College of Arts and Sciences


Doctor of Philosophy in History (PhD)


Allen York


Smithsonian, war, Civil War, Institution, Washington, Washington City




This research project is an attempt to explain the social, racial, cultural, and economic history of the Smithsonian Institution during the Civil War. While the Institution aimed to maintain political neutrality since its establishment in 1846, various events such as the Compromise of 1850 and the Presidential Election of 1860 initiated a four-year-long war that placed the city of Washington and the Institution near enemy lines. During this war, the Institution suffered from labor losses, was forced to halt progress on research, and constantly feared destruction of the artifacts from Confederate attacks. This research project also examines the early history of Washington City and how its social, racial, political, and economic circumstances affected the Institution. Various aspects, particularly the debates on slavery and politics, affected the city and the everyday life at the Institution. The commencement of the Civil War placed Washington City at Confederacy lines and heavily affected the Institution and its dedication to knowledge. This study makes the case that although the Smithsonian was politically neutral, it fought to defend its loyalty to the Union during the war. Throughout the war, various workers and officials, including the Secretary, were accused of disloyalty and treason. Those that did not leave the Institution served the Union, whether by enlisting in the military or conducting war-related experiments. Joseph Henry, the founding Secretary, served in a variety of positions during the war and was Abraham Lincoln’s scientific advisor, but maintained political neutrality throughout the war. He risked his reputation and that of the Institution to ensure that important connections and future scientific research would be preserved. This study also makes the case that African American laborers, even during the war, used their positions for the betterment of their community. This study ultimately concludes that although its services may not have turned the tide of the Civil War, the Smithsonian Institution made important contributions that impacted the city as well as the country overall.

Available for download on Friday, August 25, 2023

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