Category Archives: Memory

We Are a Nation at War and…

we should behave like one.  By now most of you are aware that the new administration has lifted the ban on photographing the coffins of the Iraq war dead.  I agree with the general outline of the policy and never understood the Bush Administration’s position.  It seemed to me to fall in line with everything else they did to hide the realities of war from the general public, from the president telling us to express our patriotism by going shopping to their failure to include the financial cost of war in their budgets.  One of the things that gives the Civil War its lasting significance is the memory of its dead.  It prevents many of us from looking away and it is the photographs that constitute that visceral connection.  The same can be said for other wars such as WWII and Vietnam.  I fear that in future years we will look past the sacrifices of the Iraq and Afghanistan war dead because those connections were not allowed to properly develop in a free society.

Family Fun With Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth

abraham-lincoln-shooting[Hat-Tip to Steve West]

How would you like to attend a reenactment of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. On March 7 the Sovereign Majestic Theater in Pottsville, Pennsylvania will be transformed into Ford’s Theater. Booth will be played by Charles Sacavage, a retired Pottsville Area School District history teacher who now teaches history part-time at Alvernia University, Reading. He started reenacting Booth as a way to get his students interested in the subject:

We were on the Civil War. They weren’t impressed. I was inspired somehow. We were on the death of Lincoln. (Portraying Booth) I got up on top of my desk and glared at them, and all of a sudden I got their attention. Then I jumped off my desk and yelled ‘Sic semper tyrannus.’ That became almost required in my course. Every kid in Pottsville expected to see me jump off my desk.

Well, whatever works. There is something a little disturbing about reenacting the murder of a president. Given the reference to John F. Kennedy how would we feel about a reenactment of his murder? In that case they could also reenact the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby – 2 for 1. The news article noted that children under 12 get in free. In all seriousness, would you bring children under 12 to see the reenactment of a murder? Am I missing something here?

What’s Wrong With J.E.B. Stuart?

On Friday I am heading down to South Boston, Virginia to lead a TAH Grant seminar of 28 high school history teachers.  Our topic is Civil War Memory.  I am going to take care of the morning session, including an overview of the topic as well as interpretive case studies with documents, film, and monuments.  In the afternoon Professor Robert Kenzer is going to talk about how to use Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary in the classroom.  I am really looking forward to this session given my passion for teaching as well as the subject.  

In preparation for the seminar I was allowed to suggest one book that would be made available to all participants and which they would be expected to read beforehand.  I selected Gary Gallagher’s recent study of the Civil War in popular culture because I thought it would both introduce the teachers to the subject of memory and give them a sense of how they can talk about the subject in the classroom.  My favorite chapter is the one on Civil War “art”, which has been a regular topic on this blog from the beginning.  I guess you could say I have a love-hate relationship with it.  On the one hand the range of images provide the perfect gauge through which to measure our collective memory of the war.  At the same time much of this art is just downright horrific.  Anyway, I am going to include a few of my favorite prints in the visual portion of my presentation.  As I was putting this part of the presentation together I came across this hilarious painting of J.E.B. Stuart by John Paul Strain titled “Bold Cavalier.”    I apologize for the quality of the Strain print, but if you click here it will take you to Strain’s own gallery thumbnail.

It looks to me like Strain took the famous photograph of Stuart on the right and just transferred his head to the body on horseback.  The effect is simply hilarious.  Stuart looks completely detached from the people around him and looks to be preparing to be photographed.  Or perhaps he just wants to get away from his adoring fans.  Either way it makes for a good laugh.

Visualizing the Lost Cause

Check out the excellent video that Caitlin, from Vast Public Indifference, put together in response to one of my recent posts on Civil War art.  Caitlin’s commentary begins around 2:10.  The video is here, but I encourage you to read her full post, which includes another video.  Does anyone really believe that the images in this video reflect how white Virginians lived?  More to the point, do people who fall into the demographic of those who are attracted to this “maudlin crapfest” actually believe that this reflects how they would have lived in antebellum Virginia?  Even a cursory understanding of Virginia’s antebellum history demonstrates that many believed the commonwealth was headed in the wrong direction [click here and here].  Can we do no better than yearn for a return to a time when slavery was accepted?  Such nostalgic silliness is nothing less than a yearning to return to slavery.

I am going to show this to my Civil War Memory class tomorrow.  They are currently working on their final projects and a number of them are putting together videos from our trip to Richmond as well as collections of various images related to memory.  Well done, Caitlin.

Update: Check out the obligatory response from Richard Williams who can’t think of anything more interesting to say other than to accuse us of South bashing [blah, blah, blah].  Do you really find the history of the Confederacy and the antebellum South in these images?  Scary and just a little disturbing – no offense.