of a new issue was cause for much publicity. The social interests and educational concerns of Doubleday may be seen in this request for the benefit of his regiment. The “Magic Lantern” was the name of an immensely popular 1870 invention that may be thought of as the ancestor to the modern slide projector.
The statues at the museum are really very cool, and I can see why they were popular. I suggested in conversation with Museum Director Rebecca Massie Lane that the collecting of these sculptures by folks in the 1800s was a sort of “lava lamp” of the day. She had a better analogy – that it was similar to people who might collect the series of paintings of Thomas Kinkade.