John Elder vs. Don Troiani and Cold Mountain

Sorry for the lack of posts over the past few days.  I actually managed to buckle down and finish the last chapter of my Crater manuscript.  I know at least one person who reads this blog who will pleased to hear this.The final chapter covers the period between 1937 and the present and touches on the Civil War Centennial and more recent interpretive revisions that connect to the Crater.  I still need to go through the manuscript and make some changes and add a short conclusion.  It is so nice to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I’ve decided to briefly examine the movie Cold Mountain and Don Troiani’s 2003 painting of the charge of the 6th Virginia Infantry at the Crater.  Both allow me to make some final points about how interpretations have evolved.  Cold Mountain highlights the challenges associated with raising issues of race in popular culture; while the opening sequence includes glimpses of black Union soldiers what stands out is the deletion of a scene following the battle which shows a disgruntled Confederate shooting a severely wounded black soldier.  The movie stands in contrast to Troiani’s painting which as you can see shows a very confused scene of both black and white Union soldiers either standing to meet the Confederate charge or trying to flee from the scene.  One black soldier stands defiantly while holding the Stars and Stripes.  Black soldiers are depicted as full participants in the battle and reflect the same range of emotions that one would expect to find in the heat of battle.  The emphasis that Troiani places on black Union soldiers can be contrasted with the 1869 release of John Elder’s famous painting, which was commissioned by William Mahone.

The content of the painting reflects the beginning of a radical transformation in the public memory surrounding the Crater fight. The painting was completed just as former Major General William Mahone and the “Hero of the Crater” was consolidating his various railroad lines into what became the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad. Consolidation was a divisive issue in the state legislature and among Virginians generally. An examination of his correspondence with Elder reveals that Mahone viewed the painting, in part, as a way to advance his business interests by reminding his fellow Virginians of his service in the war. One critic offered a colorful review: “The suspense in this . . . scene is fearful; and one dreads that the reinforcements will arrive to[o] late. But they are hurrying on. With their wild impulsive yell, so characteristic of the Southern army, regardless of rank or line, in double column, Mahone’s brigade comes pouring in.” The reference to “Mahone’s brigade” highlights Elder’s goal of concentrating specifically on his old Virginia brigade rather than on the entire division, which included brigades from Alabama and Georgia. This tendency to focus on Virginians at the expense of those outside the Old Dominion became a contentious issue among the former comrades by the 1880′s.

More interesting is the way in which United States Colored Troops are depicted. Any analysis of the racial references in Elder’s painting must be understood in the context of the noticeable inroads African Americans were making in state governments throughout the South by the end of the 1860’s.Black assertiveness was much more pronounced in the former capital of the Confederacy, as the delegates debated provisions for the disfranchisement of high-ranking rebels, the confiscation of rebel property, the structure of taxation, and the improvement and integration of public facilities. In addition to advancement within the political realm, Virginia’s black population openly celebrated Emancipation Day, July Fourth, the fall of Richmond (known as Evacuation Day), and the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.Such public displays served only to remind white Southerners of their subjugation to “Yankee” rule.

The extent to which audiences viewed Elder’s painting through a political lens is difficult to gauge.Many, no doubt, simply saw the painting as an attempt to celebrate the heroism of the common soldier.This was the case for the reviewer of one newspaper who concluded that Elder had “admirably illustrated that distinguishing trait of the Southern soldier” who “paused not to count the odds, but rushed in forward to the conflict, where death stared him in the face.”While other painters concentrated on bringing to life scenes from the war that focused on Confederate generals, this reviewer praised Elder for drawing attention to the “heroism of the private soldier.

At least one reviewer understood Elder’s depiction of the Crater as more than an attempt to praise the fighting prowess of Mahone’s men, but “to rescue from oblivion one scene of our country’s glory, and to lift the veil which the conqueror has attempted to cast over our nation’s existence, and to show to posterity that, however ultimately defeated, it was only after a struggle worthy of our principles, when our half-starved, emaciated troops, in their tattered uniforms, could in the very jaws of death snatch the victory from the overwhelming numbers opposed to them.” By portraying black soldiers along with their “abolitionist” allies as either confused, killed in action, or about to be seriously harmed, Elder was able to draw in sharp contrast the growing racial division within Virginia between the white Southern population and the forced social change taking place through black political action. Elder’s depiction of Mahone’s charge could be interpreted as nothing less than a call to white Virginians to commit themselves to regaining control of the political field, which would be a first step to restructuring the social/racial hierarchy in a way that more closely reflected their antebellum world.

With this in mind it should be easy to close the manuscript with some observations that assess the evolution of our collective memory of the Civil War and the Crater specifically.

