Pieces of the Civil War With the Power to Unsettle

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Two flags tell much of the story. One is the familiar stars and stripes, spangled with only 34 stars. It’s smudged with dirt and dotted with the bullet holes it acquired in 1863, when it flew over a Union ironclad trying to pierce the defenses of Charleston harbor. The second flag is in even worse shape: a shredded, grimy Confederate banner with holes a cannonball could pass through and several of its 11 stars missing one or more of their points. It was captured 150 years ago this month, when Union soldiers defeated a contingent of Confederates at New Bern, N.C.

Both flags landed in Hartford, where the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art has put its Civil War holdings on display under the title “Colts & Quilts: The Civil War Remembered.” The title is somewhat misleading: there’s only one quilt, and there are only two pistols on view, unless you count the one in William Harnett’s 1890 trompe l’oeil painting “The Faithful Colt.” But this eclectic array, part art exhibit, part history lesson and part fashion show, has an unsettling way of getting under your skin....

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