Playing Civil War Soldiers in a Lost Cause Driven Market

Thanks to Brooks Simpson for picking out such a heart-warming early Christmas gift for me.   Brooks offers a brief comment on the failure of a toy company to include black soldiers in its depiction of the fighting at the Crater:

If all the soldiers involved represented in such toy sets and model sets to commemorate certain battles are white, that leaves an impression on the viewer, collector, or child playing with toys.  It’s not as if there are not Union black Civil War model soldiers: there are sets representing the 54th Massachusetts, for example.  But play is one way in which people get interested in history, and if companies who manufacture these models fail to include black soldiers when it would be appropriate to include them, kids (and adults) might conclude that all Civil War soldiers were white.  This need not be the case: toys do leave impressions.

I couldn’t agree more with Brooks on this issue, but I do find it interesting that he is surprised that toy companies have not made historical accuracy their top priority.  After all, companies that market Civil War related items are concerned with appealing to as broad a customer base as possible and that base is historically rooted in a Lost Cause interpretation of the war.  We are more likely to see black Confederates before we see black and white Union soldiers at the Crater.  I’ve written numerous times about the decision on the part of the producers of the movie Cold Mountain to delete a scene set after the Crater fight which shows an angry Confederate shoot a severely wounded black man at close range.  Can there be any doubt as to why that was done?

Those of you interested in the continued influence of the Lost Cause on Civil War culture will want to read Gary Gallagher’s forthcoming book, Causes Won, Lost, & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the War [(UNC Press) Amazon shows a release date of March 22, but UNC tends to release books earlier.]  He includes an entire chapter which provides a statistical analysis of recent popular artworks and magazine advertisements.

Works of art produced for the Civil War markets in the past twenty-five years would warm the hearts of former Confederates who laid the groundwork for the Lost Cause tradition.  To a quite astonishing degree, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the soldiers they commanded have emerged triumphant in the world of contemporary painters and sculptors.  The subjects the artists select, as well as many of the interpretive materials that describe their pieces, mirror the original Lost Cause art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  In some ways, recent artworks have gone beyond those of the Lost Cause era by emphasizing the religious devotion of southern leaders and, in a few disturbing cases, placing black soldiers in Confederate ranks.  The St. Andrew’s Cross battle flag also appears more prominently and frequently, rendering current art more readily identifiable as Confederate than many paintings and prints of the immediate postwar decades.  Largely absent are important elements of late-nineteenth century artworks devoted to the triumphant Union.  Most obviously, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip H. Sheridan, together with their victories, occupy a decidedly secondary position that belies their position in northern conceptions of national triumph. (p. 136)

Between 1962 and 2006 Gallagher found roughly 1,700 advertisements in the pages of three popular Civil War magazines with decidedly Confederate subjects.  During that same time-frame there were only 600 devoted to the Union.  Here is the breakdown by decade:

1960s    10 Confederate, 4 Union

1970s    59 Confederate, 12 Union

1980s    408 Confederate, 81 Union

1990s    919 Confederate, 118 Union

2000-05    300 Confederate, 118 Union [statistics can be found on p. 138]

There is very little recent Civil War art devoted to battles that involve USCTs.  I have a giclee edition of Troiani’s painting of the Crater hanging in my office which shows black Union soldiers standing defiantly in the face of an attack by the 6th Virginia of Weisiger’s brigade.  While Americans have no doubt become more aware of the service of black Union soldiers since the release of Glory in 1989 I suspect that we are still far from the subject becoming an object of our imagination.

Brooks mentioned that soldiers in the 54th Massachusetts have been molded into toy soldiers.  Let me go out on a limb here and suggest that this has more to do with the popularity of Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman than it does with actual history.  It is Washington and Freeman who humanized these men for most people and made them acceptable or marketable in this case.  However, to the extent that USCTs can be purchased in various forms we are unlikely to see them depicted accurately in battle.  Who is going to purchase a black Union soldier bayoneting a Confederate or a scene at the Crater after the battle which shows a black soldier being executed?  In the end, the state of the market reflects what most Civil War enthusiasts are comfortable with.

Hey Brooks, I will be expecting my present in the mail.

23 comments add yours

  1. Kevin,

    I do not disagree with your commentary, however let me offer another angle which is purely opinion and anecdotal.

    Shelby Foote offered up an explanation in the Burns series as to why the ACW still resonates in the South but is just a footnote in the North. He went on to explain how as a young man, he grew up in a rough part of town and was involved in a good number of fights, most of which he won. But the ones he remembered best as an old man were the few he lost.

