BY LINDSAY ECKERT
It’s a distance of time, 150 years of time, a life in a different era and a fight in a different world. Despite that, Howard County Historical Society has built a bridge to that time, life and fight in their newest addition at the Seiberling Mansion, the Civil War Exhibit.
The exhibit, nestled in the Seiberling Mansion’s former gift shop, is a gift in itself as it goes beyond displaying weapons of the war, it also tells a story from the soldiers themselves; one featured letter is written by Thomas J. Harrison and details what he and his troops did on a July 1864 raid through Alabama and parts of Georgia.
The original letter is drawn up with immaculate writing on worn paper from an era so distant it can be hard to imagine. However, volunteer Randy Smith said reading through Harrison’s letters provoked more than interest, but a connection that time couldn’t dilute.
“What was nice was I got to read the letters. [We have about 60 copies of them] from the perspective of a veteran,” said Smith, who worked as an intelligence analyst for the Air Force for over 21 years. “There were several interesting things he wrote about in his letters. He praised his troops, like any good leader does. He talked about something near and dear to me: The communication. When I first enlisted in 1986 we didn’t have instantaneous communications, email didn’t exist yet. He talks about how he’s not hearing enough from home, I know exactly how he feels even though if he wrote about it 150 years ago.”
Smith said he served his country overseas for 13 years. He said reading about Harrison’s experiences from a land not his own through Harrison’s own words was a feeling that resonated with him.
“Part of letter didn’t make the cut to the exhibit is [Harrison] reflects on his first year of service to his country and how it’s changed him and how it’s helped him understand people,” he said. “I understood that [part] too; having worked with people all over the United States and - when I was overseas - people from all around the world. Reading that from the perspective of a veteran helped me understand that a lot better than if I was someone reading the letters and wasn’t a veteran.”
However, Smith said the connection between the men featured in the exhibit is the real story.
“Finding the connections with the people was a lot of fun,” he said. “William Markland, who was sick and sent home on furlough, was mentioned by name in a Harrison letter because they were in the same unit. So the connections between the people are one of the things I found interesting. Although John Wilder, a state commander for the 17th Indiana infantry regiment, was from New York State he became commander after Milo Haskill was promoted from commander of the 17th Indiana to general. The two men undoubtedly knew each other [and they’re both in the exhibit]. Just finding those connections was very interesting and how many there were for how small of a pool of men we were working with was very surprising.”
Stewart Lauterbach, Howard County Historical Society curator, added the stories visitors will find in the walls of the exhibit even surprised him - and he’s been in the business for 27 years.
“The story of Thomas Kirkpatrick [was shocking],” said Lauterbach. “He was reported killed in action and when he showed up back home after the war his wife apparently couldn’t handle that. So for the rest of her life with him - she passed before he did - she would not acknowledge his presence. [Kirkpatrick] slept out in the barn and if they went to town she rode in the carriage and he had to follow her on a horse.”
Another favorite tale Lauterbach shared was the story of the 5-year-old Civil War veteran, just one of the many stories of Hoosiers in history highlighted in the Civil War Exhibit.
However, he said in addition to the handwritten letters, the stories and the artifacts it’s the understanding of what Hoosiers were able to accomplish in a war so long ago that will stand out to guests.
“[Visitors] will be able to see what men from this state helped do to keep the country whole and how they did it,” he said.