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Civil War Ballads
The Caleb Fiske Harris Collection on the Civil War and Slavery
This exhibit was developed by Eric R. Boutin, University of Rhode Island MLIS, with assistance from Richard Ring, Providence Public Library Special Collections.
The Caleb Fiske Harris Collection on the Civil War and Slavery was the first collection acquired by Providence Public Library. It was purchased for $2,000 in 1884, not long after the Library was founded, from the estate of Mr. Harris, a Providence book collector. Nearly all of this money was given to the Library by the Portsmouth Grove Hospital through the efforts of Mr. Sidney S. Rider, who was a Providence publisher and bookseller.
Several important gifts of books on the Civil War were later added to the collection, and today it is by far the Library’s largest special collection. It contains more than 10,000 books and pamphlets including more than 100 scrapbooks of newspaper clippings of the Civil War period. There are hundreds of 18th century pamphlets relating to slavery worldwide; there is a great collection of editions and translations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, together with other books by and about her. The collection also contains a number of letters written home by Rhode Island soldiers who served in the Civil War.
About Caleb Fiske Harris
On March 9, 1818 in Warwick, Rhode Island, Caleb Fiske Harris was born the youngest of five children of Dr. Stephen and Eliza Harris. Caleb attended school in Kingston, and entered Brown University in 1834. Although a good student, Harris was eager to throw himself into commerce, so he quit school the second term of his junior year to seek his fortune in New York City. He set up a commission business in New York, partnering in two companies and then heading up his own until 1856, when he returned to Rhode Island, settling in Providence, where he remained in business until the Civil War. In 1866 he married Emily Stevenson Davis, of Philadelphia, but the couple never had any children.
In his maturity, Harris collected in three areas: the literature of England, American poetry and plays, and the literature of slavery and the Rebellion (that is, the Civil War). His English literature collection was dispersed at auction in 2,500 lots after his death. His second collection, on American poetry and plays formed the core of a collection that ended up at Brown University, and is now considered the greatest collection of American poetry and plays in the world. His third collection on slavery in the Civil War was purchased from his estate by Providence Public Library in 1884, and numbered over 8,000 items.
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