    I fully understand Foote’s tale, having lived for many years in both the Deep South and throughout the North. In much, if not all of the South, the ACW does indeed resonate and for many, occurred just “a short while ago.” (See Tony Horowitz’s wonderful “Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War” for a full take on this phenomenon.) IMO, these are the people who, for the most part, are seriously interested in the late unpleasantness and therefore buy the most ACW stuff, whether it’s books, paintings, prints, or toy soldiers. For example, rare ACW book dealers all report that scarce Confederate titles are most in demand right now.

    When you write that “the state of the market reflects what most Civil War enthusiasts are comfortable with,” I’d simply opine that “most Civil War enthusiasts” are probably middle-age or older, white, multi-generational Southerners who live well below the Mason-Dixon line. Not surprisingly, those folks are the same demographic who are least likely to vote for Obama, at least according to what I read in the press. It’s not surprising that they’re not going to buy a USCT toy soldier bayoneting a Confederate anymore than an African-American hobbyist would buy the reverse.

    I’m pretty sure these various Civil War memorabilia companies have done their marketing homework.

    Paul

  2. Paul, — Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. I think you are right on in suggesting that the companies have done their homework. However, I would like to see some evidence to back up your point that “middle-age or older, white, multi-generational Southerners who live well below the Mason-Dixon line” are the most popular customers. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that white northerners turned out to be the case.

    • I am a 50 year old white male who still has a small collection of plastic toy soldiers though my Civil War era ones were sold off a few years ago. I belong to an online collectors group which has roughly 800 members world wide. Judging by the fact that they comment on having types of toy soldiers that were only available in the 1950’s, 60’s & 70’s plus their profile photos, probably 80% of the group is made up of older white males. As to the U.S. members, we seem to be spread out around the country. This backs up Paul assertion on the age, gender and ethnicity at least.

  3. Has there been research into who actually buys these products and their demographics? It’s obvious that Confederate depictions in calenders etc. often outnumber Union ones, and I always assumed it was because the market was more Southern than Northern. But is there any real data?

    Aside: In any 12 month calender featuring the art of Kunstler or the other members of the CW soviet of social realist artists, there will be always:
    Stonewall Jackson praying
    Nathan Bedford Forrest on a horse
    Joshua L. Chamberlain
    Our token black soldiers: 54th Mass.
    The Battle of Gettysburg
    Robert E. Lee, either:
    a. praying
    b. praying with Stonewall Jackson
    c. Conferring with Jackson before Chancellorsville

    But not:
    Convincing Longstreet Pickett’s Charge is a good idea.
    Watching Pickett’s charge come to grief
    Looking off in the distance while his troops force African American residents of Pennsylvania back in slavery.

  4. Matthew, — There is a great deal about the content of recent Civil War art in the forthcoming Gallagher study. He contacted all of the big-name artists for that specific chapter. He does a good job of tracing the ways in which recent art both deviates from and reinforces themes introduced by Lost Cause artists.

  5. I’m not surprised by the lack of portrayals of black Union soldiers or the fact that they are limited to the 54th Massachusetts. I concede that such is the nature of the business. It seemed to me that the Crater was an opportunity to be the exception to the rule, but the fact that such was not the case, I think, adds a new dimension to Kevin’s work … it’s not as if our memories have improved rcently, so to speak. As for black Confederate toy soldiers, well, Kevin, just wait. 🙂

  6. Brooks, — It will be interesting to see whether the CW Sesquicentennial will bring about change in how the war is represented in popular culture. Thanks again for a thought-provoking post.

  7. During the week when Robert E. Lee so gallantly surrendered in Virginia an army of 50,000 Union soldiers stormed almost impregnable defense works manned by 20,000 rebels to capture Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley, resulting in the Union occupation of Mobile, a strategic objective acheived after two or more years of careful planning and sustained effort. Thousands of men died in these battles, thousands more were taken prisoner and even more thousands escaped and would have fought another day if Lee had not surrendered. Civil war historians often relegate these battles to footnotes or omit them entirely as if they never even happened. The war ended with a very substantial bang, but the official narrative has muffled the sound with the amplification of Lee’s immensely dignified whimper.

  8. “During the week when Robert E. Lee so gallantly surrendered in Virginia an army of 50,000 Union soldiers stormed almost impregnable defense works manned by 20,000 rebels to capture Spanish Fort and Fort Blakeley,

    Actually it was 50,000 Union against about 6,000 Confederates.

