MORAGA -- When it comes to Civil War themes, one may think about the South and North. Rarely does the West come to mind.

Until now.

The Hearst Art Gallery's current exhibit, "Lee and Grant," is a reassessment of the lives, careers and historical impact of the Civil War generals.

Developed by the Virginia Historical Society and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the exhibit -- which runs through March 20 -- features photographs, prints, coins, paintings, reproduction clothing and some personal items used by Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Lee's Bible and flatware used by Grant are some of those items.

"The National Endowment for the Arts-sponsored exhibition, several years in the making, assesses the conflict through the lives and careers of the two generals," said Heidi Donner, spokeswoman for the Hearst Art Gallery. "The exhibition is traveling to museums across the country; this is its only California venue."

Visitors can sit inside two tent replicas with educational materials, Civil War-era bibliography/videography, photographs, maps, films and Civil War music. Visitors will learn about the life of a common soldier and about the importance of surgeons and nurses at the front, meet an Irish Union soldier, and learn how and what troops were fed, horse and mule care and the role of sharpshooters and musicians, Donner said.

"This year is the start of the Civil War's 150th anniversary, which will stretch to 2015, and across the nation people are planning a series of events to commemorate the war and reflect upon it," said Carl Guarneri, a Saint Mary's history professor who serves as a humanities scholar and adviser to the exhibit. "Since it takes time to organize them, fewer events are happening at the outset of the sesquicentennial than will occur later. Timeliness is one of the things that makes this exhibit stand out. The fact that it covers the whole war, and the Reconstruction years as well, allows us to provide an overview that seems essential as people begin reconsidering the Civil War."

The Civil War, its drama, heroes, and its meanings are important for all Americans to keep in view, said Guarneri.

"But here in California, the Civil War can seem a distant thing, both in time and space," he said. "It's something that happened 'back east;' we tend to think, and had little to do with California. That's not true, of course; California played an important role as a ground of struggle between the North and South for the state's allegiance, and once the state went for the Union it contributed disproportionately large amounts of troops and money to the cause."

Even so, he said, there aren't many physical remains in the Bay Area that remind us of the war -- Fort Point, Union Square and a few museum displays.

"In Washington, Virginia, Boston or Brooklyn -- where I visited my daughter recently, who lives a few blocks from Grand Army Plaza -- the Civil War is present in place names, landmarks, battlefield parks," Guarneri said. "This exhibit and supporting events help to make the Civil War more present and vivid to northern Californians."

A second thing to note is how the exhibit is set up to be interactive and user-friendly to visitors young and old. There are pop-up quizzes, touchable replicas of Civil War artifacts and full-size tents with various games and activities inside, Guarneri said.

"The informational kiosks leave the visitor with questions whose answers they can discuss with others or decide for themselves based on the information provided," he said. "It's a great exhibit for school groups, or for parents to bring their children. The exhibit does a good job of placing its historical and biographical details in the larger context."

It neither presents Lee or Grant as unqualified heroes, Guarneri said, and by showing the human cost it avoids glorifying war.

What makes this Civil War exhibit unique is its biographical focus. It views the Civil War through the actions and personalities of its two leading military heroes, allowing visitors to compare and contrast Lee and Grant as men, generals and representative types of the South and North, respectively. Another unique aspect of the exhibit is its focus on how these men were remembered and commemorated long after the war, Guarneri said.

"Whether these men were seen as heroes or disappointments depended, over the years, on such factors as people's continued devotion to the Union or to the South's 'Lost Cause,' the desire for reconciliation between the North and South, estimations of their postwar lives (especially Grant's failed presidency), and by the second half of the twentieth century, on a renewed sense that the Union aim to end slavery was just and overdue," he said.

The show's presence in the Hearst Gallery underlines its educational value, Guarneri said. Various classes on campus are using the exhibit to discuss American history, biography, war, and the politics of museum displays. And St. Mary's is scheduling a series of panels and presentations that discuss themes from the exhibit, from the Civil War to slavery and African-American history.

"Visitors to the exhibit should also walk over to the Saint Mary's College Library, which has set up complementary display cases that show off various Civil War materials, from books to bullets," he said.

On display are Civil War soldiers' letters and diaries from the College's Special Collections, including the diary of a Michigan soldier in Grant's army who was wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor and received the Medal of Honor for his bravery, Guarneri said.

Guarneri will give a public lecture on "Grant's Campaign against Lee in Virginia," at 4 p.m. March 1 at Room 202 in Galileo Hall on the Saint Mary's campus.

Other events concurrent to the exhibit include a "Re-enactment and Living History Day" on the green at the front of the college on March 19. The event will include demonstrations of military activities, drills, skirmishes, cannon firing, sharpshooters, fife and drum band, and living history displays including front-line medical care and personnel, uniforms and period costume, weapons, war correspondents, horse-drawn wagons, camp followers.

Lee and Grant 150 Years after the Civil War
WHEN: Through March 20
WHERE: Hearst Art Gallery, Saint Mary's College, Moraga