Sensing the Civil War

Mark SmithEarlier this week Oxford University Press sent me a review copy of Mark Smith’s new book, The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War. It’s a short book so I decided to jump right in and although I enjoyed Listening to Nineteenth-Century America, this one fell short in places. Each chapter is organized around a different sense: “The Sounds of Secession,” “Eyeing Bull Run,” and “Cornelia Hancock’s Sense of Smell” and so on.

There is certainly the potential for gaining a new understanding of important subjects during the war through a cultural analysis of changing sensory patterns. For example, Smith does a very good job of analyzing both the content and rising level of noise in Charleston leading up to and through Lincoln’s election and the secession vote. He explores how these changing patterns may have influenced slaves, the concerns of slaveowners and even Major Robert Anderson and his men as he planned their move from Fort Moultrie to Sumter. The strongest chapter focuses on the impact of Grant’s siege of Vicksburg on the quantity and type of food available to Southern civilians trapped in the town. Smith makes some very perceptive points about the sharp contrast between the menus in town restaurants and the overall diet of civilians before the war with what they were forced to eat during the siege and the threat such a drastic change posed to the community’s social and racial hierarchy, not to mention their own sense of self-identity. Continue reading “Sensing the Civil War”

Drew Faust Talks About Mothers of Invention

Update: Check out Drew Faust’s review of David Brion Davis’s new book.

This C-SPAN Booknotes interview with historian Drew Faust goes back to the publication of her 1996 book, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. In 1996 I was working at Borders Books & Music in Rockville, Maryland. The store included an incredible American History section, which fueled my interest in the war. This was the second book that I read after McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. It’s a wonderful book even though its central thesis has been challenged and a great place to start if you are interested in Southern women during the Civil War. Continue reading “Drew Faust Talks About Mothers of Invention”

A Worthy Death: A Review of Death and the Civil War

After writing two short posts about American Experience’s Death and the Civil War I decided to write up something a bit more comprehensive for the Atlantic.  You can read it here in its entirety.

In his interview with Harvard president and historian Drew G. Faust about American Experience‘s new documentary Death and the Civil War, Stephen Colbert laments, “You are beginning to make the Civil War sound like a downer.” While it garnered a good laugh from the audience, the comment betrays an important aspect of how Americans have remembered the Civil War and the kinds of narratives that are celebrated.

Ric Burns’s latest film is based largely on Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which addresses the vast landscape of death and suffering experienced during the war years and beyond. The airing of this important program comes not just on the same week as the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam — the single bloodiest day in American history — but at the end of two costly and controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to look at the way Americans confronted death 150 years ago without seeing just how far removed we’ve been from the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. We all remember the controversy surrounding whether photographs of flag-draped caskets at Dover Air Force Base in 2004 could be shown to the American public.

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Death and Dying Without Much Meaning

A few months ago I received a preview copy of American Experience’s Death and the Civil War, which will air on PBS this week.  This weekend I finally had a chance to watch it through, which seems appropriate given that we are commemorating the 150th anniversary of the battle of Antietam.  I am not going to offer a comprehensive overview of the show.  For the most part I enjoyed it even if the Ken/Ric Burns format has become predictable.  The program is based largely on Drew G. Faust’s recent book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which I highly recommend.  For an overview of the program check out reviews by Megan Kate Nelson at The Civil War Monitor and Michael Lynch at Past in Present.

