It’s been interesting to observe how my Civil War students have responded over time to the talking heads in Ken Burns’s The Civil War. While we don’t spend too much time on the series, what I have shown has been sufficient to be able to formulate judgments about how it functions as entertainment and historical interpretation. Shelby Foote has clearly grown on them over time. At first they didn’t quite know what to make of his little stories about owls on picket duty and Lee being able to “make himself Grant”, but over time they’ve grown to appreciate his place in the documentary. I think they see him as someone who embodies the memory of the war through his accent, dress, and overall demeanor, and they respect him as someone who cares about this past. As for Ed Bearss, well, let’s just say they don’t know what to make of him. I’ve had to print out his commentary so they at least know what he said and can consider it as part of the broader narrative. My more analytical students appreciate the commentary by Barbara Fields on issues of race and emancipation.
I’ve been able to give my students background information on all of these commentators except for James Symington, who is presented as a “Former Congressman.” He makes only a few appearances in the series and his commentary is not particularly interesting – much more emotional and consensus driven than anything else. My favorite moment comes toward the end of the series in Episode 8: “War Is Hell”, which includes Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Symington Interview: They knew each other. Grant remembered Lee very well. Lee didn’t quite remember Grant. That was understandable from the time that they were acquainted back in the early days. But I think it was the sensitivity that the two men had for each other and for the moment, enormous dignity and yet the necessary informality. Grant, not wanting to get to the point too quickly, Lee bringing him up shortly to the point of why they’re together. Lee dressed in his last good uniform. Grant apologizing that he was rushing from the field and didn’t have time to change. The scribe being unable to hold the pen steady and having it taken by another soldier. That, from Lee’s point of view, awful moment, and from Grant’s point of view, glorious moment, and yet for the two of them, a sad and quiet moment. And Lee taking his leave and doffing his hat from Traveller and riding back to his troops after securing those reasonable terms. It was the beginning of the unification of the country.
Symington’s effectiveness here is not simply in his choice of words (we’ve heard them countless times before) but in his cadence. The entire episode of Lee’s surrender is dragged out with attention given to every detail of the events leading to and following the actual surrender. There are two stories coming to an end at Appomattox as represented by Grant and Lee. Burns wants his viewers to empathize or sympathize with both men as well as with the two armies. Symington contributes to this emotional build-up by drawing sharp contrasts between Grant and Lee and by reciting his words in short fragments. And just in case viewers are emotionally invested in one side over the other, Symington poignantly reminds us of what it is all about in his final few words: “It was the beginning of the unification of the country.” [Very nice…yeah…whatever.]
I am curious as to why Symington was chosen as one of the talking heads for this series. There is a Wikipedia article on him, but I was unable to find anything more substantive that might help. I am only now beginning to appreciate the extent to which the talking heads in this series contribute to shaping the film’s overall interpretation, but more importantly, the way in which we identify with key figures and events.
I perused through it just to see if it might be worth using in my classes. As I suspected there isn’t much here to consider. It offers a basic outline of Lincoln’s life and maybe enough to allow you to run a Jeopardy category on the subject. You wouldn’t know this, however, if you read the blurbs on the back of the book:
“James McPherson’s new book is an invaluable contribution–an authoritative biography…that can be read at a single sitting.” — Douglas L. Wilson
McPherson “manages to convey in prose that is both lucid and accessible the complexity of this fascinating figure, the challenges he faced, and what he achieved.” — Shelley Fisher Fishkin
“Abraham Lincoln should be read by every American, indeed by every person in the world over, who wants to understand the preeminent American president.” — Lewis E. Lehrman
I don’t doubt that this is a decent short biography of Lincoln, but to describe it in such terms is to take a leap off the deep end. Clearly, if you only have a few hours in your life to learn about our 16th president than this is probably the book for you. You will be conversant in polite company and you will have managed to steer clear of the DiLorenzo types that pose as serious Lincoln scholars, but that’s about it.
