The Smithsonian and the Civil War




Date: April 12, 1861


Usage Conditions Apply
The Smithsonian Institution Archives welcomes personal and educational use of its collections unless otherwise noted. For commercial uses, please contact
Request permissionsDownload image Print


  • The firing on Fort Sumter by Confederate soldiers on April 12, 1861, marks the beginning of the Civil War. The Smithsonian's annual report for 1861 describes some of the effects of the war on the Institution. The meteorological program, reports Secretary Joseph Henry, "has suffered more...than any other part of the operations of the Smithsonian establishment." Urgent public business has forced weather information off the telegraph lines, and secession divides the Smithsonian from its network of weather observers in Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. Reports from the North have been disrupted by observers leaving for military duty on short notice without getting substitutes. Due to the withdrawal of troops from posts in the West, the number of observers reporting weather conditions to the Army's Surgeon General has also decreased.
  • The war also has an impact on the Smithsonian's international exchange program, with a decrease in the number of books sent abroad. Its publication program also suffers due to the high cost of paper and printing. The large collection of Indian portraits hanging at the Smithsonian remain the property of John Mix Stanley, despite the artist's appeals to Congress to purchase the collection. Only a few lecturers have been engaged for the 1861-62 lecture season rather than the full course of public lectures normally provided.
  • In his annual report for 1862, Henry writes that the Smithsonian's finances are strained due to rising prices (especially for paper) and due to the non-payment of interest on southern state stocks. He notes, however, that the war provides opportunities for the Smithsonian to collect data of interest to ethnologists and other researchers through cooperation with the Union Army and the U.S. Sanitary Commission. This includes a world-class set of illustrations of surgical anatomy. Although fewer natural history specimens are received in 1862, and Henry affirms the Institution's policy of not purchasing collections, the Smithsonian's collections grow dramatically during the Civil War years. The greatly expanded wartime population of Washington, D.C., results in thousands of visitors to the Smithsonian, and the grounds are a popular spot for convalescing soldiers.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Stanley, John Mix 1814-1872
  • International Exchange Service (IES)
  • United States Sanitary Commission
  • United States Army Surgeon General
  • Meteorological Project
  • National Collections


Chronology of Smithsonian History


  • Wood engraving on paper of General Thomas Swearing in the Volunteers Called Into the Service of the United States at Washington, D.C., from Harper's Weekly, April 27, 1861, by Winslow Homer. Smithsonian American Art Museum, object number 1996.63.12.
  • For Henry's discussion of the war's impact on the Smithsonian in his annual reports for the Institution, see,,, and
  • Rothenberg, Marc, et al, eds. The Papers of Joseph Henry, Volume 10, January 1858-December 1865: The Smithsonian Years. Washington, D.C.: Science History Publications, 2004, pp. 204-05, 229-30.
  • Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the year 1861, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1862, p. 35, 44-47.
  • Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the year 1862. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1863, pp. 13-15, 38, 55, 99.
  • Goode, George Brown, ed. The Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1896, The History of Its First Half Century. Washington, D.C.: De Vinne Press, 1897, p. 837.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


  • April 12, 1861
  • Civil War, 1861-1865


  • Acquisitions
  • Art
  • Telegraph
  • Finance
  • Ethnology
  • Stanley Indian Paintings
  • Museums
  • Exchanges, Literary and scientific
  • History
  • Physical anthropology
  • Medicine
  • Lectures and lecturing
  • Wartime Activities
  • Grounds
  • Meteorology
  • Art objects
  • Museums--Acquisitions
  • Medical sciences
  • Museum visitors


  • United States
  • North America
  • Washington (D.C.)

Full Record

View Full Record