The View From The Ground Now Available In Bookstores

Although the book is not slated for release until December I was able to pick up a copy yesterday in my local bookstore.  The full title is The View From The Ground: Experiences Of Civil War Soldiers and is edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean with an afterword by Joseph T. Glatthaar.  The publisher is the University of Kentucky Press and the book is part of a new series called New Directions In Southern History, which is edited by Peter Carmichael, William Link, and Michelle Gillespie.  I have to say that it’s nice to see one of my essays in book form and in a collection that includes some very talented historians.  Here is the Table of Contents:

1. The Blue and the Gray in Black and White: Assessing the Scholarship on Civil War Soldiers by Aaron Sheehan-Dean
2. A “Vexed Question”: White Union Soldiers on Slavery and Race by Chandra Manning
3. A Brother’s War?: Exploring Confederate Perceptions of the Enemy by Jason Phillips
4. “The Army Is Not Near So Much Demoralized as the Country Is”: Soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate Home Front” by Lisa Laskin
5. “‘No Nearer Heaven Now but Rather Farther Off”: The Religious Compromises and Conflicts of Northern Soldiers by David W. Rolfs
6. “Strangers in a Strange Land”: Christian Soldiers in the Early Months of the Civil War by Kent T. Dollar
7. ‘A Viler Enemy in Our Rear”: Pennsylvania Soldiers Confront the North’s Antiwar Movement by Timothy J. Orr
8. Popular Sovereignty in the Confederate Army: The Case of Colonel John Marshall and the Fourth Texas Infantry Regiment by Charles E. Brooks
9. “Is Not the Glory Enough to Give Us All a Share?”: An Analysis of Competing Memories of the Battle of the Crater by Kevin M. Levin
10. Afterword by Joseph T. Glatthaar.

I will be joining Dollar, Phillips, Manning, Brooks, and Sheehan-Dean for a roundtable discussion at the upcoming Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in January 2007 in Atlanta.  The session is titled, Soldiers, Citizens, and Sources: The Uses of Civil War Soldiers in Writing U.S. History and will focus on different methodological approaches to researching our subjects.  The session is scheduled for Saturday, January 6 from 2:30-4:30pm in the Hilton Hotel’s Monroe Room.

In the meantime pick up a copy of The View From The Ground; it will make a great stocking stuffer.

The “Second Emancipation Proclamation” That Wasn’t

One of the things that I am trying to explain in the final chapter of my Crater manuscript is why a reenactment of the battle did not take place in July 1964, given the popularity of two previous reenactments and reunions in 1903 and 1937. A closer look at the Civil War Centennial reveals a contested landscape between Americans who wished to celebrate a “Reconciliationist” and heroic interpretation of the war and the impact of the Civil Rights Movement and its reminder of a long-forgotten “Emancipationist” account of the war.

This conflict emerged in its clearest form at the end of 1962 as the Kennedy administration tried to figure out the best way (politically speaking) to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation without offending Southern whites who would be needed to help reelect the president in 1964.  As late as December 26 Kennedy was handed the text of a proposed statement to be read on January 1, 1963:

Whereas Negro citizens are still being denied rights guaranteed by the constitution and laws of the United States, and the securing of these rights is one of the greatest tasks of our democracy:

Now, therefore, I, John F. Kennedy, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim that the Emancipation Proclamation expresses our Nation’s policy, founded on justice and morality, and that it is therefore fitting and proper to commemorate the centennial of the historic Emancipation Proclamation throughout the year 1863.

Kennedy refused to issue the statement, and instead decided to invite prominent African-American leaders to the White House which would minimize the damage to white constituents in the South and possibly lead to coverage by magazines such as Jet and Ebony.  So, what did Kennedy do on New Year’s Day?  He attended the Orange Bowl game in Miami and watched Joe Namath lead the University of Alabama to victory.  This was the very same school that had to be ordered by the courts to admit Autherine Lacy in 1956 as the first black student.  White students rioted on campus and in response the school suspended Lacy rather than the students responsible for the violence.

What does it say about a country when its own president refuses to honor the central event of our Civil War?

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

James Longstreet Ain’t Got Nothin’ on William Mahone

Here is a statement made by William Mahone upon leaving the Senate:

"I have stood upon Cemetery Hill and looked down on the scene of the great Crater fight, and wondered in my heart if God could have any forgiveness for those men who led the South into that awful war, and are answerable for the blood, the misery, the ruin that followed.  Yet under their teaching I was one of the most bitter and irreconcilable of all who flew to arms in the cause of the State and the Confederacy, and I never learned my wretched error, the awful blunder of the South, the curse of her institution of slavery and her traditions until I sat in the United States Senate, and day by day had borne in upon me the amazing significance of our form of government, what it meant, on what basis it was founded, how great and grand it was above any previous human effort, what it meant for humanity, and how much greater the nation was than any State."

James Longstreet Ain’t Got Nothin’ on William Mahone

Here is a statement made by William Mahone upon leaving the Senate:

"I have stood upon Cemetery Hill and looked down on the scene of the great Crater fight, and wondered in my heart if God could have any forgiveness for those men who led the South into that awful war, and are answerable for the blood, the misery, the ruin that followed.  Yet under their teaching I was one of the most bitter and irreconcilable of all who flew to arms in the cause of the State and the Confederacy, and I never learned my wretched error, the awful blunder of the South, the curse of her institution of slavery and her traditions until I sat in the United States Senate, and day by day had borne in upon me the amazing significance of our form of government, what it meant, on what basis it was founded, how great and grand it was above any previous human effort, what it meant for humanity, and how much greater the nation was than any State."