I’ve been reading through some of David Blight’s essays that are collected in his book, Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory, and the American Civil War. The essays are pulled from academic journals, edited collections and public talks. In the epilogue Blight ends with a series of questions that once again raise the major themes of the book, including the connection between memory and battlefield commemoration, the political construction of memory, reconciliation and reunion, and the memory of race. Blight emphasizes throughout the essays that the construction of memory is a constant struggle between different social groups and the resulting narratives are the “cultural frameworks, conscious or not, that give shape and meaning to our lives.”
Such has surely been the case with America’s struggle to forge collective memories of the Civil War. Nations may not remember, but they are evolving creations of high stakes contests between groups that do remember and contend to define the past, present, and future of national cultures. Is the United States the nation that preserved itself in the War between the States, or the republic that reinvented itself in a war that destroyed racial slavery and expanded freedom and equality? Was the war a terrible bloodletting on the way to a better, more unified nation ready to play its appointed role in world affairs? Or was the war a deep national tragedy, the meaning of which is embedded in many different group memories—those of defeated white southerners, victorious white northerners, black former slaves, the descendents of free blacks, or European immigrant groups who made up significant percentages of the Union armies? Indeed, who owns the memory of the Civil War? Is it those who wish to preserve the sacred ground of battlefield parks for the telling of a heroic narrative of shared military glory on all sides? Or is it professional historians with academic training, determined to broaden the public interpretation of Civil War sites to include slavery, social history, women, and home fronts? Should the master narrative of the American Civil War be an essentially reconciliationist story of mutual sacrifice by noble men and women who believed in their equal version of the right? Or should the master narrative be a complex, pluralistic story of sections and races deeply divided over the future of slavery, free labor, and the character and breadth of American liberty? If everyone fought for “liberty” in the Civil War, then whose collective memory of the struggle should have a privileged place in textbook, films and on the landscape of memorialization? Indeed, whose claims to “liberty” prevailed? (pp. 278-79)
Blight’s questions include an implicit assumption that the construction of a collective memory is a matter of choice. It is very easy to see determinism at work in many of the studies of postwar America and the evolution of Civil War memory. While individuals emerge such as Frederick Douglass, all too often the conceptual apparatus of historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists overshadows any real potential to bring about significant change. With the Civil War Sesquicentennial celebrations just a few years away I hope the above questions guide the various organizations and publishers who will put together educational programs, lectures, brochures, and other publications.
I just received my new issue of North and South Magazine and it looks to be another excellent read. That said, I have to admit to laughing as I noticed a new painting by John Paul Strain on the first page. The painting is titled, “Battlefield Prayer” and the setting is Hamilton’s Crossing – December 12, 1862; it depicts Lee, Jackson, and Stuart (though he looks more like Longstreet to me) praying. Here is an excerpt from the description:
With the sounds of battle preparation echoing through the woodland hills and valleys, the three generals paused a moment to rest from their morning ride and water their horses. Stonewall Jackson knelt before the Lord and the men prayed for the Lord’s blessing and guidance to help them with their great task. Many men would turn to their God before battle, if not for themselves, then for the families. The Almighty would hear thousands of battlefield prayers that day.
Now please don’t get me wrong, I am in no way criticizing Strain’s artistic abilities. I have yet to move beyond stick figures and have a deep respect for anyone who can bring a scene to life. However, what exactly is the purpose of this painting. Of course I know that all three men subscribed to some form of religion, but it is unclear to me why this particular scene needs to be painted. Who exactly buys a painting like this? First, does anyone know if this scene has any basis in fact in connection to the battle of Fredericksburg or at any time during the war? I suspect that paintings such as this one are marketed to people who hold more of a sentimental view of the war rather than anything grounded in history. Perhaps that is not surprising. It should come as no surprise that the majority of paintings and other items advertised in Civil War publications depict Confederate scenes. Even the cover of this issue is curious. What exactly is Jackson doing with his horse and why should I even care? What is the soldier to Jackson’s left looking at, not to mention the two men on his right? Perhaps there is some need to draw a connection between Saint Jackson and Saint Francis of Assissi. Speaking of horses, I love the paintings of a group of horses where you can’t tell which leg belongs to which animal. I remember one painting where there were too many legs given the number of horses present in the painting.
