What’s Wrong With J.E.B. Stuart?

On Friday I am heading down to South Boston, Virginia to lead a TAH Grant seminar of 28 high school history teachers.  Our topic is Civil War Memory.  I am going to take care of the morning session, including an overview of the topic as well as interpretive case studies with documents, film, and monuments.  In the afternoon Professor Robert Kenzer is going to talk about how to use Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary in the classroom.  I am really looking forward to this session given my passion for teaching as well as the subject.  

In preparation for the seminar I was allowed to suggest one book that would be made available to all participants and which they would be expected to read beforehand.  I selected Gary Gallagher’s recent study of the Civil War in popular culture because I thought it would both introduce the teachers to the subject of memory and give them a sense of how they can talk about the subject in the classroom.  My favorite chapter is the one on Civil War “art”, which has been a regular topic on this blog from the beginning.  I guess you could say I have a love-hate relationship with it.  On the one hand the range of images provide the perfect gauge through which to measure our collective memory of the war.  At the same time much of this art is just downright horrific.  Anyway, I am going to include a few of my favorite prints in the visual portion of my presentation.  As I was putting this part of the presentation together I came across this hilarious painting of J.E.B. Stuart by John Paul Strain titled “Bold Cavalier.”    I apologize for the quality of the Strain print, but if you click here it will take you to Strain’s own gallery thumbnail.

It looks to me like Strain took the famous photograph of Stuart on the right and just transferred his head to the body on horseback.  The effect is simply hilarious.  Stuart looks completely detached from the people around him and looks to be preparing to be photographed.  Or perhaps he just wants to get away from his adoring fans.  Either way it makes for a good laugh.

Merry Christmas, Mr. President

On this day in 1864 William T. Sherman secured the city of Savannah, Georgia after marching his army 300 miles across the state. Upon arrival he wired the president the following: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 100 and 50 guns and plenty of ammunition, also about 25,000 bales of cotton.” Lincoln responded: “Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift – the capture of Savannah. When you were leaving Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious, if not fearful; but feeling that you were the better judge, and remembering that ‘nothing risked, nothing gained’ I did not interfere. Now, the undertaking being a success, the honour is all yours; for I believe none of us went farther than to acquiesce. And taking the work of Gen. Thomas into the count, as it should be taken, it is indeed a great success. Not only does it afford the obvious and immediate military advantage; but, in showing to the world that your army could be divided, putting the stronger part to an important new service, and yet leaving enough to vanquish the old opposing force of the whole – Hood’s army – it brings those who sat in darkness, to see a great light. But what next? I suppose it will be safer if I leave Gen. Grant and yourself to decide. Please make my grateful acknowledgements to your whole army – officers and men.”

In light of the Christmas season, apparently some of Sherman’s men placed tree-branch antlers on their horses and played Santa for starving families. Why can’t Kunstler and Strain paint that scene? (LOL)

Now, back to your regularly scheduled program:



“The Christmas Carol” and “Christmas Blessing” by John Paul Strain

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.