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Brigadier General Isaac Wistar’s Civil War Relics Head South for New Exhibit

A new Civil War Sesquicentennial exhibition explores Brigadier General Isaac Jones Wistar’s military role at the major Confederate stronghold of Yorktown, in Virginia, and the impact he made in the African American community through establishing a haven for escaped slaves. 

Several remarkable Civil War artifacts from The Wistar Institute vault will travel to Virginia’s Colonial National Historical Park as part of an exhibit honoring Wistar, on view from July 20, 2013, through May, 2014. The loan from The Wistar Institute greatly complements the exhibit, featuring weaponry, a painting, a photograph, and other personal effects of Union Brigadier General Isaac Wistar, founder of The Wistar Institute. 

“We are thrilled to loan these items to the Colonial National Historical Park—this collection is an aspect of The Wistar Institute that is largely unknown,” Nina Long, Wistar Institute’s Director of Library Services and Archivist, stated. “Brig. Gen. Isaac Wistar was hugely important during the siege of Yorktown and the creation of “Slabtown,” a community for escaped slaves. The Wistar Institute has Wistar’s general orders that the National Archives and Records Administration, in Washington, D.C., doesn’t. These directives helped the Park Service piece together historical timelines during these battles.”

Long has always sought ways to promote the Institute’s history through special projects and collaborations. She has worked closely with Diane K. Depew, Chief Historian at Yorktown, and David Riggs, Curator at Colonial National Historical Park, since November of 2012 to bring the Wistar exhibition to fruition. The items selected for the exhibition help tell a rich and nuanced story of the impact of the Civil War and its aftermath on America.

Among the items from the Wistar vault on loan are Wistar’s engraved brass sword and scabbard with leather belt, along with dress uniform details including a brass belt buckle, a buff-colored silk sash, and gold epaulettes with star insignia. The public can also view the General’s letter to his commanding officers detailing the Union’s reuse of an abandoned farm as a battlefield horse hospital, and how to properly care and house escaped slaves—whom the military called “contraband”—that sought protection under Union forces. These remarkable artifacts chronicle Wistar’s Civil War experience from 1861 to 1864.

Wistar began as a lieutenant-colonel in the 71st Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers (originally called the “1st California Regiment”) in the Union Army when he recruited a company of soldiers. After two campaigns and multiple engagements on the battlefields of Virginia, he was wounded at Ball’s Bluff and then again at Antietam. After his military career, Wistar resumed his law practice and became president of the Pennsylvania Canal System as well as a well-known penologist, writing articles on prison policy and inmate reform. A prominent Philadelphian, he would make a lasting contribution to biological research by funding an endowment and research building in honor of his great uncle Caspar Wistar. Originally called The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology, today it is The Wistar Institute.

To add Colonial National Historical Park to your summertime excursions, part of the U.S. National Park system, it is only a 15 minute drive from historical colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown. Celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and discover Brigadier General Isaac Wistar’s prominent place in the Civil War.