How many times have we heard from a member of the SCV or someone loosely associated with the organization that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of hate, but a symbol of heritage and pride in the service of Confederate ancestors? My goal with this post is not to rehash old arguments about whether the SCV or the Confederate flag is sufficiently inclusive to represent how the majority of Southerners perceive regional identification, but to inquire into the SCV’s silence over recent abuses of their revered flag. A number of news outlets are reporting on an increase in racial crimes and other incidents since last week’s election.
This is a perfect opportunity for the SCV to issue a clear statement condemning these incidents; anything less is a tacit endorsement of the abuse of a symbol that they claim to hold dear. Their silence will likely make it that much more difficult to display their flag in ways that they deem to be proper and honorable. In those cases SCV leaders will no doubt argue that their heritage is being attacked, but what can they expect if the image that most Americans have (white and black) is of a flag used as a symbol of hate? This is the reason that I completely agree with John Coski who argues that the best place for the Confederate flag is in a museum where it can be properly interpreted. Allow it to circulate in our communities and you lose any claim of ownership or even authority in defining its “real” meaning.
I am looking forward to my talk in Fredericksburg next month on the anniversary of the battle. There will be a wreath-laying ceremony and the playing of taps. No doubt, there will be one or two Confederate flags involved. I have no problem with this as I am convinced that for many who will attend this ceremony the flag is a connection to ancestors that they believe deserve to be remembered. Of course, I say this as someone who does not view that flag simply as the symbol of the men who marched into battle, but as the flag of an army which fought under a nation created to perpetuate the institution of slavery. It is also the flag that was utilized as a symbol of “massive resistance” during the civil rights movement. The meaning of the flag, as is the case with most symbols, is never fixed. If the SCV continues to direct their energies and financial resources on silly projects such as the placement of large Confederate flags along major highways, such ceremonies as the one in Fredericksburg may soon be the only place where that flag has a chance of even being connected to the Civil War.
Yesterday my Civil War classes watched a bit more of Ken Burns’s The Civil War. We’ve been talking quite a bit about the evolution from Limited to Hard or Total War so I decided to show them Episode 8 which focuses on “Sherman’s March to the Sea.” In fact, their final exam – scheduled for next Wednesday – will explore just this issue. We had a very interesting discussion about how Burns interprets the event through images, sound, and narrative as opposed to the treatment in our text by Brooks Simpson. A few of the students were struck by the differences in their respective approaches. At least one student suggested that Simpson was minimizing Sherman’s destructiveness and the sheer brutality of his operation against the civilians.
In addressing the issue I asked the students to consider how both Burns and Simpson approach the subject. To make a long story short, by the end of the class we were discussing the role of empathy and emotion in documentary and the more detached perspective that historians are expected to take when writing about the past. I also talked a bit about the literature that has come out on Sherman’s March over the past 15 years, including Mark Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War.
Back to the reason for this post. In the prologue to Episode 8 Shelby Foote says the following:
Shelby Foote Interview – As a Southerner I would say one of the main importances of the war is that Southerners have a sense of defeat which none of the rest of the country has.You see in the movie Patton, the actor who plays Patton saying, “We Americans have never lost a war.” That’s a rather amazing statement for him to make as Patton because Patton’s grandfather was in Lee’s army of Northern Virginia and he certainly lost a war.
One of my students asked if it is true that Southerners have a sense of defeat. I suggested, first, that he might want to distinguish between white and black Southerners. It’s not clear to me that black Southerners view the war as a defeat, if it makes sense to generalize at all. Even for white Southerners, however, I wasn’t quite sure what to say. I’ve heard it said that this sense of defeat persists, but have never taken the opportunity to explore what it might mean or how it manifests itself in our culture. Any suggestions?
From a Reader: “I would like to see an acclaimed Civil War artist paint Grant or Sherman holding a tiny christian child. I suppose many would think that Grant would be too drunk to hold it while Sherman would try and burn it.”
