The Civil War in Art

I’ve spent the past few hours browsing through an incredible website that focuses on Civil War art.  The website is called The Civil War in Art: Teaching and Learning Through Chicago Area Collections.  I am also very happy to have them on board as Civil War Memory’s newest sponsor.  This site is incredible.  Check out this gouache of the assault by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry at Battery Wagner by Suzanne Schweig Langsdorf, which was done in 1940.  I’ve never seen it before.  When you expand the image on the website there is a feature that opens up a window that allows you to focus on specific sections in great detail.  Each image includes a short description and a set of questions for classroom use.  In addition, the site includes a page of ideas for classroom projects, which will hopefully be expanded in the future.

I can’t wait to use some of these images in the classroom this year.

The Civil War (orange-crate style)

Today I came across the art of Ben Sakoguchi.   Much of his work fits into his Orange Crate Label series.

The 67-year-old Sakoguchi recalls seeing the labels on crates outside his parents’ small grocery store in San Bernardino. Years later, while scouring swap meets near his home, he discovered that the 10-by-11-inch images had become coveted collectibles. Sakoguchi experimented with the format and found that the pastoral elements of the labels made it easier to tackle controversial topics, including AIDS and 9/11. “When I paint with these labels,” he says, “it’s disarming, no matter the subject. People don’t want to be lectured about politics or race, so I use images and colors that soften the blow.”

Here are a few of my favorites.

Servant or Soldier?

"Grim Harvest of War" by Bradley Schmehl

While modern day Lost Cause advocates of the black Confederate myth overwhelmingly refer to these men as soldiers, their preferred narrative falls right out of a late nineteenth-century fascination with the loyal camp or body servant.  As I’ve said before there are almost no references to loyal black Confederate soldiers before the 1970s.  What you will find, however, are scores of Confederate Veteran magazine accounts and other works of popular literature that wax poetic about the loyal body servant, who rushed to the battlefield to tend to his master’s wounds or to escort his body home in the event of his death.

I am doing my best in the first chapter of my black Confederate book to explore the complex exchange between master and slave that ensued as a result of being away from home and loved ones and in light of the many challenges associated with camp life and battle.  The difficulty is compounded simply by the fact that we have so few black voices to work with.  What I find so disturbing about this and other interpretations of that relationship is that it harkens back to blatantly racist notion that slaves could not live without their masters.  The loss of the master was tantamount to the loss of a limb.  To put it bluntly, it’s dehumanizing.

One wonders what was going through Bradley Schmehl’s mind when he painted “Grim Harvest of War”.  Was he visualizing the stories of Thomas Nelson Page or those of Ann DeWitt?

At the Heart of the Black Confederate Narrative

“Press Forward, Men!” by Bradley Schmehl

Here is a very, very rough excerpt from the introduction to Searching for Black Confederates in History and Memory:

At one level the fight over the black Confederate narrative is about whether slavery deserves a central place in our nation’s collective memory of the Civil War’s causes, its progress, and consequences.  Indeed, the timing of the introduction of the black Confederate narrative in the mid-1970s corresponds to a dramatic shift in our scholarly and popular understanding of the roles that African Americans played in bringing about their own emancipation and the end of slavery in 1865.  A renewed interest in black agency through a close study of fugitive slaves and black Union soldiers challenged the Lost Cause assumption that the loyalty of the black southern population was never seriously in doubt.   For modern day Lost Cause adherents, however, this development represented nothing less than a seismic crack in an interpretive foundation that made it easy to discuss the Confederacy and even front line soldiers without having to wade into the tough questions of slavery and race.

In effect, the black Confederate narrative dismantled these new interpretations not by denying slavery’s place or the importance of race, but by offering a counter-narrative that located the Confederacy itself at the center of progressive race relations and emancipation itself.  The presence of large numbers of black soldiers and loyal slaves outlines a picture in sharp contrast to a racially segregated United States army and provides evidence that slavery was nearing its end based on internal factors rather than outside pressure.  Finally, it reaffirms the belief that the Reconstruction policies of the “Radical Republicans” were, in the words of William H. Dunning, a “serious mistake.”