Our Struggle to Commemorate the Peninsula Campaign

One hundred and fifty years ago George B. McClellan made his way up the Virginia Peninsula in what many anticipated would be the final campaign of the war.  With the largest army ever assembled on the American continent he would seize the Confederate capital of Richmond and reunite the nation.  As we commemorate the campaign and McClellan’s failure outside of Richmond in the Seven Days Battles 150 years later, however, we seem to be struggling with its significance and meaning.

Part of the problem is the scope of the campaign, which covered roughly three months in the late spring and early summer of 1862.  It’s much easier to frame a useful interpretation of a major battle, where the armies meet and there is a clear victor.  Bull Run and Shiloh is where we lost our innocence; Gettysburg and Antietam connect to the story of emancipation and freedom; the fall of Atlanta ensured Lincoln’s reelection and Appomattox is where the nation reunited.  Regardless of how accurate such narratives might be they help to make sense of and even justify the bloodletting that took place at these sites.

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Debating Darwin at Gettysburg

Andy Hall has a thoughtful post that explores his favorite scene from Ron Mawell’s “Gettysburg.”  I don’t have a favorite scene from any of Maxwell’s Civil War movies.  For me they are more or less bearable.  It just so happens that this morning another scene from the movie landed in one of my rss feeds.  It’s one of those scenes that leads me to hope that Maxwell never raises sufficient funds to complete the final installment of the trilogy.

In this scene Lewis Armistead and George Pickett debate the merits of Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection.  Now I have no idea whether Armistead or Pickett ever discussed Darwin’s theory, but it is possible given that the first edition of his On the Origin of Species was published in 1859.  No doubt Americans in the scientific community were aware of it and while I doubt that the two had read Darwin’s book it is likely that they were at least aware of the controversy its publication caused.

The question that interests me, however, is why this scene is in the movie at all.  It’s not enough to say that it satisfies the need for a night time scene set in camp.  Perhaps it fits into the popular narrative that the Confederacy was fighting to maintain a pre-modern society that had already taken hold in the North.  The publication of Darwin’s Origin is commonly referenced as one of those moments that signaled the birth of a modern age and as a threat to traditional religious thought, which would no doubt resonate with many who choose to see Confederate leaders as “Christian warriors.”

In the end, I don’t know why it was included.  That said, I have little doubt that a significant percentage of “Gettysburg” fans believe that Robert E. Lee constitutes an argument against Natural Selection. :-)

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Confederate Dreaming With Jack Kershaw

This is for those of you who are interested in the mind and imagination of Jack Kershaw, who is responsible for the Nathan Bedford Forrest equestrian memorial in Tennessee.  This is commonly referred to as the ugliest Civil War monument ever erected.  His interpretation of Forrest, which you can hear in the video, is is truly disturbing, but no doubt reflective of an older generation.

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Were You An Abolitionist?

I am making my way through Andrew Delbanco’s short book, The Abolitionist Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2012), which features his essay of the same name as well as responses by John Stauffer, Manish Sinha, Darryl Pinckney, and Wilfred M. McClay.  The reading is difficult, especially the literary analysis of antebellum literature.  As a historical interpretation it is fraught with problems.  First, Delbanco never provides a satisfactory historical profile of the abolitionist community.  More importantly, he places too much weight on their role in causing the war.

Delbanco is at his best, however, when exploring how recent cultural, social, and political shifts have shaped our understanding of the abolitionists.  This particular paragraph caught my eye.

Would we have regarded the firing on Fort Sumter as the abolitionists did–as a welcome provocation to take up arms against an expansionist power?  Or would we have regarded it as a pretext for waging war, akin to that notorious event in every baby boomer’s memory, the Gulf of Tonkin incident?  If we could have known in advance the scale of the ensuing carnage, would we have sided with those who considered any price worth paying to bring an end to slavery?  Or would we have voted for patience, persuasion, diplomacy, perhaps economic sanctions–the alternatives to war that most liberal-minded people prefer today in the face of manifest evil in faraway lands? [p. 43]

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Support the Dred and Harriet Scott Statue

A statue of Dred and Harriet Scott is scheduled to unveiled at the Old Courthouse in Downtown St. Louis on June 8, but organizers are still $140,000 shy of its fundraising goal.

“The memory of Dred Scott and the important shift he helped to bring about in American society is a story that deserves to be recognized and remembered for all future generations. We are appealing to individuals, corporations and foundations to help us get over the finish line prior to the June 8th unveiling on the grounds of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis.”–Lynne M. Jackson

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