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Behind the Scenes at the Indiana Civil War Exhibit at the Indiana Historical Society

“A Letter Home from Gettysburg” is the new exhibit at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick lettersfromhomeHistory Center in downtown Indianapolis. Our family, two children, spouses and one grandchild were available to go to participate in this interesting “living history” presentation.

And participate is the correct word. A group of about ten people meets a costumed interpreter at the entrance to the exhibit, which is on the first floor of the Society, beyond the Cole Porter room. That room in itself is wonderful: a singer accompanied by a grand player piano sings the Cole Porter songs the listeners wish to hear as they sit at little café tables: “You’re the tops,” “Begin the Beguine” and several others are there on little menus to choose from. Our family loved it.

We had come to see the “You Are There” exhibit of the very regiment being featured in a letter home from Captain David Beem of the Fourteenth Indiana Volunteers. Many letters from the articulate young lawyer from Spencer are in the library collection of the Society. We have our own connections with this regiment, now regarded as one of the top Yankee regiments from Indiana. It served the entire war in the East, quite rare for Indiana soldiers, thus participating in the major battles the public knows of: Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and many others. My own great-grandfather John R. McClure was a private in the Fourteenth and was one of David Beem’s lifelong comrades and friends. They served as president (Beem) and secretary (McClure) of the reunion regiment 1865-1921.

The young portrayer, dressed in a beautiful period gown made by a Civil War dress specialist in Fort Wayne, ushered us into a cultural history anteroom which has records from Captain Beem’s unit. The time is July 12, 1863. The interpreters, (actors who play Beem’s father or mother or his wife Mahala) cannot know anything after that time, so we the audience are “friends visiting” and are ushered into the Beem parlor, decorated in period style.

“I am glad to see you, friends, as I wait for my ladies’ group to wrap bandages for the boys of the Fourteenth at the front,” says Mahala. She reads us the letter sent by her husband right after Gettysburg and as her voice fades, the battle in Pennsylvania which in reality decided the war, comes up on a movie screen. As Beem competently describes the battle of the second day at Gettysburg, where the Fourteenth was involved in preventing the capture of guns on the top of Cemetery Hill, scenes flash before us: cannon fire, muskets loaded and fired, men falling, and a color bearer, like that of the Fourteenth, falling dead with the flag still in his hands.

When the eight-minute film is over, Mahala asks for questions and we all can ask about things Hoosiers care about: Morgan the Raider, other bloody battles and her life at home. Our family and other families can experience what their Indiana ancestors actually lived and then go out again to see one of the flags they carried into battle, on loan from the War Memorial, which restored it.

So much goes into these exhibits at the Indiana Historical Society. And so much behind the scenes, which I was privileged to see as the exhibit went together: building of the”set,” assembling of the artifacts and posters and photographs, training of the actor-portrayers and publicity so the public knows what they can see if they make a trip downtown and a grand opening party with “camp food.”

Plaudits to the society. True patriotism and service are celebrated her.  As the men in the regiment used to say, “Here’s to the spirit of ’61-65.”

by Nancy Baxter, author of Gallant Fourteenth: The Story of an Indiana Civil War Regiment

You can click back and order the book on the Gallant Fourteenth.