I received the following email a few days ago from an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, who is planning to write her senior thesis on Civil War memory. While I am flattered that this student is asking me for my advice, it seems silly not to tap the interests and experiences of my many readers. Your responses will serve as a helpful guidebook, not only for this student, but for anyone looking to explore this fascinating topic. Feel free to suggest readings, subtopics, questions, and anything else that you believe is relevant to this student’s project. Thanks everyone.
I am an avid reader of your blog, which I stumbled upon several months ago subsequent to some cursory online searches for information on contemporary Civil War memory. I am currently an undergraduate soon-to-be senior at UC Berkeley and am intending to write my senior thesis project on topics in contemporary Civil War memory, particularly the memory of slavery as an institution. I’m planning to look at historical societies and museums, NPS coverage and interviews, art, literature, reenactments, the timely sesquicentennial commemorations, politics and public discourse, and popular culture (from TV to YouTube) in both the North, South, and West. As part of a follow-up on this project, I plan to spend the year subsequent to graduation (and prior to applying to graduate school) writing high school, middle school, and elementary school curriculum as both a corrective to and an exploration of problems in Civil War memory. I know you do a lot of this in your classroom.
As you would know very well, has a comprehensive project like this yet been undertaken — am I being redundant or offering something valuable to this growing field of Civil War memory? If not, is there any literature that you know of on issues of contemporary Civil War and slavery memory (other than Blight, and, well, Tony Horowitz’ Confederates in the Attic)? I hope to contribute something meaningful that bridges the gap between academic and popular discourse on the Civil War and slavery generally — and memory in particular.
I apologize for asking these questions of you, as I know you are busy and this is perhaps asking a great deal — but you are certainly a flagship for a more popular discourse on Civil War memory, and you have certainly raised questions seeking a more academic approach. I hope with a comprehensive senior thesis that I plan to turn into a Ph.D. dissertation that I can start to open that academic discourse, even at the undergraduate level.
While looking through some “sexually explicit” images related to the Civil War I came across this interesting collection by artist, Justine Lai. The artist is based in San Francisco. Lai has this to say about her first Online exhibit titled, “Join or Die”:
In Join Or Die, I paint myself having sex with the Presidents of the United States in chronological order. I am interested in humanizing and demythologizing the Presidents by addressing their public legacies and private lives. The presidency itself is a seemingly immortal and impenetrable institution; by inserting myself in its timeline, I attempt to locate something intimate and mortal. I use this intimacy to subvert authority, but it demands that I make myself vulnerable along with the Presidents. A power lies in rendering these patriarchal figures the possible object of shame, ridicule and desire, but it is a power that is constantly negotiated.
You can find the rest of the collection here. Of course, if you are easily offended or of Puritan descent I would refrain from clicking through and move on. Although I don’t find this to be that interesting, I am always struck by the ways we choose to remember our collective past. I guess it gives new meaning to the widely held belief that the public is constantly getting screwed by the government.
It’s difficult to deny that the image of women in the work of contemporary Civil War artists tells us much more about the individual artist than the reality of women’s lives or the way those lives were transformed during the Civil War. I pick on Mort Kunstler quite a bit, but his characters beg for analysis and often ridicule. Such is the case with his most recent offering, “Autograph Seekers of Bel Air.” One could even go so far as to suggest that in a great deal of the Civil War print culture women don’t even exist outside of the gaze of men or, in this case, fawning over men – usually Confederates. Historians of the Lost Cause have noted the role that women played in support of the Confederate cause and their admiration for Confederate chieftains such as Jackson, Stuart, and most importantly, Lee. Of course, while there is a great deal of evidence to support such claims, it also offers a very narrow view of women that obscures class distinctions and the hardships that they faced throughout the conflict.
I recently finished reading Stephanie McCurry’s lead essay in the newly-published collection, Wars Within a War: Controversy and Conflict Over the Civil War (UNC Press, 2009). McCurry focuses on poor soldiers’ wives who took steps to organize in response to an increasingly encroaching Confederate government which left them with serious food shortages and unprotected from the Federal army and slaves. In her analysis, McCurry uncovers interstate communication and organization that led to food riots in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, Salisbury, North Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia and Mobile, Alabama. According to McCurry, the extent that the war politicized women involved a renegotiation of their relationship with the state.
McCurry’s essay (part of a larger and much anticipated book project) represents a small piece of a much larger story about women during the Civil War that historians have uncovered over the past few decades. Much of this literature has redefined what we know about women, their roles, and the consequences of the war on the place of women in the polity. It would be silly of me to inquire into the absence of these women in contemporary Civil War art. Most of these images tell us very little about the lives of Southern white women during the war, though they tell us a great deal about how white men today choose to depict them or what they hope their customers (white men) will want to purchase. And that is their purpose. They reaffirm an image of women as apolitical and submissive in the presence of men and a world where gender roles have been solidified. Northern women may have pushed for the suffrage, equal pay, and other anti-discrimination laws, but not white Southern women. They have always been content to worship and serve at the altar of men.
A historian friend of mine recently decided that he needs to add another 22 ft of shelf space to his library. To achieve this he decided to unload some back issues of the old Civil War magazine and asked if I was interested. Of course, I jumped at the offer and within a short period of time I found myself with issues going back to the mid-1980s. I don’t remember the magazine when it was known as Civil War Quarterly, but I am quite impressed with the quality of the writing. One issue in particular stood out, which featured an article on Lee at Gettysburg by Kent Masterson Brown and a painting of Lee that I have never seen before [Jan-Feb 1993]. The painting is titled, “Forever Marching” and was done by Ed Murin. I tried to find some information about Murin, but came up short. Since I couldn’t find an image Online I took one with my camera which you can see here.
I’ve never seen anything quite like this image of Lee. I would place it on the extreme opposite end of those silly prints of Lee reading to a child or praying with Jackson. [How about the jigsaw puzzle version?] As far as I can tell the closest image to Murin’s is L.M.D. Guillaume’s “Gen. Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville.” Lee appears bloodthirsty as he sends his men into battle and over what appears to be the graves of their comrades. What I find so striking is Lee’s eyes, which seem utterly lifeless.
Is this what James Longstreet meant when he noted in his memoir that at Gettysburg “Lee’s blood was up”? And is this a side of Lee that we would rather not be reminded of?