Tag Archives: Don Troiani

John Elder vs. Don Troiani and Cold Mountain

Sorry for the lack of posts over the past few days.  I actually managed to buckle down and finish the last chapter of my Crater manuscript.  I know at least one person who reads this blog who will pleased to hear this.The final chapter covers the period between 1937 and the present and touches on the Civil War Centennial and more recent interpretive revisions that connect to the Crater.  I still need to go through the manuscript and make some changes and add a short conclusion.  It is so nice to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I’ve decided to briefly examine the movie Cold Mountain and Don Troiani’s 2003 painting of the charge of the 6th Virginia Infantry at the Crater.  Both allow me to make some final points about how interpretations have evolved.  Cold Mountain highlights the challenges associated with raising issues of race in popular culture; while the opening sequence includes glimpses of black Union soldiers what stands out is the deletion of a scene following the battle which shows a disgruntled Confederate shooting a severely wounded black soldier.  The movie stands in contrast to Troiani’s painting which as you can see shows a very confused scene of both black and white Union soldiers either standing to meet the Confederate charge or trying to flee from the scene.  One black soldier stands defiantly while holding the Stars and Stripes.  Black soldiers are depicted as full participants in the battle and reflect the same range of emotions that one would expect to find in the heat of battle.  The emphasis that Troiani places on black Union soldiers can be contrasted with the 1869 release of John Elder’s famous painting, which was commissioned by William Mahone.

The content of the painting reflects the beginning of a radical transformation in the public memory surrounding the Crater fight. The painting was completed just as former Major General William Mahone and the “Hero of the Crater” was consolidating his various railroad lines into what became the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Ohio Railroad. Consolidation was a divisive issue in the state legislature and among Virginians generally. An examination of his correspondence with Elder reveals that Mahone viewed the painting, in part, as a way to advance his business interests by reminding his fellow Virginians of his service in the war. One critic offered a colorful review: “The suspense in this . . . scene is fearful; and one dreads that the reinforcements will arrive to[o] late. But they are hurrying on. With their wild impulsive yell, so characteristic of the Southern army, regardless of rank or line, in double column, Mahone’s brigade comes pouring in.” The reference to “Mahone’s brigade” highlights Elder’s goal of concentrating specifically on his old Virginia brigade rather than on the entire division, which included brigades from Alabama and Georgia. This tendency to focus on Virginians at the expense of those outside the Old Dominion became a contentious issue among the former comrades by the 1880′s.

More interesting is the way in which United States Colored Troops are depicted. Any analysis of the racial references in Elder’s painting must be understood in the context of the noticeable inroads African Americans were making in state governments throughout the South by the end of the 1860’s.Black assertiveness was much more pronounced in the former capital of the Confederacy, as the delegates debated provisions for the disfranchisement of high-ranking rebels, the confiscation of rebel property, the structure of taxation, and the improvement and integration of public facilities. In addition to advancement within the political realm, Virginia’s black population openly celebrated Emancipation Day, July Fourth, the fall of Richmond (known as Evacuation Day), and the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.Such public displays served only to remind white Southerners of their subjugation to “Yankee” rule.

The extent to which audiences viewed Elder’s painting through a political lens is difficult to gauge.Many, no doubt, simply saw the painting as an attempt to celebrate the heroism of the common soldier.This was the case for the reviewer of one newspaper who concluded that Elder had “admirably illustrated that distinguishing trait of the Southern soldier” who “paused not to count the odds, but rushed in forward to the conflict, where death stared him in the face.”While other painters concentrated on bringing to life scenes from the war that focused on Confederate generals, this reviewer praised Elder for drawing attention to the “heroism of the private soldier.

At least one reviewer understood Elder’s depiction of the Crater as more than an attempt to praise the fighting prowess of Mahone’s men, but “to rescue from oblivion one scene of our country’s glory, and to lift the veil which the conqueror has attempted to cast over our nation’s existence, and to show to posterity that, however ultimately defeated, it was only after a struggle worthy of our principles, when our half-starved, emaciated troops, in their tattered uniforms, could in the very jaws of death snatch the victory from the overwhelming numbers opposed to them.” By portraying black soldiers along with their “abolitionist” allies as either confused, killed in action, or about to be seriously harmed, Elder was able to draw in sharp contrast the growing racial division within Virginia between the white Southern population and the forced social change taking place through black political action. Elder’s depiction of Mahone’s charge could be interpreted as nothing less than a call to white Virginians to commit themselves to regaining control of the political field, which would be a first step to restructuring the social/racial hierarchy in a way that more closely reflected their antebellum world.

With this in mind it should be easy to close the manuscript with some observations that assess the evolution of our collective memory of the Civil War and the Crater specifically.

Civil War Painting By Numbers

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.

Don Troiani’s Crater

Don Troiani’s “Mahone’s Counterattack” (Historical Art Prints, 2003) stands in sharp contrast to the early painting by Elder. The attack of the 6th Virginia Infantry figures prominently in both paintings; however, Troiani places USCT in the center of the action. Along with their white counterparts, USCT display their manhood as they stand in defiance of the approaching Confederate assault and defend the Stars and Stripes. For me the painting is a breadth of fresh air. It implicitly reflects the evolution of African American history over the past few decades and the willingness on the part of historians to interpret the war through the lens of long-forgotten figures. It is important to keep in mind that this transition in thinking is recent and continues to face challenges from various groups that for one reason or another fail to acknowledge what David Blight calls the “emancipationist legacy” of the Civil War.

An interesting example of this struggle apparently surfaced during the filming of Cold Mountain, which as many of you know included a recreation of the Crater fight in the opening section. While the battle sequence revealed the horror of the initial explosion and the chaos in the crater, it also included brief clips of black soldiers in the Union ranks – clearly a step in the right direction. That said every new step has its limits. The battle scenes failed to include any references to the well-documented cases of the execution of black soldiers following their surrender. At least one scene, set after the battle (available on the bonus CD of the DVD version) showing a captured and crippled black soldier shot by a frustrated Confederate soldier, was deleted from the final cut. The omission points to the extent to which our culture is willing, or in this case unwilling, to acknowledge a history steeped in racial hatred. Of course the scene could have been deleted for any number of reasons, but given our culture’s unwillingness to think seriously about the history of race in this country it is not surprising.

I will leave you with a few thoughts from David Glassberg’s, American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century (1990):

Public historical imagery is both a reflection of the larger culture, and its prevailing ways of looking at the world, and a major element in the shaping of that culture. Since every way of seeing the world—past and present—excludes hundreds of alternatives from view, the power to define what particular version of history becomes the public history is an awesome power indeed.