I shouldn’t end by knocking all Civil War painters because I happen to have a fancy for Don Troiani’s work. In fact, if you visit my home office you are not only surrounded by bookshelves, but also by Troiani paintings. I have seven large scenes framed on my office walls. Right in front of me where I now stand to do computer work hangs Troiani’s painting of the 69th N.Y.V. at Antietam. To its left is his more recent “Mahone’s Counterattack” at the Crater. I enjoy Troiani’s work because it is clearly the result of some research and a care for capturing the story as accurately as possible. Yes, you can have a bit of glory mixed in as seen in “Until Sundown” which depicts John B. Gordon and Lee at the Sunken Road at Antietam. And who can argue with Troiani’s obsession with getting the regimental flags just right.
Beyond Troiani’s goal of accurately painting the men in their uniforms and in the historically correct settings I appreciate that he does not usually get stuck knee-deep in Lost Cause silliness. His painting of Mahone’s charge at the Crater is a case in point. Take a look at John Elder’s painting of the Crater and you will see an interpretation that fits neatly into the postwar era. Black soldiers are painted in a way that minimizes their bravery and their fighting prowess. Troiani’s painting shows black soldiers right in the middle of the action, defending the flag, and prone to the same sense of confusion and cowardice as any white soldier.
I guess in the end the old rule applies: To each his own.
Yet another Civil War blog: Check out Brian Downey’s Behind Antietam on the Web. Brian maintains a website on the Battle of Antietam and plans to use the blog to supplement that site. Check out his first post on Confederate Lieutenant T. J. Goree.
Progress on Civil War Center in Richmond: Looks like the interpretive element of this museum will be broad in perspective and reflect the best in more recent Civil War studies.
In addition to exhibits, The American Civil War Center is developing a series of educational programs for school children that are tied to the Standards of Learning. Sara Poore, the center’s educational director, said some of the programs already are being presented in area schools. One of them, “Carpetbaggers, Scalawags and Jim Crow” examines the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, and some of the abuses that occurred during the period.
This is indeed a good sign.
I enjoyed reading Brooks Simpson’s plea over at Civil Warriors for historians and enthusiasts to continually challenge the way we think about the Civil War.
One of the characteristics of much (although not all) writing on the American Civil War is the tendency to rehash the same old arguments and repeat the same old narrative lines. To be sure, novelty for novelty’s sake is not always a good idea, in that the outrageous and the outlandish often become mere distractions. But in a career marked by reading and writing, it is interesting how at time we spend so little time thinking … and I mean thinking long, hard, and deep about what we do and how we do it. I fear that at times we’ve lost the ability to look at sources with fresh eyes, to read them or look at them freed of as much baggage as we bring to our work.
I agree. All too often an argument purporting to uncover some new turning point is presented as some significant paradigm shift. My guess is that Civil War history is particularly prone to this problem as there is a wider range of historical imagination, analytical ability, and literary skill mixed in on the bookstore shelves. Unfortunately, the kind of thinking that Simpson is calling for is all too often labeled as “liberal” or “revisionist” within certain circles who refuse to step out of their little shells. Such accusations point to the continued divide between the kinds of questions that professional historians as opposed to more casual enthusiasts bring to the table. As I’ve suggested in numerous posts, most Civil War enthusiasts are really not that interested in challenging their preconceived assumptions. There is a certain investment in the tired old stories that continue to attract readers.
The other strand of Simpson’s post emphasizes the importance of taking a “look at sources with fresh eyes.” In my own work on Civil War memory I spend a great deal of time trying to interpret postwar sources as a product of reunion, postwar political debates, and other factors. Of course this is clearly a walk on the slippery rocks, but is absolutely essential as a way to understand how and why certain individuals and organizations remembered the war. For the opening chapter of my Crater manuscript I steer clear entirely of postwar sources. I did this to draw a clearer contrast between what soldiers said about the battle in the days and weeks following the battle as opposed to what some of the same people stated decades later. I can’t tell you how many times my work has been attacked by individuals and groups whose evidence for a competing interpretation is rooted in postwar sources. All too often I come across (typically on internet sites) Neo-Confederate rants about the nature of slavery, emancipation, and black Union soldiers that are based on Confederate Veteran, The Southern Historical Society Papers and other postwar sources. There seems to be little sense that these sources need to be interpreted and cannot be used unquestionably.
I encourage Simpson to push the virtues of historical revisionism in future posts.