Please Stop Using Our Civil War To Satisfy Your Own Fantasies

20090814_Casteel_DSCN4132Gary Casteel’s previous projects include a sculpture of Jefferson Davis holding hands with his biological son and “adopted” black son, Jim Limber.  That project satisfied the fantasies of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which as far as I know still cannot find a home for it.  From the fantasy of southern paternalism we move to one of the most popular narratives of our Civil War memory: Brother against Brother.  Not surprisingly, the inspiration for this latest piece stems from a story handed down through the Casteel family:

Casteel says that his own family had two ancestors – brothers – who actually fired at each other from opposing armies during the Battle of Gettysburg, according to family history that has been handed down through generations.  It was not until about a year after the War that the brother who fought as a Confederate eventually showed back up at the other’s farm.  It had apparently taken a year for him to come to grips with the fact that the South had lost. But the delay in returning apparently was not long enough to heal the emotional wounds; the two brothers began to fight about the War’s outcome and eventually parted ways forever.  The Union soldier in “Brothers” is wounded and wearing a head bandage, and is clutching his brother. The Confederate soldier is shown in a reciprocal embrace, but his one fist remains clenched. Casteel says that he portrays the Confederate as the one who finds it hard to let go of the fact that his brother is a Yankee. “Hard to accept the fact that his world is now changing.”

I also heard stories from my parents and grandparents of relatives fighting one another during the Civil War, even though the family didn’t arrive at these shores until the early twentieth century.  At least one Levin had his home burned down by Sherman.

Why can’t we move beyond this ridiculous little narrative thread that tells us nothing about the horrors and consequences of war?  Let’s stop playing Civil War and get serious; after all, this is supposed to be art.  It looks like something out of a Civil War soap opera or Mort Kunstler painting.  Does anyone know if this statue is going to be placed on NPS-owned land?

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26 comments… add one

  • Mike Aug 19, 2009

    I like Gary Casteel’s Work while it might not fit into your personal taste or view of the Civil War it is still a wonderful work of art.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2009

      Mike,

      I certainly do not deny that the man has talent and it certainly does satisfy a childlike view of the war.

  • Karen Cox Aug 20, 2009

    Regarding JD’s black son, well, sort of. Actually, I think it would be fun if CW Memory took a look at children’s literature and not just from the early 20th c. There’s a book that came out in the early 1960s (no coincidence) with the title *Jeff Davis: Confederate Boy*–I guess he was a Confederate before there was a Confederacy. Anyway, it plays up his relationship with his slave “friend” from his childhood. Again, all of this stuff starts coming out of the woodwork (like statues) when the racial status quo (read: white man in charge) seems threatened.

  • Michaela Aug 20, 2009

    Kevin, You need to respect your Dad’s feelings about his family’s history! This was the Levin who had swum over and arrived on a bright July morning from Russia fairly tired in 1854. Then he built his house just using his bare hands and his dog (Yes, the dog got accidentally mixed into the concrete, a painful detail the family does not easily mention). The fact that the house was concrete and still got destroyed tells you about the vicious assault the Yankees delivered. So, now be a good son and cherish your Confederate history.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2009

    Hi Karen,

    It’s a great idea. Actually, a survey of the history of childrens literature would make for an interesting project. Here is a link to a recent kids book about Limber: http://www.amazon.com/Jim-Limber-Davis-Orphan-Confederate/dp/158980435X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1250776134&sr=8-1

    Michaela,

    You know as well as I do that there is no evidence whatsoever that the dog was buried alive in the concrete. I will respect our family’s history as soon as we clean it up with a little research. I’m just tired to hearing about it.

  • Jimmy Price Aug 20, 2009

    Could you post some sort of “viewer warning” next time you link to a book like that? :-)

    Painful.

    Gut-wrenchingly, physically painful.

  • Bob Pollock Aug 20, 2009

    Kevin,

    You and I usually agree, but I’m not sure what you are objecting to here. Are you arguing that families weren’t split by the war? That brothers didn’t fight brothers? That there weren’t instances of fraternization between the antagonists? Are you arguing that there was no emotional reaction when these families reunited? I’m aware of the lingering bitterness between the two sides (I recommend Neff’s book, Honoring the Civil War Dead) but I don’t think we should completely discount the fact that the country did come back together in a relatively short time.

