Last night I attended a talk by Gary Gallagher at the Miller Center here in Charlottesville. His topic was pulled from a larger project on perceptions of the Civil War in popular culture, which should be completed over the summer. This talk specifically addressed the continued popularity and presence of Lost Cause themes in prints by Civil War artists such as Don Troiani and Mort Kunstler. Gallagher was in rare form last night and it was refreshing to see him finally give-in to technology; he actually displayed the images using a Powerpoint program during the talk. His data was collected by three graduate students who poured through every issue of Civil War Times Illustrated and collected information related to every advertised print.
While I did not take notes during the talk, I can give you a sense of what was discussed. Not surprising, Confederate leaders and battle scenes outnumber their Union counterparts (he mentioned that the Irish Brigade is the exception). While Lee and Jackson dominate the market, there are literally no Grant and Sherman prints for sale. Gallagher rammed this point home by pointing out that in the decades following the war and up to the 1930′s Grant was one of the most popular Americans, and his funeral attracted attention from all over the world. Confederate prints not only outsell Union themes, but they are more valuable on the secondary market. Troiani’s Union and Confederate standard bearers is a case in point. Both are sold out, but the Union print is about half the value of his Confederate counterpart.
Battle scenes follow the same pattern. Gallagher used a Mort Kunstler print of Gettysburg with both Lee and Longstreet released after the Turner movie hit the theatres. The print features a Lee and Jackson who resemble Tom Berringer and Martin Sheen rather than the historical subjects. Gettysburg scenes continue to outnumber all contenders even though the battle did not stand out as a “turning point” during the war. Gallagher explained this by arguing that the battle reflects our love affair with “David and Goliath” stories and the attraction that one single battle holds for people who care to imagaine “what-if” scenarios.
In trying to demonstrate the continued popularity of Lost Cause themes in today’s “art” Gallagher juxtaposed older prints alongside their more recent interpretations. Common themes and differences emerged. Perhaps the most important is the dearth of older paintings which include the Confederate flag. As an example, Gallagher showed a wartime print of Jackson entering Winchester which included no flags hanging from buildings with a more recent print of the same scene. The more recent print includes Confederate flags hanging from multiple buildings. The same can be said of battle prints. We seem to be more interested in the Confederate battle flag today compared with earlier generations. Even more humorous were the contrasting religious scenes. More recent prints depicting Lee or Jackson reading their Bible or reading to a child highlight our tendency to see these men as moral saints. I asked Gallagher during the Q&A if he thought these particular prints were more a reflection of the more recent “culture wars” rather than a sincere attempt at trying to capture the past. While he resisted that suggestion I am still convinced that the people who buy these particular prints are using the past to defend assumptions about more recent cultural issues. (Perhaps more on that later.) The other interesting contrast was the depiction of African Americans. The first print shown was the popular “The Burial of Latane” which captures a funeral and an apparently disinterested slave looking on and waiting for the moment when he can bury the body. Gallagher contrasted this with a more recent print which attempts to show black Confederates within the ranks in the heat of battle. The particular print used actually shows a black man fighting right under a Confederate battle flag. Of course Gallagher made the point that such scenes are more fantasy or wishful thinking.
I always enjoy Gallagher’s talks. His passion for the Civil War comes through every time and he manages to convey his own scholarly bent in the most entertaining manner possible. One of the first things I ever published was a book review of The Confederate War for North and South Magazine back in 1997. At the time I was much more interested in reading battle narratives, but this book impressed upon me the importance of taking a broader view. He asked interesting questions and broadened my very narrow understanding of the war; I can easily trace my continued fascination with the war back to that book. Thanks Gary.