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.