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.

Referencing Civil War Memory and a Very Special Speaking Engagement

About a year ago I did a phone interview with Julie Holcomb who is a lecturer at Baylor University and former director of the Pearce Collections at Navarro College in Texas.  Julie was in the process of writing an essay on the challenges of creating public exhibits and museum displays concerning the Civil War.  Julie focused specifically on how our competing interpretations of the Civil War continue to shape the content and interpretation of various exhibitions.  We talked for about an hour and I wished her all the best in her research. 

A few days ago one of my readers notified me that Julie's essay appeared in a recently-published book by Charles Grear, titled, The Fate of Texas: The Civil War and the Lone Star State (University of Arkansas Press, 2008).   It arrived yesterday and I finally had a chance to read Julie's essay.  I was pleased to see that Civil War Memory was cited extensively throughout the chapter and alongside notable historians of memory and public history such as David Blight, Edward Linenthal, John Coski, and Dwight Pitcaithley.  It's nice to see that blogs are being taken seriously by scholars.   There has been a continuous stream of controversies surrounding museum displays and other exhibits over the past few years and blogging provides an ideal format with which to address these issues and in a way which reaches competing interest groups among the general public.  Thanks Julie.

Today I enthusiastically accepted an invitation from the National Park Service to be the keynote speaker at this years Annual Battle of Fredericksburg Ceremony on December 14 at 2pm.  The ceremony includes the laying of wreaths by the UDC and SUV.  I am going to talk about what we as a community can learn from these battlefields and how battlefields such as Fredericksburg fit into my own teaching about the Civil War and memory.

Racist Abolitionists?

One of the things that I work hard on in all my classes, but especially in my Civil War course, is to show that history is far more complex than the version taught at an early age.  I want my students to struggle with some of the distinctions and categories that they bring to the classroom.   My two Civil War sections are working on finishing up essays which examine the movie Glory and an article on the 54th by historian, Donald Yacovone.  Our discussion about the article was quite productive, but some of my students had a great deal of difficulty accepting the fact that the Lincoln administration refused to address the repeated calls for equal pay until the summer of 1864.   By then the 54th Massachusetts – as well as other units – had engaged in acts of mutiny, which led to the execution of at least two soldiers.  Especially difficult for my students was the reaction from within the black units from white officers who were known as staunch abolitionists.  One in particular was Colonel James Montgomery of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers and one-time brigade commander of the 54th.  Consider the following paragraph from the article:

"You ought to be glad to pay for the privilege to fight, instead of squabbling about money," Montgomery exclaimed.  He warned that the soldiers "refusal to accept what the government offered amounted to mutiny, "and mutiny is punishable with death."  Ignoring the regiment's enviable reputation, Montgomery declared that the Fifty-fourth still had not proved that blacks could fight as well as whites.  He confessed that black soldiers' "inherent" disadvantages left them with much to overcome.  with words that enraged all who heard them, Montgomery declared, "You are a race of slaves.  A few years ago your fathers worshipped snakes and crocodiles in Africa."  The men of the Fifty-fourth listened to Montgomery berate their very appearance: "Your features partake of a beastly character…. Your features can be improved.  Your beauty cannot recommend you.  Your yellow faces are evidences of rasaclity.  You should get rid of this bad blood," he recommended.  "My advice to you is the lightest of you must marry the blackest women."

Part of the problem for my students is the difficulty in acknowledging the important distinction between race and slavery.  We see this all the time when it comes to Lincoln where evidence of his racial outlook is taken as evidence of his position on the morality of slavery.   Failure to acknowledge the distinction leads to all kinds of absurd conclusions surrounding Lincoln's motivation and handling of slavery during the Civil War.  Republicans argued against slavery in a number of ways, but their position on the issue did not necessarily have anything to do with race or, more specifically, a belief in racial equality.  In fact, many Republicans harbored deep-seated racial prejudices that surfaced at different times throughout the war. 

