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.

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