  9. Well, I’ve confessed this here before, so it will not hurt to do so again. I collect 54mm matte finished toy soldiers from this period. I was one of those children who first saw museum dioramas at a tender age and was utterly smitten. My pacifist parents were over a barrel, wanting to encourage my passion for historical subject matter and concerned that so much of it was military and inherently violent. For more on this dilemma, and my brief career as a teenaged reenactor – Confederate, no less – see:

    http://greensleeves.typepad.com/berkshires/2006/10/no_nukes_or_net.html

    This is not a logical hobby for me. It burns through discretionary income and has grown to a size that is completely impractical for the displays I imagine. Perhaps those with extensive electric train habits will sympathize; my spouse, I assure you, does not. And yet I am still holding out for a few good zouaves…

    Kevin, your “present” will not come cheap. You might be able to get it on eBay for about $80. This toymaker lost my business with sets like this several years ago and has gone quite far off the “Lost Cause” fantasy deep end. It does have four figures from the glorified 54th (sculpted by Ken Osen, who now is lead sculptor for the revitalized William Britains company) and that is not surprising because it is the only black unit that the public is aware of. The same is true for the Irish Brigade. You will never see a flag of the 9th Massachusetts, or the 9th Connecticut on the store shelves: both Irish regiments.

    Interestingly, Britians also has an American War of Independence line that includes several figures from the black 1st Rhode Island. The set that I believe is most intriquing depicts a British highlander on the ground warding off the bayonet of a black colonial soldier. I have no idea how well it sells, but it appeals to international collectors, whereas those who collect the American Civil War period are concentrated heavily East of the Mississippi.

    You can view it and other black figures in this revolutionary war line here:

    http://www.wbritain.com/products.cfm?catID=3162

  10. Kevin,

    You wrote a few responses up that “It will be interesting to see whether the CW Sesquicentennial will bring about change in how the war is represented in popular culture.”

    That reminded me of an exhibit I visited only last year at the Orange County Historical Center in Orlando, FL. entitled “The Civil War in Florida.” This was a major, heavily promoted exhibition (with Smithsonian sponsorship) presented alongside another exhibit pertaining to the historical “Gone With the Wind” phenomenon.

    I admit to being surprised at what I saw. Every facet/timeline/issue of the war in Florida exhibit focused heavily on the role of women and African-Americans, as well as the impact of the war on those two groups. Strategic and tactical descriptions pertaining to the handful of FL battles and skirmishes were almost an afterthought. It did strike me as being very PC. Even my brother and father, who are not serious Civil War students, noticed this. So from that, I’d say some things are changing.

    Paul

  11. Thanks for the report Paul. That said, I am not quite sure what you mean by “PC”. How does focusing on a different aspect of the relevant history make it PC?

  12. Actually it was 50,000 Union against about 6,000 Confederates.

    Six thousand is a good estimate of the number of Confederate soldiers killed, wounded and/or taken prisoner when the forts fell in early April. Union strength gradually increased throughout the month of March, as did artillery bombardment as more and more guns were positioned for the assaults. It’s not clear exactly how many or what percentage of Confederate forces managed to evacuate the forts by crossing the river under cover of darkness. My understanding is that Colored Troops began the assault on Fort Blakeley, suffering extremely heavy casualties in the process, and that a significant percentage, perhaps 20% or more of the assembled Union forces, consisted of Colored Troops.

  13. Invisible Men

    Here is an image with much to tell about matters of race and memory in contemporary America. I am confident that just a few years ago, its subject matter – a black American soldier menacing a fallen white enemy with

  14. I have a color litho depicting three black union soldiers on horseback. At the bottom it says 1994 McDonald Art Co. CT.NO. 51823. Artist Alex Durr….anyone know anything about this print?

  15. That’s from one of two paintings I did depicting the “Buffalo Soldiers.” I had real life, active duty marines pose for it. I still have one of the originals.
    S/F
    Alex Durr
    Apr 09

    • I also have a copy of the color litho depicting three black union soldiers on horseback, it has Alex Durr on the print , Is it print sighned ? or did you hand sighn any of the prints?

    • Hi, were there a lot of copies of the buffalo prints made? Can you tell me anything about them?
      Jane

  16. Alex,
    I have recently gotten those two prints. Do you still have an original? Is it available?

    • I still have the one titled “In Pursiut.” The other was given to a charity auction some years ago.
      Alex
      Pardon the late response!

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