How do we remember the Civil War? In this final post I would like briefly to consider the visual images that are attached to our memories of the war-and to think about the multiple ways in which memory and history can diverge. Those of us who teach the Civil War from textbooks in our classrooms know that historians have come to a basic consensus: The Civil War was ultimately caused by slavery, that national crime enacted in our Constitution; Reconstruction was in many ways a failure, because freedmen and freedwomen were left with “nothing but freedom,” in historian Eric Foner’s words. But if these are some of the agreed-upon lessons of the war– articulated with passionate urgency as early as 1903 by W. E. B. Du Bois in his great The Souls of Black Folk– they are not necessarily the lessons we see in our visual landscape of the war.
As Luciano De Orazio noted in one of his posts, one of the most powerful visual evocations of the war in the early twentieth century was D. W. Griffith’s 1915 landmark film, The Birth of a Nation. A retelling of the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction from the point of view of “The Lost Cause” a belief in Southern righteousness on the one hand, and Northern aggression and corruption on the other– The Birth of a Nation built upon the dominant national (not just sectional) interpretation of the war at that time. Virulently racist in its imagery, supporting the idea that slavery had been a “benign” institution in American life, picturing African American legislators as ignorant and degraded, and celebrating the birth of the Ku Klux Klan as a way to “protect” the South (Figure 1), The Birth of a Nation reminds us that the “emancipationist” memory of the war, to use historian David Blight’s helpful term, had been virtually eliminated from our national memory by the time the film was released.
It can be a powerful teaching tool to compare Griffith’s pernicious images of African American legislators (Figure 2 left)– shoeless, ill-dressed, putting bare feet up on their desks– with actual images from Reconstruction, such as the composite photograph (Figure 3 below) of dignified “Radical members of the First Legislature after the War,” in South Carolina (1878).
As many historians have pointed out, although the North won the war, by the turn of the century the South had in many ways won the battle for the memory of the war. Thus, history and memory radically diverged. On this point, see, for example, Joan Waugh’s U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (Chapel Hill, 2009), a wonderful new study of the eclipse in Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation in the early twentieth century.
The Lost Cause interpretation of the war only gained more traction with the 1939 film Gone with the Wind still arguably the dominant way in which most people envision the war and Reconstruction (I would be interested in your thoughts on this point). As Kirk Savage has previously posted in the Slavery forum on this website, Gone with the Wind visually reinforced the pernicious idea of the “faithful slave” the slave who preferred slavery to freedom. Change in film representations came slowly. Glory (1989) presented a welcome post-Civil Rights Movement view of the Civil War, with its study of the 54th Massachusetts, an African American regiment. But have recent films entirely dislodged The Lost Cause view of Gone with the Wind, in your view?
A few final thoughts: There is no question that studying the shifting visual imagery of the war can be a powerful tool for our students: after all, visual imagery can be a form of propaganda; far from somehow being separate from politics, it can be a way of practicing politics. We of course see this clearly in the political cartoons of a Thomas Nast-but paintings and monuments and films, too, have their underlying political messages.
Visual silences can be a powerful form of propaganda, too– that is, what isn’t represented in the visual landscape of Civil War memory, as well as what is. Some of us can look around our cities and towns and find monuments to Civil War soldiers and generals; the landscape of memory clearly privileged white soldiers. (See Kirk Savage’s new Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape [Berkeley, 2009] for a superb discussion of changes in the “language” of monuments.)
Until very recently, virtually the only Civil War monument that pictured African American participation in the war was Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ beautiful 1897 Shaw memorial in Boston (Figure 4). (But even here, of course, the monument enshrines the idea of racial hierarchy as the white officer, Robert Gould Shaw, sits on horseback leading black troops of the 54th Massachusetts.)
Today, “Underground Railroad” monuments have been created around the country that offer an alternate version of Civil War memory, focused on slavery and African American agency. Some of these are controversial, however, as communities attempt to claim the existence of an Underground Railroad where there is sometimes little evidence one existed. Some have argued that such monuments act as a denial of racism in nineteenth-century communities, providing instead the pleasant fantasy that all citizens wanted to help in ending slavery.
To conclude: after the Civil War ended, how was it remembered visually? And how were those visual memories– in paintings, monuments, illustrations, TV shows, films– related to changing ideas of freedom and equality in American life? What are today’s most prominent visual memories of the Civil War, and where are they located? In museums? Monuments? Films? TV shows? Or perhaps re-enactments– a set of “living” visual images? How do such images help or hinder our attempts to teach the Civil War?
Finally, I want to consider what happens if we expand our ideas of the war beyond battles and battlefields, beyond leaders and generals, recognizing that the Civil War was a wider social event that took place over many years– not only the years on the battlefields from 1861 to 1865. With that in mind, and recognizing my own “silence” in this forum regarding representations of women and war, I want to close with the great Winslow Homer 1876 painting The Cotton Pickers (Figure 5).
I hope you will suggest your own ideas for teaching the visual history of the memory of the Civil War, and look forward to our final discussion together.