"Interruptions and Embarrassments": The Smithsonian Institution during the Civil War

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  • This detailed and highly readable paper discusses the impact of the Civil War on the Smithsonian Institution, which was founded in 1846 and led by its first Secretary, Joseph Henry, until his death in 1878. The author begins by placing the Smithsonian geographically, to show how physically vulnerable the building was during the war, and briefly discusses the Institution's origins and activities. She then goes on to describe some specific institutional casualties of the war, beginning with the Smithsonian's meteorology program. Many volunteer observers left their posts and in some cases, their equipment was destroyed. War-related business made telegraph lines unavailable for weather dispatches. The Smithsonian's finances also felt the impact of the war due to Congress's inability to make payments on time and the war's devaluation of currency. The Institution's publications program suffered from the high cost of paper and printing.
  • Despite his reservations about the war, Joseph Henry contributed to the Union effort. When approached by a balloonist for support, Henry recommended the balloonist provide reconnaissance for the Union Army, and a balloon corps was established. He also served on the three-member Permanent Commission of the Navy, which reviewed and reported on hundreds of proposals submitted to the Navy for warships, torpedoes, and other ordnance.
  • Henry also participated in Union Army signal tests from the Smithsonian Building's high tower, and was accused of treason for allegedly attempting to communicate with the Confederate Army. The author relates the details of this story and other reasons Henry was believed by some to be a southern sympathizer. A controversy ensued, for example, when Henry attempted to bar an abolitionist lecture series from taking place at the Smithsonian due to its political and religious content. In addition, the Institution lost several members of the Board of Regents because they were loyal to the Confederacy. Henry was also known to have been friends with Jefferson Davis, a former regent. Finally, he refused to fly a U.S. flag over the Smithsonian during the war, in part because he felt it would make the Institution a target.
  • Joseph Henry was also struck by personal tragedy during the Civil War years. His son became ill and died in 1862. His close friend and fellow leader of the American scientific community, Alexander Bache, suffered a breakdown from which he never recovered.
  • A major fire broke out at the Smithsonian in January 1865. Although much of the building and its contents were burned, Henry weathered this crisis with "surprising equanimity," says the author. The fire helped Henry make the case for eliminating the Smithsonian's lecture series (the lecture room had been destroyed) and for transferring the Smithsonian's library to the Library of Congress.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Lincoln, Abraham 1809-1865
  • Library of Congress Relations with the Smithsonian
  • Smithsonian Deposit (Library of Congress)
  • Meteorological Project
  • Smithsonian Institution General History
  • Smithsonian Institution Building Early History
  • United States Dept. of the Navy
  • Confederate States of America. Army


Smithsonian History Bibliography


This paper consists of the revised version of a talk delivered on September 25, 1996, as part of the Smithsonian Institution History Lecture Series during the Smithsonian's sesquicentennial celebration and on December 10, 1997, to the Smithsonian Associates. The author was an editor of The Papers of Joseph Henry.

Contained within

Joseph Henry, American Physicist (Website)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu


  • 1999-2007
  • Civil War, 1861-1865


  • Fire of 1865
  • United States Congress, Relations with SI
  • Finances
  • History
  • Major Events in Smithsonian History


United States

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