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.

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3 comments… add one
  • GreenmanTim Nov 27, 2006 @ 16:46

    Now you mention it, I believe Troiani did a study of a black confederate, too, from Chickamauga. It is reproduced in his Regiments and Uniforms of the Civil War.

    Keith Rocco, who as you know is another meticulous illustrator of this period (although not exclusively) does many of his works on commission. He did a particularly dramatic rendering of the 54th MA Colored Infantry at Fort Wagner.

    I have yet to see paintings by modern artist historians of the caliber of Rocco and Troiani depicting the service of African American soldiers at Olustee and in the Western Theatre. Perhaps those who commission the art may to some degree be calling the tune? This is certainly true of battlefield memorials, especially the modern additions. There is a prominent monument at Perryville I remember that was paid for and dedicated not very long ago by a descendant of a confederate sergeant who died there. The Irish Brigade monument at the sunken road at Antietam is another modern example.

  • Kevin Levin Nov 27, 2006 @ 14:30

    Tim, — I think you are right on target in re: to your comments about Troiani. There are a few artists who would fall into the neo-confederate category as they tend to depict black Confederates. In fact, one in particular shows a black Confederate charging right under the Stars and Bars.

    It would be interesting to find out how well Troiani’s paintings that include black soldiers sell. I have a giclee addition of Mahone’s Charge hanging in my office. I love it.

  • GreenmanTim Nov 27, 2006 @ 13:24

    Kevin, this is keen observation. Don Troiani is the most popular and prolific modern illustrator of the Civil War, yet it is only relatively recently that he has devoted much attention to depicting African American soldiers. I believe his painting of Mahone’s charge may be the only major work of his to feature African American soldiers, although if memory serves he did do a couple of smaller studies of African American troops, such as a 1st Sgt of the 1st SC Volunteers. I wonder what inferences one could draw about the evolution of historical interpretation, choice of subject matter, and the market for Civil War art during the quarter century or so that he has been painting the soldiers and battles of this era?

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