Picturing the Civil War 4: The Memory of the War

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.

Figure 1. Title card, D. W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Figure 1. Title card, D. W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation (1915).

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.

Figure 2. D. W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Figure 2. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation (1915).

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).

Figure 3. “Radical Members of the First Legislature after the War,” in South Carolina (1878). Library of Congress.

Figure 3. “Radical Members of the First Legislature after the War” in South Carolina (1878). Library of Congress.

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.)

Figure 4. Saint-Gaudens Shaw Memorial.

Figure 4. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment.

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).

Figure 5. Winslow Homer, The Cotton Pickers. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Figure 5. Winslow Homer, The Cotton Pickers. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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.


  1. John McClymer
    Posted November 22, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Thomas Dixon, upon whose novels “Birth of a Nation” is based, was very conscious of the importance of popular historical memory. He hoped to, and succeeded in, displacing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in the minds of white Northerners. One way of teaching the visual history of the memory of the Civil War is to use the resources at Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture at the University of Virginia. One set of images, found under the rubric of “Tomitudes,” shows the post-war use of Stowe’s characters in advertising. dates from around 1900. dates from around the same period. Both use Topsy to sell products; in the first instance it is a brand of thread whose color, like Topsy’s, will not come off when wet and, in the second, a brand of pipe tobacco. It is instructive to compare these versions, and they are very different, with those from the 1853 illustrated edition of the novel. Here is Topsy with Eva, All of the illustrations from this edition are available at and the overall home page for this invaluable site is
    Images of blacks in advertising, even when there is no explicit connection to the Civil War, I think, still shape our visual historic memory. There is a good brief intro to the topic in a March 30, 2007 story in the New York Times about “Uncle Ben” that also discusses Aunt Jemima. Here is an ad from 1940 that is sure to spark a discussion, It comes from a gallery of Aunt Jemima ads,*JEMIMA. It is a small part of the Gallery of Graphic Design site,

  2. Alice Fahs
    Posted November 23, 2009 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    These are absolutely wonderful sources–thank you, John. Incredibly useful. And I think you raise a very important point: when we think about the visual memory of the Civil War, we should think beyond the war itself (understood as a battlefield conflict between 1861 and 1865), and recognize that changing images of African Americans are part of the visual memory of the war.

    One of the more problematic divisions in the way that we (I) teach 19th-century American history is in presenting “Slavery” as a topic quite distinct from the “Civil War.” In my view the two are inadequately integrated in both our historiography and our classrooms, where the Civil War often becomes understood as only a version of the military history of the war.

    Terrific resources. Thanks!

  3. Posted November 23, 2009 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    In your analysis of the Civil War monuments, Alice, it is quite true how the African American experience has been skewed, especially in the 54th Mass. monument. Yet there is a more democratic aspect to the monuments that students need to understand that also plays a role in the memory of the war.

    In much the way that World War I works for the British, the Civil War was really the first American war where the common soldier was honored in monuments. The prevailing thought in Europe until 1914 was that soldiers were considered merely units on a map that moved as the generals wished. In the United States, this ethos was changed sooner, albeit incompletely. If you look at most of our battlefields, and especially our capitals (Washington, and Richmond, for sake of argument), the generals are in command of the marble, astride horses like a modern Alexander, or Napoleon.

    However, looking at each town, and closely on the battlefields, lie the monuments of regiments. These monuments have done much to change the image of war for Americans. No longer is it about faceless soldiers moving across a map to the whim of a cocked-hat Napoleon wannabe, but rather local folks, with local stories, that endured the most terrible of hardships.

    It is important to see what isn’t said, and the African experience is a testament to that. Yet we should also note what is being said that was silent for so long. The real testament to the monuments of soldiers, especially outside the battlefields, are the towns of New England. I’m attaching a link from the Connecticut Historical Society about their Civil War Monuments:
    There are probably others for other states as well. There are great pictures for reference here.

  4. Chris Johnson
    Posted November 24, 2009 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Alice, for your interesting presentation. You ask, “What are today’s most prominent visual memories of the Civil War, and where are they located?” I have a number of thoughts on the question.

    I am from Springfield, Ohio, and, I am African American. Ohio was of course a border state, a pathway for the underground railroad. I grew up in a working class black community of largely Baptist families who all aspired to the American dream. In my neighborhood almost everyone went to college, young men and women, for my generation and for that of my older brothers.

    As I think about the idea of the memory of the Civil War, there is no articulation of the war, only of slavery. Within the black community, films like “Birth” and “Gone with the Wind” are rejected outright and not even discussed. The film “Glory” (1989) was a hit, for those who could stand to see it, only because Denzel Washington, one of the African American leads, is unanimously seen as a sex symbol.

    What comes to mind though is memorabilia, physical culture. Once upon a visit back home my mother told me of an interest in the community for collecting slave shackles, via eBay. She said she knew of neighbors, and a cousin, who had original antique shackles from the south on their living room mantle or hanging on the wall in their homes. At the time there were indeed authentic 19th century items for sale, thumbscrews as well. I just took a look on eBay and curiously didn’t see a thing. This may have been a fad that has simply passed.