    I actually have more trouble with the National Civil War Monument mentioned at the end of the article you linked to. Who is on this panel of historians? How is a monument going to tell “a complete story and a true story” of the war and “avoid favoring either the Union or the Confederate cause” ?

  • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2009

    Bob,

    I don’t have a problem with the sculpture beyond the fact that it is such a worn out/cliche-like form. Neff’s book is a wonderful read, but on the issue at hand I highly recommend Amy Murrell Taylor’s _The Divided Family in Civil War America_ (UNC Press).

    I was also disappointed with the lack of information re: the proposed national monument, which no doubt helps to explain why we haven’t heard much about it.

  • Ken Noe Aug 20, 2009

    Two or three years ago, I received an e-mail inviting me to serve on the “Panel of Historians” of the National Civil War Memorial. The panel would be charged with choosing important moments to recognize on the monument. At that time, it was supposed to be built in Wheeling, West Virginia. I agreed, good grandson of West Virginia that I am, and then never heard anything from them again. My understanding was that it had fallen through because of funding problems and a lack of Congressional support. But the website’s still up and running, and there’s a new story about attempts to build it in northern Virginia. Maybe I’m still on the panel.

    http://www.nationalcwmemorial.org/
    http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07175/796741-85.stm
    http://www.nvdaily.com/news/2009/07/civil-war-memorial-gets-boost.html

  • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2009

    I guess that explains the lack of information on the website.

  • David H. Jones Aug 20, 2009

    Instances when brothers met in an emotional reunion on the battlefield did occur and are documented, so you are wrong in declaring that an artful depiction of such is a “ridiculous little narrative” or a “Civil War soap opera”. I wrote about such a circumstance in “Two Brothers: One North, One South” regarding Clifton and William Prentiss at Petersburg on April 2, 1865. To declare that such happenings are mere fantasy is demeaning and ignores the humanity of soldiers who took part. Amid “the horrors and consequences of war” there are numerous recorded moments when a spirit of brotherhood between the adversaries may be glimpsed even a century and a half later. It’s saddening that you ridicule this spirit.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2009

      David,

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. Of course, I never denied that there were such instances as depicted in Casteel’s sculpture. That, of course, would be silly. I even referred to what I think is the best recent scholarly study of families that were split as a result of the war, and I’ve come across plenty of primary sources that touch on the ways in which the war destroyed families. What I take issue with is the ease with which we resort to certain themes and images when it comes to remembering the war. This one was played out long ago and ignores the spectrum of emotions that defined the relations between members of the same family long after the war ended.

      It’s understandable that you would take a defensive stance given the subject of your book, but I hope that helps to clarify my position.

  • Brooks Simpson Aug 20, 2009

    You know, I think you miss the point, Kevin. Really. The statue is an excellent representation of both the Reconciliationist approach (Yankee embraces Reb) and a variant of the Lost Cause approach (The South was Right!) symbolized by the clenched fist.

    Now, if they only could be positioned over the body of a fallen black soldier (side undetermined, as to please various constituencies) … well, the symbolism would be even richer. Because how else could that have taken place without the smothering of the hopes and dreams of others?

  • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2009

    Brooks,

    You mean something along the lines of this? http://us.history.wisc.edu/hist102/photos/html/1010.html

  • Brooks Simpson Aug 21, 2009

    Exactly.

  • David H. Jones Aug 21, 2009

    Perhaps I’m a sentimental soul about “Our Civil War,” but I believe that reconciliation in all of its forms is included in “the spectrum of emotions that defined the relations between members of the same family long after the war ended.” Would it be imprudent of me to suggest that you too easily resorted to the use of a Klu Klux Klan cartoon as one of the “themes and images when it comes to remembering the war.” Could it be that this theme and image is “played out” and that you are being intolerant of other viewpoints?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2009

      David,

      I appreciate the follow-up. My reference to the Nast image was in response to a comment made by another reader. National reunion (perhaps different from individual instances of reunions among family members) between white northerners and southerners took place, in part, as a result of their willingness to ignore the “emancipationist legacy” of the war, which included black civil rights. This crucial aspect of Civil War memory has been well documented by a host of historians, including David Blight, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Gary Gallagher, and Nina Silber.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “intolerant” here. I’ve said more than once that I never denied that one can find examples of family members meeting on battlefields. I think Casteel’s sculpture is too easy and comes across as incredibly juvenile. Like I said, the image of brother v. brother has been done to death. Exactly how many instances of this theme have been documented? I actually would love to know. There are plenty of examples of Civil War statuary that are quite moving in their portrayal of emotionally charged scenes. They include, for instance the monument to black Union soldiers in Washington, D.C. as well as the Kirkland Monument at Fredericksburg.

