“He Has Essentially Stopped the Entire American Civil War in Virginia”

Update #2: I haven’t seen any kind of review of the movie in the local Fredericksburg papers, but Michael Aubrecht posted a few comments on his blog.  As I stated below, I have not seen the movie, but plan to do so at some point.  Regardless of the movie’s interpretation I am pleased to read that the premiere was well attended.  The folks involved put a great deal of work into this production and it’s always nice to see hard work rewarded.

Update: I want to make it perfectly clear that my comments should not be read in any way as a critique of this movie.  I HAVE NOT SEEN IT.  My comments should be understood as more general critique of the story’s continued popularity in our collective memory of the Civil War.  The movie may, in fact, take a completely different approach to understanding Kirkland’s actions and its broader meaning than what passes as the standard interpretation.  I am not even suggesting that people not attend this premiere.  If I were in the area I would love to see what Aubrecht and Ross have come up with.  More than likely I will order a copy of the film for analysis in my Civil War class.

Michael Zitz’s article on the premiere of the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” – a film about Sgt. Richard Kirkland – along with my interview, appeared in today’s Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.  It looks like both Clint Ross and Michael Aubrecht were asked to respond to my concerns about the veracity of the story.  Unfortunately, nothing that was said challenges the core problem with this story, which is a lack of wartime sources.  Aubrecht actually suggests that skeptics prove a negative:

All I can say at this point is that every historian involved with this project, both in front of and behind the camera, to include the Fredericksburg National Park Service who are the custodians of Kirkland’s memory, have found no evidence that disproves this story.

I don’t know how anyone would go about trying to prove that it didn’t happen given the lack of evidence and it is dishonest to paint the NPS in Fredericksburg as somehow united in their belief that the Kirkland story is true.

Ross also fails to add anything constructive:

I spent time at the Fredericksburg National Park Service researching the event, and discovered several legitimate facts and names surrounding Kirkland.  As I dove deeper into the story, I was lead to names and organizations such as The Daughters of Confederacy–The Kershaw Chapter, Mac Wycoff, Donald Pfanz, [and] Michael Aubrecht. These guys had done their research and committed years to the subject of Kirkland and the Civil War.

If there is an argument here as to why the postwar accounts ought to be accepted than make it.  Anything else is nothing less than a distraction.  There is also nothing on the website for the film that would support a specific reading of the evidence.  As Ross makes clear, however, “This film is not as much about proving the validity of the story as much as it is, well, simply telling the story.”

It’s about telling the kind of story that Americans want to hear about their Civil War.  We want to think of ourselves and even our Civil War as a reflection of our exceptionalism as Americans, that even in the heat of battle we can transcend the worst form of violence to discover our true character.  We want to believe that “Kirkland and his comrades were trying to sleep” as the Union soldiers lay trapped and wounded on the slopes below Marye’s Heights.  We want to believe that Kirkland’s “conscience took over” and that the cries of the wounded “touches his heart” even if there is absolutely no reliable evidence as to what he felt and believed.

Aubrecht sums it up beautifully in one of the trailer videos when he suggests that for one hour Kirkland “has essentially stopped the entire Civil War in Virginia.”  There is something very comforting in that thought, but it is also disturbing and inaccurate on a number of levels.  Whether it was one hour or fifteen minutes is irrelevant.  It obscures the fact that the battle of Fredericksburg extended beyond the confines of the Sunken Road at Marye’s Heights.  It ignores the suffering of the civilians who were displaced from their homes as a result of the Union bombardment and sacking of the town.  Beyond Fredericksburg, it ignores the suffering of Virginia farmers and civilians who had to deal with the hardships of war for over a year and it ignores the dangers faced on the part of many slaves, who risked their lives to escape to Union lines.  More importantly, such a claim tells us little about Kirkland, who we are to believe stands above this culture of death and suffering.  The narrative reinforces such a view in the continued resistance that Kirkland faced from his own officers when the idea of aiding his enemy was first suggested.  I want to know how many Union soldiers Kirkland killed before and after this incident, not because I am attracted to bloodthirsty stories of killing, but because he was a soldier in a horrible war.  And don’t tell us that Kirkland and his comrades had trouble sleeping following the battle without discussing the fact that there were surely soldiers in the ranks who slepped just fine and even believed that the Union soldiers deserved their fate.

In short, this story makes the war palatable for many and allows us to celebrate it without having to come to terms with its horrors.  We don’t need more of this, we need less of it, especially at a time when we have thousands of men and women in uniform fighting in Afghanistan.  We need stories that remind us of the physical and psychological effects of war rather than stories that give us a reason to celebrate war and ourselves.

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Update on Glenn Beck’s Lincoln

I wondered whether folks in the conservative movement would take Glenn Beck to task for his recent broadcasts in which he celebrates Lincoln’s respect for the Constitution as well as his role in ending slavery.  Well, what do you know, Thomas DiLorenzo has recently weighed in at Lew Rockwell.  Unfortunately, he does little more than infer some kind of conspiracy over at FOX News:

I suspect that the reason for this disconnect with historical reality is that: 1) The Fox News Channel is essentially a propaganda arm of the neoconservative political cabal that has captured the Republican Party; 2) One of the cornerstones of neocon ideology is Lincoln idolatry and hatred of the South and Southerners. (Professor Paul Gottfried, for one, has written extensively about this.) 3) Therefore, if Glenn wants to keep his gig at Fox, he must toe the party line on Lincoln. Being otherwise libertarian – while the Democrats are in power – serves the purposes of the neocon cabal nicely.

