A number of people have pointed out at various places that Death and the Civil War spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on northern soldiers and their communities. A few people have argued that this was done intentionally and to the detriment of the Confederacy and to those who are dedicated to keep its memory alive. It goes without saying that this was not their goal.
While I think it’s a fair observation I have to wonder whether it extends beyond the relatively small community of Civil War enthusiasts. In other words, I wonder whether the average viewer picked up on this. Here is a bit from Executive Producer Mark Samels on what this film is about:
Death and the Civil War is really about things that we take for granted and how they came to be. We take for granted that there are national cemeteries for our soldiers who have fallen in war; we take for granted that we’re going to honor those soldiers, and that we’re going to bring them back no matter how much effort has to go into bringing them back.
It’s a story about how individuals, from the bottom up, really addressed this cataclysmic event; how they struggled even just to name the soldiers who were being killed in the battlefields; how they struggled to get them back to their families, get them properly identified, get them buried. And underlying all of this is a conception of what death actually meant in the nineteenth century to Americans. And it’s different than today.
Ultimately, the film attempts to transcend Union and Confederate altogether to speak to an audience that self-identifies as citizens of the United States. The demographic that likely viewed this film has experienced WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the first and second Gulf Wars, and the war in Afghanistan. The sacrifice of so many brave men and women in the course of these wars and how we remember them fits into a broader history that extends back to a United States at war with itself in the 1860s. It’s Lincoln’s words that continue to give meaning to the sacrifice of the Civil War dead and every war since and it is in national cemeteries, established by the United States government, where we are expected to reflect on that sacrifice. From this perspective the whole question of balance between Union and Confederate or North and South misses the point entirely.
The gathering and memorialization of Confederate dead is acknowledged toward the end of the film as part of the historical narrative, but we are not being asked to reflect on their meaning as citizens of a Confederate States of America. Ultimately, this film is about the men who died in an attempt to preserve our United States as well as the obligations that this government and each of us incurred as a result.
In his interview with Harvard president and historian Drew G. Faust about American Experience‘s new documentary Death and the Civil War, Stephen Colbert laments, “You are beginning to make the Civil War sound like a downer.” While it garnered a good laugh from the audience, the comment betrays an important aspect of how Americans have remembered the Civil War and the kinds of narratives that are celebrated.
Ric Burns’s latest film is based largely on Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which addresses the vast landscape of death and suffering experienced during the war years and beyond. The airing of this important program comes not just on the same week as the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam — the single bloodiest day in American history — but at the end of two costly and controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to look at the way Americans confronted death 150 years ago without seeing just how far removed we’ve been from the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. We all remember the controversy surrounding whether photographs of flag-draped caskets at Dover Air Force Base in 2004 could be shown to the American public.
I like the idea behind this short film. Young African-American woman gets an A on an essay she wrote about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry after having viewed the movie, Glory. Her adviser suggests that she visit the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C. to talk with curator Hari Jones. The two walk through the exhibit to address some of the inaccuracies in the movie.
So why does this movie, and Hari Jones specifically, feel a need to lash out against Gary Gallagher? Gallagher offers extensive commentary of the movie’s historical basis in Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War. I suspect that Jones knows this, which makes his comment all the more bizarre. Jones strikes me as a knowledgeable and passionate historian. Perhaps this script was written by someone else. I fear that the result, including the embracing of the self-emancipation thesis without any reference to the Union army and other factors, is as much a distortion as Glory.
The other thing that struck me as awkward was the pointing out that you will not find any quotes from historians on the exhibit panels. According to Jones, if you weren’t there than your words will not appear. Fair enough, but it is worth pointing out that their exhibit is built on the backs of decades of careful research on the black experience during the war from professional historians, including Gary Gallagher.
Now you would think that the confidence with which Gary Adams asserts that the quote in question is not included in my book would be based on having read said book. These boys obviously are not playing with a full deck. On page 24 of my book not only will you find the Kilmer quote, but you will find two additional references, one which confirms Kilmer and another which references white Union soldiers firing on their black comrades. In addition, there are numerous references to both black soldiers and Confederates shouting “No Quarter” as well as an analysis of its significance. As Brooks Simpson likes to point out, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. What a bunch of knuckleheads.
One of the features of American Experience’s documentary Death and the Civil War that I really like is its emphasis on the lingering bitterness over how to commemorate the Civil War dead. Although the film says nothing about the significance of Lincoln’s death it does explore the decision by the federal government to re-inter only Union dead in newly established national cemeteries. We would do well to remember this on the 150th anniversary of the battle of Antietam.
One of the most frequent questions that I use to get from my students at the national cemetery in Fredericksburg was why it only included Union dead. I suspect that this question is ultimately a reflection of the power of reunion and reconciliation as well as the loss of any sense that our civil war was a rebellion. Newspaper and radio coverage today is long on vivid descriptions of the violence at Antietam and how that a victory allowed Lincoln to finally issue his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. That decision is almost always coupled with the observation that the turn toward emancipation made it possible to shift wartime goals in the direction of something meaningful. Over the past few days we’ve been told how important it is to remember, but surely we’ve lost sight of something significant about our history.
No, I will not be spending the day re-fighting the Civil War, but as I’ve stated before on this blog I am not a disinterested observer. I am grateful that United States soldiers were successful in pushing back the Confederacy’s offensive into Maryland, not because it led to emancipation, but because it ultimately brought this country one step closer to winning the war. This is not meant to downplay the importance of emancipation, but as a reminder that the preservation of this nation mattered to these men, just as it matters to all of us today. It is a stance that reflects my identification not as a northerner or southerner, Republican or Democrat, but as a citizen of the United States.
There is a reason why the overwhelming number of monuments on the Antietam battlefield were placed to honor the sacrifice of this nation’s citizen soldiers. The same holds for the dead who rest on the battlefield’s national cemetery. It should be a reminder to each of us today that the deaths of these men is part of a much larger history of men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.