Entertainment & Arts

Lincoln exhibit at Reagan Library reveals man behind the icon

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Considered by many as a turning point in the Civil War, the bloody three-day battle marked the highest number of casualties in the four-year conflict. The Union defeat of the Confederate army continued to resonate months later when President Abraham Lincoln recited the Gettysburg Address, regarded as one of the greatest speeches in American history.

Original notes and letters from the 16th president’s childhood to his time in office are just a few of the documents on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. The exhibit, “A. Lincoln: From Railsplitter to Rushmore,” features 250 pieces on loan from 30 Lincoln collectors. Along with a remarkable array of artifacts such as Lincoln’s signature stovepipe hat and gold pocket watch inscribed with his initials are two Oscar-winning sets and costumes from Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film “Lincoln.”

“DreamWorks’ contribution was a wonderful 11th-hour surprise,” said Reagan Library curator Andrew Wulf of the sets and costumes from Lincoln’s office, Mary Todd Lincoln’s vanity set, and several elements for the Petersen boarding house vignette where Lincoln died, which includes the original bloodied pillow on loan from Ford’s Theater National Historic Site. A trompe l’oeil of the hallway gives the scene depth and a sense of solemnity.

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“People have this image of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, but he was also a family man with domestic problems too,” said Wulf of the personal writings that reveal an intimate side of the president.

Copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment signed by Lincoln and the handwritten personal testimony of Boston Corbett, the man who killed assassin John Wilkes Booth, are displayed along with common correspondence, such as a check written for his son Robert, a poem from his youth and a request for music to be played in the White House for the first lady.

“Many of these pieces have rarely been seen by the public on the West Coast,” added Wulf, co-curator of the show along with Lincoln aficionado Louise Taper.

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A large share of the pieces are on loan from the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill., which acquired Taper’s 1,600-piece collection in 2007. “For people who can’t go to Springfield, this exhibit is a great experience,” Taper said. One of her more unusual pieces is a bandage on which Lincoln inscribed a pardon.

Installed next to the office set is an authentic field hospital from the Battle of Antietam. An operating table and amputation instruments dispel any romantic notions about the war.

The exhibit runs through Sept. 30.