A Sense of Defeat?

Yesterday my Civil War classes watched a bit more of Ken Burns’s The Civil War.  We’ve been talking quite a bit about the evolution from Limited to Hard or Total War so I decided to show them Episode 8 which focuses on “Sherman’s March to the Sea.”  In fact, their final exam – scheduled for next Wednesday – will explore just this issue.  We had a very interesting discussion about how Burns interprets the event through images, sound, and narrative as opposed to the treatment in our text by Brooks Simpson.  A few of the students were struck by the differences in their respective approaches.  At least one student suggested that Simpson was minimizing Sherman’s destructiveness and the sheer brutality of his operation against the civilians. 

In addressing the issue I asked the students to consider how both Burns and Simpson approach the subject.  To make a long story short, by the end of the class we were discussing the role of empathy and emotion in documentary and the more detached perspective that historians are expected to take when writing about the past.  I also talked a bit about the literature that has come out on Sherman’s March over the past 15 years, including Mark Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War.

Back to the reason for this post.  In the prologue to Episode 8 Shelby Foote says the following:

Shelby Foote Interview – As a Southerner I would say one of the main importances of the war is that Southerners have a sense of defeat which none of the rest of the country has.  You see in the movie Patton, the actor who plays Patton saying, “We Americans have never lost a war.” That’s a rather amazing statement for him to make as Patton because Patton’s grandfather was in Lee’s army of Northern Virginia and he certainly lost a war.

One of my students asked if it is true that Southerners have a sense of defeat.  I suggested, first, that he might want to distinguish between white and black Southerners.  It’s not clear to me that black Southerners view the war as a defeat, if it makes sense to generalize at all.  Even for white Southerners, however,  I wasn’t quite sure what to say.  I’ve heard it said that this sense of defeat persists, but have never taken the opportunity to explore what it might mean or how it manifests itself in our culture.  Any suggestions?

A Brief Comment About Civil War Art

Robert Moore has a wonderful post in response to a very brief comment I made concerning a Mort Kunstler print. As usual the post was taken by the usual suspects for a general attack against all things Confederate and Southern or even as a personal jab at the artist – talk about “same ole, same ole.” I recently read Gary Gallagher’s new book on Civil War culture and memory, which includes an excellent chapter on Civil War prints. I am fascinated by the continued popularity of these prints and those subjects that tend to sell.

From a Reader: “I would like to see an acclaimed Civil War artist paint Grant or Sherman holding a tiny christian child. I suppose many would think that Grant would be too drunk to hold it while Sherman would try and burn it.”

While the comment is quite funny, it does hit on a fundamental truth regarding the agenda of most Civil War artists and that is they tend to focus on all things Confederate. Of course, this is what sells, but it is the fact that subject is so skewed that is worth our attention. First, you will be hard pressed to find Grant or Sherman in a print gallery. It seems to me that our collective memory much more easily embraces Confederates as something more than military men compared with their Union counterparts. Think of all the prints which depict Jackson, Lee, Stuart and even Forrest in religious scenes and other domestic scenes. You can find them praying just about everywhere, holding babies, and loved ones or just sitting around the fire place reveling in song and the presence of young southern belles. Please keep in mind that this is not a criticism, but an observation. My guess is that most Civil War enthusiasts would be unable to wrap their heads around the same scenes, but with Union officers. If we were to rely solely on Civil War prints to distinguish between Union and Confederate (North v. South) we would have to conclude that northerners were bloodthirsty atheists who had little interest in religion, family, and home.

In the end I think these prints are more about us than they are about the subjects they depict. The intention is to engender in us a certain emotion, which may or may not have any connection with history. Notice all of the emotion that is depicted in some of these domestic scenes. Are we really supposed to respond to these images as reflective of history or are they simply the imaginative constructs of the artists? Our primary interest is to be entertained by the war; in this regard I include myself. The art minimizes the horror of war, including the battlefield scenes painted by Troiani which hang on my office walls. We don’t really want to be reminded of the extent of the suffering that took place on and off the battlefield or the carnage that was left in its wake.

Gender Matters

My Civil War classes recently completed a comparative essay on the movie Glory and an essay by historian, Donald Yacavone on the pay crisis in the 54th Massachusetts.  Yacavone’s essay takes the story of the 54th Mass. past the failed assault at Battery Wagner and explores the challenges the unit faced as they fought for equal pay.  Along the way, the author comes down hard on the Lincoln administration (specifically Lincoln) for ignoring repeated requests from soldiers and officers to address their grievances.  Yacavone also suggests that the protests by these men and the harsh punishments meted out for insubordination constituted one of the earliest moments in the civil rights movement. 

While the assignment involved comparing two very different approaches to the past I also want my students to think critically and develop their own arguments.  One of my female students took issue with what she took to be an overly harsh critique by Yacavone.  She understood the focus of the essay and ultimately concluded that it was essential reading for understanding the extent of discrimination that USCTs faced throughout the war.  The problem was with what she perceived as a failure on the part of the author to give sufficient weight to the fact that these men ultimately proved to be successful in their bid for equal pay.  And why does this matter?  According to my student, women have had as much difficulty, if not more, in convincing the federal government to support legislation guaranteeing equal pay compared with their male counterparts.  Of course, the story is a bit more complicated than this, but I appreciate that this student was able to articulate a position based on her own understanding of these matters.  Perhaps a Donna Yacavone would be better able to appreciate such a postion compared to Donald.

More on John Latschar

There is no one I respect more in the NPS than John Hennessy, who is chief historian at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. John offered the following as an assessment of Latschar’s tenure at Gettysburg. You will notice that his observations stand in sharp contrast with the comments found over at Eric Wittenberg’s blog.

Speaking from the narrow (though important) perspective of one who helps manage a battlefield landscape that is also a national park, John Latschar is the most important superintendent any NPS battlefield site has had in our lifetime. Through the park’s GMP and the rigorous implementation that followed it, he was the key figure in:

– Establishing the primacy of wartime resources and landscapes over all else–a point much in debate for a very long time.

– The reclamation of the patterns of forest and field at Gettysburg have made it possible for all other sites to seriously consider and pursue such a course–something, again, that was, in the mid-1990s, only a faint dream.

– Regardless of what you think about the park’s approach to interpreting the battle and Civil War, Gettysburg has helped re-establish the importance of interpretation, and especially the many reasons why these places matter (or ought to) to the nation. What the NPS does in the way of interpretation may not much interest those already immersed in the story (though I think it really does–there are few things as compelling as a powerful interpretive program delivered on-site, no matter how many times you’ve been there), but it is everything to the bulk of a park’s visitors. Otherwise, these places are just fields and forest without significance.

Think back fifteen years. All of these issues were much in debate. Our battlefield landscapes threatened to become little more than museums of commemorative expression, with the resources related to the battle managed and interpreted with the same earnestness that we devote to CCC culverts, 1964 visitor centers, and postwar forests. While many people have had something to do with the reordering of our priorities, Gettysburg under John Latschar’s watch have given those reordered priorities tangible form–much to the benefit to park visitors, both casual and hard-core.

Welcome to the New Site

The Kubrick theme is temporary until the new template is ready to be unveiled in about a month.  It will take some time for me to set up the blogroll and other links.  The process of importing everything looks to have gone smoothly enough, although some of the images have been lost and a few of the posts were duplicated.  I will go through and delete those over the next few days.  My biggest concern was the loss of comments.  Sorry for the inconvenience of having to update your blogroll, but I hope it will be worthwhile.