    For every American this kind of memory, along with the advertising imagery of “Aunt’s” and “Uncle’s,” as John McClymer has pointed us to, serves as a kind of reliquary of the past. I’ve mentioned the collecting fad in my undergraduate classes and students have been quick to see the idea of possession, ownership of the past, and reversal. There is also the critique of the past evident in the film “Rebirth of a Nation” by Paul Miller (D.J. Spooky) that is a kind of visual digital and aural remapping of the Griffiths film. Here is a site with excerpts from “Rebirth.”

    In late September there was a screening of “Birth” and “Rebirth” as New School University, where I teach. Here is the web page for the event.

    I am finishing off a commentary that will be posted to this page shortly, a take on the visual culture of both films.

    As I reflect on these examples of connections to the Civil War, they are almost postmodern, a kind of fracturing of meaning and a refusal to accept the traditional historical narrative.

  5. John McClymer
    Posted November 25, 2009 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    As Alice points out, contemporary images of African Americans helped shape visual memories of the Civil War. A major influence on how whites pictured blacks was minstrelsy. is the title page of Christy’s Nigga Songster, Containing Songs As Are Sung by Christy’s, Pierce’s, White’s and Dumbleton’s Minstrels, (New York: T. W. Strong, n.d. [c. 1850]). It is part of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture site devoted to Blackface Minstrelsy, Steven Railton has an excellent brief discussion of the influence of minstrel shows on Mark Twain’s depiction of Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which contains the text of two routines from the shows with links to the pertinent chapters,
    I rarely assign Huckleberry Finn, but I do ask students to use these resources. I also sometimes assign A History of the Musical Minstrel Shows by John Kenrick,
    There is a useful discussion of how to use minstrelsy in our classes in the November 2006 number of The History Teacher, “Minstrel Music: The Sounds and Images of Race in Antebellum America” by Richard L. Hughes. It is available online, via the History Cooperative,
    The Old Time Radio Show Catalog has a detailed discussion that included audio files with songs like “All Coons Look Alike to Me.”

  6. John McClymer
    Posted November 25, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Oops! I forgot to include the url for the Old Time Radio Show catalog.

  7. Mary Niall Mitchell
    Posted December 2, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Apologies for the late posting. My thinking about how we remember the Civil War, of late, has mostly been about what we don’t remember. (This must be shaped, in part, by the fact that I live in the Deep South, where Rebels still play football and monuments to the Confederate war dead are commonplace.) But I have written about carte-de-visites of white-skinned emancipated slave girls and have used them in the classroom to good effect. These images were commissioned and sold by abolitionists during the Civil War, and they were meant to shock viewers into aiding the war effort and encourage them to support the education of freedpeople-the white skin and middle-class dress of the girls played on the sympathies of white viewers while also suggesting that the continuation of slavery endangered white people’s freedom. For example, see #38-39 on Digital Schomburg here:
    I like to put up the image of Rebecca kneeling in prayer for students at the end of the first half of the survey, without comment, and see what sorts of interpretations they can posit from the perspective of nineteenth-century viewers, given what they’ve learned about slavery, antislavery and the Civil War. These photographs, and the children in them, were largely ignored after the war-free white-looking people who weren’t “white” were not exactly a welcome consequence of emancipation in the view of many Americans. Their stories were not told in Hollywood movies and Civil War memorials. I have continued to use these images to explore ideas about race in the Civil War era, but for a discussion about how we remember the Civil War, images like these can be a starting point for thinking about what has been forgotten.

  8. John McClymer
    Posted December 8, 2009 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I have just used the cartes-de-visite of Rebecca in prayer as Mary Niall Mitchell suggests, as the opening of the last meeting of the first half of my U.S. Survey. Thank You! It triggered a very lively discussion.

    I organize the course around five “frames” — race, republicanism, the marketplace, evangelical Protestantism, and gender. The image provoked comments that led back to all, albeit not always in a straight line.

    I rarely use a single image by itself. This time I am very glad that I did.

  9. Joan Stack, The State Historical Society of MO
    Posted January 13, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I find it interesting that few discussions of Civil War art address the monumental History paintings and engraving by George Caleb Bingham, “General Order No. 11” (There are two copies of the painting, one at the Cincinnati Art Museum and one at The State Historical Society of Missouri where I serve as art curator).

    This painting can be interpreted on many levels, and is a very interesting document of the period. Bingham originally titled it “Civil War,” and thus saw it as emblematic of the war as a whole. The painting shows the forced evacuation of residents of border counties between Kansas and Missouri brought about by guerrilla warfare.

  10. Johanna
    Posted April 30, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Love the artwork and the sites! As a Civil War buff I’m ver interested in finding the more “out-of-the-way” museums and memorials to visit. Any ideas/suggestions?