Exhibit showcases role of Bucks County in Civil War

At the Mercer Museum, Cory Amsler stands in front of a replica of a campaign poster for Abraham Lincoln.
At the Mercer Museum, Cory Amsler stands in front of a replica of a campaign poster for Abraham Lincoln. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 27, 2013

Almost a year to the day after Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, a majority of Bucks County voters cast their ballots for his opponent in the 1864 presidential election, Democrat George S. McClellan.

Lincoln won Pennsylvania by 52 percent but was outpolled in Bucks County, 7,235 to 6,197 - indicating that many there favored ending the war, according to Cory Amsler, vice president for collections at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown.

The history of Bucks County during the Civil War, Amsler surmised, "is not all neat and tidy." But, he said, "that's the way history is."

And that nuanced, complicated history is on display in an exhibit at the museum that opened Friday.

The exhibit, "Turning Points," celebrates the 150th anniversary of the midpoint of the Civil War, examining the role Bucks County and its citizens played in 1863 and 1864.

About 300 artifacts, documents, and images are on display, from guns and knives, to recruitment posters and newspaper editorials.

Highlighted in the exhibit are unique local stories, including a history of supporting slave freedom.

For example, in 1844, Amsler said, residents of Buckingham raised about $700 to purchase the freedom of Benjamin "Big Ben" James, a slave who escaped to Buckingham but was caught by his owner. The community's donation secured his freedom, and he lived in Bucks until his death in 1875.

In addition, Amsler said, about 150 African Americans from the county enlisted in the Union Army, and Robert Purvis, the son of a white father and black mother, cofounded the American Anti-Slavery Society and maintained a farm in Bensalem.

Other aspects of history are examined as well, such as the dilemma faced by typically antiwar Quakers and Mennonites when drafted and stories of local soldiers, African Americans, and housewives.

Planning for a Civil War exhibit dates back about five years, Amsler said.

Interns and volunteers searched for artifacts that were "resting quietly" within the museum's collections, he said, while others delved into newspaper or library archives. Some local experts were recruited to help restore artifacts, and the museum received items from local families as research was being done.

Last summer, he and a team began to plan in earnest, examining what they had and how it could become a functioning, coherent experience.

The result is a sprawling room of paraphernalia, one that Amsler hopes can help residents understand their local ties to a pivotal moment in national history.

"We want people to think, 'How would I have voted in the 1864 election?' " Amsler said. " 'How would I have reacted to being drafted?' You certainly should see a lot of yourself in this exhibit."

The exhibit runs until Aug. 25 and admission is included with tickets to the museum, which are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors over 65, and $6 for ages 6-17. Children 5 and under are free.

More information is available at mercermuseum.org.

Contact Chris Palmer, 609-217-8305, cpalmer@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @cs_palmer

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