  • Corey Meyer Aug 21, 2009

    I think that the exchange between Kevin and Brooks sums up the problem with this statue. It is more confederate propoganda…why does the southern soldier have to have a clenched fist? What does that portray to the viewer? Is it truely the idea of the confederate getting used to the massive change that they would have to endure or is it got something to do with a more modern position on the interpretation of the war and its causes?

    Plus, I think Kevin brings up a very valid point…does Spotsylvania C.H. know they are going to erect this statue there…on NPS land or is this another “big ass” confederate flag deal where it is place on private property?

    I fully agree with Kevin…it seems that one side should be able it interpret the war however they see fit, but when the other side decides to tackle a topic such as slavery at the NPS the other side cannot cry foul fast enough.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 22, 2009

    Corey,

    Thanks for the comment, but I wouldn’t describe the Casteel piece as Confederate propaganda. It’s an image that resonates through many parts of the country and was pushed by both white northerners and southerners.

    That last point in your comment is yours and should not be attributed to me since I did not say anything about it.

  • Corey Meyer Aug 24, 2009

    Kevin,

    It was not my intention to put words in your mouth, I apologize. And maybe “propaganda” is too strong a word, but with his creation of the Davis-Limber statue, albeit at the behest of the SCV, there may be an agenda to this work. Who commissioned it, who is paying for it? A few questions I don’t seem to find the answers to. Granted the brother vs. brother theme is well known, but one must wonder why he is placing it at Spotsylvania instead of Appomattox. Is there an instance of this occurring at Spotsylvania?

    Corey

  • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2009

    That’s fine. The Davis-Limber statue that Casteel is easy to explain given the SCV’s commitment to the distortion of American history, but unfortunately I don’t know anything about this particular piece. I still have no idea where exactly it will be placed, though I could easily fire off a few emails to find out.

    Let me just say again that I have no problem with the theme of the sculpture in terms of what it represents. My problem is that this particular theme has been done to death over the years. I don’t find it particularly moving and it doesn’t force me to think in any way whatsoever. It looks like something out of a kids book.

  • Gregg Jones Aug 24, 2009

    I have just finished 5 years in Iraq (Dec 2003 to Dec 2008) as a contractor providing translators to the Army. I have served during Vietnam. I have seen the blood, sweat and tears. I know the realities that I saw and smelled and feared. I am amazed how some of you demean this as “childlike” or “propaganda”. You seem to have a corner on what is right and wrong. You all mirror G W Bush parroting that the other side is holy wrong and that they pour out propaganda and childlike fantasies. Shame on you! This camp has parroted that we should come out of this as Americans. We should be inclusive. However your inclusiveness comes with a wall of caveats. Most of you claim to know the horrors and the seriousness of war but it comes from a book. I don’t recall seeing any of you when the bombs fell on me. You all want open debate and thought but you are the first to stuff a rag in someone’s mouth when they don’t sing the song the way you want it.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2009

      Gregg,

      Thanks for taking the time to write. I have to admit that I am not sure what point you are making. While I understand that many of the issues raised here generate strong reactions I would ask that in the future you refrain from personal attack. In fact, I ask you to do so if you expect your comment to be approved. Thanks so much for your understanding.

  • Gregg Jones Aug 24, 2009

    One last thought. In your title “Please Stop Using Our Civil War To Satisfy Your Own Fantasies” it could be compared to “My toy, my sandbox, get out if you don’t play like I do.”

  • Gregg Jones Aug 24, 2009

    I apologize for this out burst.

    Gregg

  • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2009

    Gregg,

    No, I don’t think it can be compared to that at all.

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