While the comment is quite funny, it does hit on a fundamental truth regarding the agenda of most Civil War artists and that is they tend to focus on all things Confederate. Of course, this is what sells, but it is the fact that subject is so skewed that is worth our attention. First, you will be hard pressed to find Grant or Sherman in a print gallery. It seems to me that our collective memory much more easily embraces Confederates as something more than military men compared with their Union counterparts. Think of all the prints which depict Jackson, Lee, Stuart and even Forrest in religious scenes and other domestic scenes. You can find them praying just about everywhere, holding babies, and loved ones or just sitting around the fire place reveling in song and the presence of young southern belles. Please keep in mind that this is not a criticism, but an observation. My guess is that most Civil War enthusiasts would be unable to wrap their heads around the same scenes, but with Union officers. If we were to rely solely on Civil War prints to distinguish between Union and Confederate (North v. South) we would have to conclude that northerners were bloodthirsty atheists who had little interest in religion, family, and home.
In the end I think these prints are more about us than they are about the subjects they depict. The intention is to engender in us a certain emotion, which may or may not have any connection with history. Notice all of the emotion that is depicted in some of these domestic scenes. Are we really supposed to respond to these images as reflective of history or are they simply the imaginative constructs of the artists? Our primary interest is to be entertained by the war; in this regard I include myself. The art minimizes the horror of war, including the battlefield scenes painted by Troiani which hang on my office walls. We don’t really want to be reminded of the extent of the suffering that took place on and off the battlefield or the carnage that was left in its wake.
My Civil War classes recently completed a comparative essay on the movie Glory and an essay by historian, Donald Yacavone on the pay crisis in the 54th Massachusetts. Yacavone’s essay takes the story of the 54th Mass. past the failed assault at Battery Wagner and explores the challenges the unit faced as they fought for equal pay. Along the way, the author comes down hard on the Lincoln administration (specifically Lincoln) for ignoring repeated requests from soldiers and officers to address their grievances. Yacavone also suggests that the protests by these men and the harsh punishments meted out for insubordination constituted one of the earliest moments in the civil rights movement.
While the assignment involved comparing two very different approaches to the past I also want my students to think critically and develop their own arguments. One of my female students took issue with what she took to be an overly harsh critique by Yacavone. She understood the focus of the essay and ultimately concluded that it was essential reading for understanding the extent of discrimination that USCTs faced throughout the war. The problem was with what she perceived as a failure on the part of the author to give sufficient weight to the fact that these men ultimately proved to be successful in their bid for equal pay. And why does this matter? According to my student, women have had as much difficulty, if not more, in convincing the federal government to support legislation guaranteeing equal pay compared with their male counterparts. Of course, the story is a bit more complicated than this, but I appreciate that this student was able to articulate a position based on her own understanding of these matters. Perhaps a Donna Yacavone would be better able to appreciate such a postion compared to Donald.
Speaking from the narrow (though important) perspective of one who helps manage a battlefield landscape that is also a national park, John Latschar is the most important superintendent any NPS battlefield site has had in our lifetime. Through the park’s GMP and the rigorous implementation that followed it, he was the key figure in:
– Establishing the primacy of wartime resources and landscapes over all else–a point much in debate for a very long time.
– The reclamation of the patterns of forest and field at Gettysburg have made it possible for all other sites to seriously consider and pursue such a course–something, again, that was, in the mid-1990s, only a faint dream.
– Regardless of what you think about the park’s approach to interpreting the battle and Civil War, Gettysburg has helped re-establish the importance of interpretation, and especially the many reasons why these places matter (or ought to) to the nation. What the NPS does in the way of interpretation may not much interest those already immersed in the story (though I think it really does–there are few things as compelling as a powerful interpretive program delivered on-site, no matter how many times you’ve been there), but it is everything to the bulk of a park’s visitors. Otherwise, these places are just fields and forest without significance.
Think back fifteen years. All of these issues were much in debate. Our battlefield landscapes threatened to become little more than museums of commemorative expression, with the resources related to the battle managed and interpreted with the same earnestness that we devote to CCC culverts, 1964 visitor centers, and postwar forests. While many people have had something to do with the reordering of our priorities, Gettysburg under John Latschar’s watch have given those reordered priorities tangible form–much to the benefit to park visitors, both casual and hard-core.