One of the highlights for me during last week’s Petersburg conference was the opportunity to view Pamplin Park’s feature film, “War So Terrible: A Civil War Combat Film.” Will Greene describes its inception as a response to visitors who reflected on their experience in the park as somehow enjoyable or entertaining. Greene and the rest of the staff did not want visitors, especially students, finishing their tour with a glorified view of war. Rather, they wanted to convey the horrors of battle and the changes that soldiers underwent over the course of the war and beyond. [This is something that I've discussed on this blog on a number of occasions. See here and here.]
There are two versions of the film, the full length running 48 minutes as well as a less graphic version that runs 23 minutes. The film is framed around a veterans reunion that takes place somewhere in the South. During the ceremony both Benjamin Franklin Meyers of the Union and Andrew Jackson Stewart of the Confederacy reflect on their experiences during the war from their first battle to the trench warfare of 1864. The film delves into questions of why men fought and persevered in the ranks without reducing the war to any one explanation. There are no transcendent figures and no references to Lincoln, Davis, Lee, Grant or anyone to detract from the focus of the film. Viewers empathize with both individuals and suffer through some very difficult battle footage, which is emotionally draining. The film succeeds brilliantly in conveying the emotion of battle. Finally, the reunion scenes steer clear of the mistaken notion that Lee’s surrender at Appomattox or even later events involving Union and Confederate veterans reflected the healing of old wounds and bitterness. I don’t want to give too much away about this movie.
At the conclusion of the movie our group remained silent for a few moments before discussing it with Greene and I don’t mind admitting that I had a tear in my eye. I made it a point to purchase a copy before leaving and I plan on showing the full version to my Civil War class this year. If you are a teacher I encourage you to purchase a copy through Pamplin Park’s online store. It’s only $9.95 and I guarantee that you won’t be sorry.
Congratulations to Will Greene and the rest of the staff for this fine film.
I haven’t updated my list of new books in quite some time. Unfortunately, I haven’t had much time to read, but I highly recommend books by McCurry, Miller, and Noe. Happy reading.
Daniel Crofts, A Secession Crisis Enigma: William Henry Hurlbert and “The Diary of a Public Man” (LSU Press, 2010).
Stanley Harrold, Border War: Fighting Over Slavery Before the Civil War (UNC Press, 2010).
Graham R.G. Hodges, David Ruggles: A Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City (UNC Press, 2010).
Michael Kammen, Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials (University of Chicago Press, 2010).
Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Harvard University Press, 2010).
Brian Craig Miller, John Bell Hood and the Fight for Civil War Memory (University of Tennessee Press, 2010).
Kenneth W. Noe, Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army After 1861 (UNC Press, 2010).
Michael O’Brien, Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 (UNC Press, 2010).
Donald Stoker, The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Cynthia Watchell, War No More: The Anti-War Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914 (LSU Press, 2010).
Update: This is what happens when you try to write a post when you are not feeling well. I called my contact again and now can confirm that the museum is 63 years old, while the exhibit was done within the last few years. Sorry about that.
Yesterday I shared photographs of an exhibit on black Confederates at the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Today I had a chance to talk with a curator at the museum about the exhibit. I appreciate his willingness to answer my questions. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to learn much about the exhibit itself given that it has been on display for 63 years. That, of course, explains the emphasis on faithful slaves. Andy Hall correctly surmises that this probably has as much to do with a limited budget as it does with a flawed interpretation of the Confederacy and slavery.
I asked about how it was possible that slaves were enlisted as soldiers given the Confederate government’s position, but all he could say was that these men were loyal to their owners and accepted by their comrades. For further reading it was suggested that I check out Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt, and the Origin of the Teddy Bear by Minor Ferris Buchanan. I’ve never heard of this book before, but I will definitely take a look at it at some point. Given my initial assumption that the exhibit was much more recent, it is interesting to note that many of the most common images and accounts that can be found today Online were being used in the 1940s. That definitely changes my perspective on the history of when these accounts first surfaced. I want to know, for example, when the image of the Chandler Boys first came to be used as an example of loyal black Confederate soldiers, etc.
The problem with this exhibit can be reduced to its title. Calling it “Blacks Who Wore Gray” clouds the distinction between slave and soldier. Rather, it should be titled, “Slaves Who Wore Gray.”
Numbers play an important role in the Lost Cause view of the Civil War and the Petersburg Campaign in particular. The image of the Army of Northern Virginia as hopelessly outnumbered and hanging on by a thread continues to exercise a strong hold for many. There is something attractive about a narrative that pits a half-starved Army against an enemy that we believe must win owing to their unlimited resources. There is a certain truth to this, but like most of the Lost Cause interpretation it quickly shades into a distorted view of the situation. On Saturday evening one of Prof. Mark Snell’s former students, who is now working as a living historian for the Gettysburg Foundation, put on an excellent presentation that covered the state of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1864. He suggested that during this period the army was fairly well supplied with clothing, which stands in sharp contrast with images of half-naked soldiers in the trenches. In addition, it turns out that although the men in the trenches faced hardship, Lee’s soldiers were not starving. Of course, much of this is borne out in the most recent literature on the campaign.
Back to the numbers. Throughout our tour of the Petersburg Battlefields this weekend Will Greene made it a point to emphasize that the earthworks had worked to minimize the sheer advantage that the Federals enjoyed in terms of numbers. They would need at least a 3 to 1 advantage when storming Confederate earthworks. Such a view explains Grant’s tactics of continually pushing to extend the Confederate line in a series of offensive thrusts throughout the late Fall and early Spring of 1864-65. Of course, one way to bypass any attempt at careful analysis of the balance of power is to simply exaggerate the numbers beyond any recognition of reality. This was done early on in the case of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
It can also be seen at the Five Forks battlefield on a marker that was dedicated during the Centennial by the Dinwiddie Civil War Centennial Commission. Well, at least they got they number of Confederates under Pickett’s command about right, but 50,000 Federals is way off the deep end. Philip Sheridan had around 21,000 men at Five Forks. Perhaps Dinwiddie County’s Sesquicentennial Commission can spray paint the right number on the anniversary of the battle in 2015.