The one aspect of the program that I found disappointing was the continued difficulty to acknowledge the ways in which Americans (mainly northerners) came to terms with their dead as part of the sacred work of preserving the Union.  The coverage of how the Civil War challenged the Victorian era idea of a “good death” is captured beautifully through images, words, and music, but just as important to Victorian America was the striving toward connecting that death and suffering to the sacred cause of Union.  American Experience bombards the viewer with the emotional and psychological toll of death, but without much in terms of redemption.  No doubt, I’ve been influenced by having recently read Frances M. Clarke’s War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North.  No other book that I know of more effectively explains how northern stories of suffering and death produced by soldiers on the front as well as on the home front galvanized sectional pride and morale throughout the war.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is a case study of the death and memory of Nathaniel Bowditch, a second lieutenant from Massachusetts, who was killed in 1863.  Nathaniel’s letters home reflect his commitment to the virtues of bravery and selflessness as well as the understanding that his actions and possible death would help to shape a crucial moment in world history.  His letters home, like those of others, would help family members to deal with the pain of loss by acknowledging that it was a meaningful death.  Nathaniel’s death is featured prominently in Death and the Civil War, specifically his father Henry’s difficulty in coming to terms with the loss of his son.  The viewer feels the emotion of Henry’s loss, but not his striving to ensure that it was a heroic death.  All we learn is that Henry eventually authored a manual that promoted the use of ambulances on the battlefield.  What we don’t learn is that almost immediately following his death, Henry sought out Nathaniel’s comrades and superior officers for any information that might assuage his family’s concerns about the way his son died on the battlefield.

Even the beautiful scrapbooks that Henry lovingly created with his son’s letters as well as those sent to him from family members and other mementos are only briefly mentioned at the very end of the program.

The memorials that they created reveal a lurking fear that battlefield deaths might come to be seen as meaningless slaughter, but they also show why such interpretations failed to gain currency at this time.  In this war, heroism held meaning insofar as a soldier displayed an admirable character that reflected well on his family and community.  To become a heroic martyr, officers had to perform conscientiously, suffer physical or emotional torments without undue complaint, exhibit moral conviction and self-control at the point of death, and embody all of those other character traits that represented with worthiness of their family and class backgrounds…. Henry Bowditch purposefully included the family’s letters to show just how much homefront support and prodding went into creating a heroic martyr.  He was proud of that fact.  He wanted to show that they held Nathaniel to a high standard of uncomplaining selflessness while expecting nothing less of themselves.  As the Bowditch parents worked so hard to prove at the moment of their greatest loss, it was both the burden and expression of a truly virtuous elite to model suffering’s inspirational potential. (p. 48)

Perhaps we are far too removed from the Victorian world to truly appreciate what seem to be overly romanticized and sappy acts of memorialization.  The other problem is that we are much too quick to allow Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to bring meaning to it all.  It’s as if Americans were just sitting around waiting for their president to utter those stirring lines and bring some level of comfort and reassurance to their households.  I am not suggesting that it didn’t, but family’s like the Bowditch’s were working to ensure that their dead did not die in vain from the beginning.  The other issue is that we still fall into the trap of seeing the war as void of meaning until emancipation comes on the scene.

Both of these themes come through loud and clear in Death and the Civil War and to that extent limit our understanding of how thousands of families struggled to come to terms with death.

Drew Faust Reflects on War Narratives

You should definitely take a look at Drew G. Faust’s NEH 2011 Jefferson Lecture, titled, “Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian.” [pdf]  It is incredibly thoughtful.  [Click here for David Blight’s introductory remarks.]  I think Faust effectively explains the difficulty of trying to capture the horrors of war as well as the dangers involved in trivializing it.  The following passage at the end caught my eye and pretty much sums up why I have little interest in attending the Manassas reenactment this summer:

There is just something about reenacting that I find troubling and yet I know that there are very serious people, who are passionate about it and who see it as a form of education.  I don’t want to be entertained by representations of battle, suffering, and loss.  On the other hand I don’t have a problem with a reenactment of a slave auction, which also depicts violence and personal loss.  This may be an inconsistent attitude on my part, but I just can’t imagine ordering a hot dog or picnicking at a slave reenactment.

What I do completely agree with, however, is Faust’s final comment regarding our current wars.  I do believe that battle reenactments help to trivialize war and prevent us from considering the tough questions that any citizenry in a democracy must consider before going to and during war.  In the end, I am skeptical that the narrative of a reenactment gets us closer to any meaningful understanding of what it means to go to war as well as the costs.