Over at Southern Heritage News and Views, Bob Hurst laments Beck’s inability to embrace the “Lincoln the Tyrant” narrative:

Whatever the reason, I am very disappointed in Glenn Beck and have lost a degree of confidence in the accuracy and truthfulness of other statements he has made or will make in the future. I hate this because I have had such confidence in his truthfulness and admire his courage in revealing many of his findings about powerful people and potentially explosive situations.

We will have to wait and see whether Beck recants and returns to the embrace of a view that has almost nothing to do with history.  As far as I can tell, all three individuals lack a serious understanding of Lincoln and the Civil War, but for some reason I find myself rooting for Beck.  :D

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Anticipating Richard Kirkland’s Big Day

This morning I was interviewed by Mike Zitz of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star concerning the Saturday premiere of “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” – a movie about Richard Kirkland.  I made it clear that I could not comment on the movie beyond the few videos previews and other assorted postings that I’ve read on the movie website.  We talked for about 30 minutes and I confined most of my thoughts to what this story tells us about how Americans have chosen to remember the Civil War.  As far as I am concerned there isn’t much to talk about regarding the factual basis of the story since there are no wartime accounts.  If I remember correctly, the earliest account is dated around 1880.  I am going to hold off commenting further until the article is published on Thursday.

For now, consider this little video, which touches on some of the same themes in the Kirkland story.  In 1913 Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain received a letter from a veteran of the 15th Alabama concerning the fighting at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863.

Here we have another story where in the heat of battle the compassion of a Confederate soldiers saved the life of his enemy.  Of course, there is no way to confirm this story.  In the end, however, the truth of the matter isn’t as interesting as what this tells us about how Americans chose to remember the war in 1913 – the same year as the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.  Let’s not ask how the soldier in question knew that the man he was writing to in 1913 was the same individual that he remembered in 1863.  I’m not even sure we can confirm that the author of the letter was, in fact, a veteran of the 15th Alabama.  Like I said, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that someone decided to write to Chamberlain 50 years after the battle and acknowledge an act of compassion.  What matters in reference to the Kirkland story is that someone decided to write a letter that highlighted the compassion of another soldier in the heat of battle.

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Oh That Gettysburg

Thanks to the folks at the Civil War Preservation Trust for putting on a first-rate conference.  I had a great experience and I look forward to the opportunity to help out again next year in Franklin, Tennessee.  My panel discussion last night was successful.  The audience asked some very thoughtful questions about the role and use of technology in the classroom and this was after a long day of walking the Gettysburg battlefield.  I can’t say how impressed I am with this organization.  Nicole Osier did a great job organizing the conference and it was a pleasure meeting the rest of the staff, including Robert Shenk and Gary Adelman.  The CWPT understands that saving battlefields is about educating the general public, especially our students, who will one day be responsible for taking on leadership positions in this good fight.  I can think of no better way of showing my support than by joining the CWPT and I encourage you to do so as well.

I especially enjoyed my time at Gettysburg.  This was my first trip to the battlefield with a group and it gave me quite a bit to think about.  For one thing I can’t tell you how many times I overheard references to the movie, Gettysburg.  Workshop presenters referenced the movie as did participants in casual conversations, and it was even mentioned on the tour.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, but I have to wonder whether folks are able to distinguish between a Hollywood interpretation and the history of the actual site.  It’s as if people view the battle and its participants through the lens of the movie.  Luckily, I didn’t hear any references to Buster Kilrain.  Even though the movie was released back in the early 1990s it shows no sign of letting up.  The actors remain popular attractions and even Mort Kunstler’s paintings look more like the movie’s actors than the actual historical figures.  The strangest and, in my mind, the most disturbing aspect of this phenomena is the bench dedicated to Michael Shaara that was recently placed in Hollywood Cemetery next to the grave of George Pickett.  How this was allowed to happen is beyond me, but I encourage you to take photographs of yourself doing something disrespectful on it having some fun with it.

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I Guess Someone Didn’t Get the Message

ACTS AND RESOLUTIONS OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF GEORGIA 1958

1958 Vol. 1 — Page: 561

Sequential Number: 229

Short Title: USE OF BATTLE FLAG OF THE CONFEDERACY FOR COMMERCIAL PURPOSES DEPLORED.
Law Number: No. 144
Origin: (House Resolution No. 520).
Type: A Resolution.

Full Title: Relative to the battle flag of the Confederacy; and for other purposes.

Whereas, it has been brought to the attention of the General Assembly that the battle flag of the Confederacy has been and is being used for commercial purposes; and

Whereas, the battle flag of the Confederacy is a symbol of the historic past of this State, and presently forms an integral part of the flag of this State; and

Whereas, it is an insult to the memory of our dead heroes and an affront to the good taste of all true Georgians to permit this historic flag to be used for commercial purposes;

Now, therefore, be it resolved by the General Assembly of Georgia that this body does deplore the present use of replicas of the battle flag of the Confederacy for crass and commercial purposes.  Be it further resolved that this body does respectfully request all citizens of this great State to refrain from using this symbol of our past in a manner other than with the utmost respect.

Approval Date: Approved March 25, 1958.

I guess someone didn’t get the message.

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