Abolitionists, however, present us with a more difficult challenge since these are the people that we have been taught to believe transcended nineteenth-century racism.  We emphasize William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others, but in focusing narrowly we fail to acknowledge the wide spectrum of belief regarding race.  There are a number of ways to approach the complexity of the issue from analyzing place of origin, economic and social identification as well as religious affiliation.  All of this, however, takes time and usually only leads to more questions and a muddier picture of the past.

These are crucial teaching moments.  Much of our time as history teachers is spent trying to fill in a picture of the past that is meaningful and sufficiently complex.  At the same time it is our job to identify and embrace by example those moments where answers are not forthcoming.  I don't think we do enough of this in the classroom.  As authority figures we are expected to have answers.  Most of my students know when I do not have an answer for them.  In response to a question I usually just stare blindly back at the student for a few awkward moments after which I take a moment to write the question down on my legal pad. 

The lesson for the day: Questions and confusion matter as much, if not more, than answers.

The Politically Incorrect [or just the Incorrect] Guide to the Civil War

33163412The good people at Regnery Publishing offered to send me a complimentary copy of the latest in their series of politically incorrect guides, which I kindly accepted.  I figured I would at least get a few laughs out of it, but as I made my way through it I couldn’t help but think that this is nothing but a huge waste of paper. The book is essentially for people who are already convinced that there is a conspiracy against Confederate culture and that intellectuals in the academy are against all things Southern.  In that sense this book is a 350 page security blanket, kind of like a trusted friend that you can always count on to help bail you out of those tight situations when ideas are being discussed.  Consider the blurb on the back cover:

The politically correct history that dominates our schools and universities insists that Jefferson Davis was another Hitler, Robert E. Lee was the equivalent of Rommel, and the Confederate States of America was our own little version of the Third Reich–a blot on American history.

From the website:

The Politically Incorrect GuideTM to the Civil War
is a joyful, myth-busting, rebel yell that shatters today’s Leftist and
demeaning stereotypes about the South and the Civil War—showing why, in
G. K. Chesterton’s words, “America and the whole world is crying out
for the spirit of the Old South.” Civil War buffs, Southern partisans,
and everyone who is tired of liberal self-hatred that vilifies
America’s greatest heroes—must have this book on their bookshelf.

That’s called a strawman argument, which involves creating an enemy that doesn’t really exist and than tearing it down.  I think this logical fallacy is covered on the first day of Critical Thinking 101.  The book has a hilarious feature called “Books Yankees Don’t Want You to Read” which includes Jefferson Davis’s Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, MacKinlay Kantor’s If the South Had Won the War, and Clifford Dowdey’s The History of the Confederacy.

The book has a wonderfully cartoonish quality to it, which makes it the perfect gift for the person who will never pick up a serious work of history.

Were You Lucky Enough to Attend a High School Named After a Slaveowner and Founder of the Ku Klux Klan?

Well, if you attended high school in Jacksonville, Florida (of all places) after 1959 you probably did.  How did a high school in Florida end up being named after a Confederate general from Tennessee?  It turns out that when the school opened in 1959 various interest groups, including the United Daughters of the Confederacy, competed to win the chance to name the school.  The UDC won and the school was named for Nathan B. Forrest.  It was an ideal name for a school in the South at the height of “Massive Resistance” against a burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.

On November 3 the Duval County School Board will vote on whether to change the name of the school.  Of course, not everyone is happy about such a possibility given their commitment to ensure that our youth model their lives on such upstanding Americans as Forrest:

Bodie Catlin, owner of a truck accessories retailer who speaks publicly about Confederate history, has been an outspoken supporter of keeping the school’s name and said Forrest was a man of his time who was “nice” to his slaves.

“They loved him,” he said. “The only people [in favor of the name change] are people from the North who don’t care about our heritage and some that think the whole war was fought over slavery.”

It’s always those damn northerners who are getting in the way.  Stay tuned for further updates.