A Sense of Defeat?

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?

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A Brief Comment About Civil War Art

Robert Moore has a wonderful post in response to a very brief comment I made concerning a Mort Kunstler print. As usual the post was taken by the usual suspects for a general attack against all things Confederate and Southern or even as a personal jab at the artist – talk about “same ole, same ole.” I recently read Gary Gallagher’s new book on Civil War culture and memory, which includes an excellent chapter on Civil War prints. I am fascinated by the continued popularity of these prints and those subjects that tend to sell.

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.

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Gender Matters

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.

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More on John Latschar

There is no one I respect more in the NPS than John Hennessy, who is chief historian at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. John offered the following as an assessment of Latschar’s tenure at Gettysburg. You will notice that his observations stand in sharp contrast with the comments found over at Eric Wittenberg’s blog.

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.

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Welcome to the New Site

The Kubrick theme is temporary until the new template is ready to be unveiled in about a month.  It will take some time for me to set up the blogroll and other links.  The process of importing everything looks to have gone smoothly enough, although some of the images have been lost and a few of the posts were duplicated.  I will go through and delete those over the next few days.  My biggest concern was the loss of comments.  Sorry for the inconvenience of having to update your blogroll, but I hope it will be worthwhile.

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What’s Wrong With A.P. Hill?

I’m sure this scene titled “Tender is the Heart” by Mort Kunstler has some basis in fact, but why would you want to paint it?

Add Thomas Forehand’s The Softer Side of Robert E. Lee and you’ll be crying your eyes out for the foreseeable future.

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Congratulations John Latschar

John Latschar has accepted a position as the next president of the Gettysburg Foundation after 14 years with the NPS.  During that time he has overseen major changes to the battlefield, including the demolition of the national tower and landscape rehabilitation.  His most important project was the planning and completion of a new state-of-the-art visitor center, which includes what I believe to be the finest Civil War exhibit to be found anywhere.  It’s no surprise that Latschar would want to move on to new challenges, but it is comforting to know that he will continue to work closely with the NPS to maintain one of this nation’s most cherished sites.

Latschar’s detractors are already unleashing their venom.  One fellow blogger has described this appointment as a case of Latschar “feathering his own nest”. The article linked to in this post suggests that Latschar was surprised by the offer and took a few weeks to consider it.  This doesn’t sound like a conspiracy to me but, than again, what do I know.

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Stay, Forrest! Stay! (for now)

By now most of you have heard that the Duval County School Board has decided not to change the name of a Jacksonville High School after Nathan Bedford Forrest.  The sometimes divisive debates over the naming and renaming of public buildings and other sites cuts to the core of the close link between history and politics.  In the case of the South these debates reflect drastic changes in the face of local and state government following the civil rights movement.  They are debates over how a community uses its public spaces to reflect its shared history.  Historians have written extensively in recent years concerning the way in which local and national memory has been shaped by Jim Crow politics and a belief in white supremacy. 

The debate in Jacksonville is just another example of what happens when a broader spectrum of the citizenry is allowed to take part in conversations about who should be remembered and why.   This has nothing to do with overturning the heritage of the South; in fact, it is entirely about forging a more inclusive memory and one that can be pointed to as reflective of a community's values.  The two black members of the school board voted for changing the name of the school while the majority voted to retain it.  I obviously know nothing about what went into the decision of the other members, but I have to wonder if they understood what the name might mean to a predominantly black community and even the few black students who actively voiced their concern such as senior, Cardell Brown.  Did they bother to consider how their school came to be named after Forrest or why public places such as schools tended not to be named after Forrest until the civil rights movement?

While Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Kirby Smith and others were all commemorated with schools, community centers, and parks during the height of Confederate commemoration, Forrest's name remained closely tied to the KKK.   In fact, the most powerful "klavern" or local Klan was the Nathan Bedford Forrest Klavern #1, located in Atlanta during the 1940s and 50s.  On the eve of the opening of the school students voted to name it Valhalla, while the booster club bought football uniforms outfitted with Vikings.  The decision to name the school after Forrest was a last-minute decision, although the superintendent warned that the decision might prove to be a mistake just three years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of school desegregation.  Was this really a coincidence?

It was a vote that led to the naming of the school, a vote to retain it, and it will only take a vote in future to change it.  There is nothing sacred about the names of our public buildings.  They reflect the people who either have control of local government or choose to be involved. 

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