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.
I am pleased to see that the new PBS documentary, “Looking for Lincoln” is available for viewing on their website. I’m not sure if this is the complete broadcast, but enough is included to give you a sense of the scope as well as content. The program is divided into relatively small sections, which makes them ideal for classroom use. My Civil War Memory class is getting ready to shift to Lincoln and memory so this video will be extremely helpful. I was very impressed with the documentary. Henry Louis Gates does a good job of sifting through Lincoln mythology in order to come to terms with a complex and sometimes contradictory man. Gates utilizes Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Blight, Harold Holzer, Allen Guelzo, Drew Faust, and Louis Horton to sketch out salient themes in Lincoln’s life. From there Gates explores the ways in which Lincoln continues to be remembered in our popular culture and political sphere.
A few moments stand out. I was quite impressed with Gates’s interview with Lerone Bennett who is best known for his critical interpretatio of Lincoln on race and emancipation. I’ve read some of Bennett’s writing and while I appreciate his much-needed corrective to understanding Lincoln’s racial outlook, he often picks and chooses evidence to help make his broader case surrounding his understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation. As a way to challenge the mythology surrounding Lincoln and race, Bennett noted that for thirty years prior to the Civil War white Americans had defiantly spoken out against the institution of slavery. His point was to question why they are not remembered as opposed to the excessive myth-making that has defined popular perception of Lincoln. I think he makes an excellent point and it is one that I often wonder about.
Another moment that stands out is a short interview with a very wealthy Lincoln collector by the name of Louise Taper. Viewers will see that her collection is quite impressive and includes a number of very personal items that Taper believes defines a loving relationship. I only point this out because we are so often told by male historians that their marriage was an unhappy one or that Lincoln never truly got over his first love, Ann Rutledge. Not too long ago I touched on this in a post about an article that I had my Lincoln class read by Jean H. Baker.
Finally, Gates visits with members of the North Carolina SCV duirng their annual convention. At some point it gets tiring having to listen to the extreme vitriol that emanates from these people in reference to Lincoln. They betray very little understanding of the past when they couch their analysis in terms of “tyrant” “dictator”, etc. It’s all so boring and uninformative. Interestingly enough, he is there during the ceremony to honor Weary Clyburn for his “service” to the Confederacy as a black Confederate – an event I covered in detail on this blog. Gates doesn’t ask the obvious questions when confronted with the historical assumptions that are implied in the ceremony, which is unfortunate. It’s not surprising given that his goal is not to be critical but to catalog the way various groups go about commemorating and remembering. Gates simply admits that he never knew that blacks fought for the Confederacy. My guess is that Gates must have had his suspicions given his professional training and understanding of the history of race and slavery. After interviewing some members of the Clyburn family Gates concluded by saying: “They simply wanted to admire their ancestor’s courage.” I couldn’t agree more.
All in all this is a first-rate documentary that should appeal to a wide general audience. The website includes schedules for your local PBS affiliate so check it out.
It’s time for the fourth annual installment of the best in Civil War books and blogs from the past year. This is an opportunity to acknowledge those books that have been both a pleasure to read and which have left me with a great deal to ponder. Once again this list reflects just a fraction of what I’ve read during 2008. Congratulations to the winners.
Best Civil War Blog: Robert Moore’s Cenantua’s Blog. Robert’s site is by far the most intellectually stimulating blog in the Civil War blogosphere. He reminds us that Southern heritage and memory is much bigger and more interesting than the narrow contours of the Lost Cause.