Archives exhibit explores little-known aspects of Civil War

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The Confederate prisoners were lined up 15 paces from the Union firing squad. The order was given, and the six rebels died instantly. Five of them were shot through the heart, the Union officer in charge reported, adding that the execution was conducted to "my entire satisfaction."

So what if they were innocent POWs. A band of rebels had massacred captured Union soldiers and their commanding officer a few weeks before. Now, Union commanders just needed to select a Confederate officer for death, to complete the eye-for-an-eye transaction.

There was no gallantry to this bloody affair in 1864, no stirring charge worthy of Currier and Ives. It was but a dark footnote to the epic of the American Civil War. And it was just what the National Archives sought for the major exhibit that will debut Friday: "Discovering the Civil War."

The exhibit, designed to launch Washington's celebration of the coming 150th anniversary of the war years, seeks to explore more of the little-known aspects of the battle and glimpse some of the dimmer corners of the conflict that remade the country and that so many Americans think they know so well.

Yet 150 years later, the anniversary of the war that tore the nation apart finds a country that remains racially divided, politically fractured and historically split -- even over the causes and legacy of America's most wrenching conflict.

The governors of two Southern states, Virginia and Mississippi, sparked controversy this month by neglecting or sounding dismissive of the role of slavery in the war. And one noted Civil War historian says the nation might be too divided to properly mark the key unifying event in its history.

"I think it's going to be impossible to get all the American people to gather to commemorate a portion of American history that's so important to the country," said Virginia Tech's James I. Robertson Jr., who 50 years ago directed the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission. "People just aren't that together anymore....

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