Staging the Civil War
October 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
‘Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photographs,’ Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others. She has a point, sort of. We expect photographs to represent reality back to us. But they don’t, of course, or they don’t necessarily. For example, she discusses an exhibit of photographs of September 11, 2001, that opened in Manhattan in late September of that year, Here is New York. The exhibit was a wall of photographs showing the atrocity of that day. The organizers received thousands of submissions, and at least one photo from each was included. Visitors could chose and purchase a laser printed version of a photo, but only then did they learn whether it was a photo from a professional or an amateur hanging out their window as the atrocity occurred. Sontag talks about the fact that none of these photos required captions, the visitors will have known exactly what they depicted. But she also notes that one day, the photos will require captions. Because the cultural knowledge of that morning will disappear. 9/11 is already a historical event for today’s young adults.
So we return to the veracity of photos, our expectation of a documentary image of the past. For me, the first time I was seriously arrested by a photograph was in my Grade 12 history textbook, in the section on the Second World War. There was a photograph of an American soldier lying dead on a beach somewhere in the Pacific. I don’t remember where or which battle. I don’t remember the image all that well, actually, I don’t think the viewer could see the soldier’s face. I remember just a crumpled body, in black and white. And for the first time, I understood the devastating power of war and the fragility of the human body.
Later, in grad school, I read Ian McKay’s The Quest of the Folk, about how Nova Scotia’s Scottish history was carefully constructed and curated by folklorists at the turn of the 20th century. At the start of the book is a photograph of a family next to their cottage on a hard scrabble stretch of land on the Cape Breton coast. McKay plays around with captions of the photo, both the official one in the Nova Scotia archives in Halifax, and alternative ones. I realized that photographs are not really necessarily a true and authentic vision of the past.
And so, in reading Sontag’s words I opened this essay with, I thought of the fact that we do like to think of ourselves as literalists when it comes to photography, we expect a ‘picture to say a thousand words,’ and so on. Just prior to this comment, Sontag discussed Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War, a series of plates that weren’t published until several decades after Goya’s death. The disasters were the Napoléonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808. These plates are vicious. And Goya narrates each, claiming each one is worse than the other, and so on. He also claims that this is the truth, he saw it. Of course, they aren’t the documentary truth, they instead represent the kinds of events that happened. That does not, however, lessen their power and brutality. But they are also not photographs.
This led me to Alexander Gardner, the pre-eminint photographer of the US Civil War. In fact, war photography in general owes a huge debt to Gardner. Gardner worked for the more famous Mathew B. Brady, but it was Gardner who took the majority of the more famous photographer’s photos. Gardner shot some of the most iconic images of the Civil War, including the dead at Gettysburg. His most famous is this one:
This photograph is staged. Gardner and his assistants dragged the body of this dead Confederate soldier from where he fell to this more photogenic locale. They also staged his body. And yet, given our insistence on literalism in photography, the viewing public took this photo for what it’s worth and accepted it as a literal representation of the Battle of Gettysburg.
It was over 100 years later, in 1975, when a historian, Willian Frassantino, realized that all was not as it seems. Of course, what Gardner, et al. did in staging the photos of the Civil War seems abhorrent to us, unethical, even. But it was not so in the mid-19th century at the literal birth of this new medium of representation.
Nonetheless, what is the lesson from Gardner’s photograph? Do we dismiss it for its staginess? Do we thus conclude that the photos of the Civil War are fake? Of course not. Gardner’s photos, like Goya’s Disasters of War, are representations of what happened. They are signifiers that things like this happened (I am paraphrasing Sontag here). It does not make these representations any less valuable. Young men did die by the thousands in the Civil War. They died at places like Gettysburg, and they died like the staged body of this unfortunate soul. The horrors of war remain intact in our minds. We have a representation of what happened, and this one in particular (like Goya’s Disasters) has been replicated countless times since 1863, we have seen countless other images like this, including for me, the one in my Grade 12 history textbook when I was all of 17 years of age. The image is still real.
Mis-Remembering the Civil War
May 15, 2017 § Leave a comment
While it is easy to forget foreign wars, it is not so easy to forget wars fought on one’s own territory. Reminders are everywhere — those statues, those memorials, those museums, those weapons, those graveyards, those slogans. While one may not remember history, one cannot avoid its reminder. — Viet Than Nguyen.
Nguyen wrote this about Vietnam, and how reminders of the Vietnam War are all over the Vietnamese landscape. But this is true of any war-marked landscape, any territory haunted by war. It is true of the landscape I live in, the American South.
Driving to Chattanooga last week, I saw, but didn’t see, the half dozen or so Civil War memorials that dot the landscape off I-24. I saw, but didn’t see, the National Monument atop Lookout Mountain just outside of the city (from here, Union artillery bombarded Confederate-held Chattanooga). I am sure I’m not the only one who experiences this. We historians like to talk about memorials, about their power and all of that, but most memorials are simply part of the landscape, no longer worth remarking upon.
Most of the Civil War memorials were erected in the half century or so following the war, and thus, have had another century or so to blend into the background. My personal favourite of these memorials is one that lies within a chainlink face, on the side of a hill, above a hollow, hard up against the interstate.
The Civil War was obviously fought on Southern territory, as it was the Confederacy that tried to leave the Union. And it remains the most mis-remembered of all American conflagrations, of which there have been many. Americans in the North and the West think the Union went to war to end slavery. And many Americans in the South (by no means all, or, even a majority, I don’t think) think that the war was fought for some abstract ideal, like states’ rights. Both are wrong. The Confederacy seceded due to slavery, as the Southern states felt the ‘peculiar institution’ to be under attack by Northerners. But this is not why the North went to war in 1861; the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t come about until 1862, enacted on New Year’s Day 1863. Prior to that, the Union was fighting for, well, the union.
To return to the landscape of the South, with its battlefields, its many monuments, and to the parts of the landscape still physically scarred by the war, over 150 years ago, there is this constant reminder. This, I would like to humbly suggest, is why the Civil War has remained such a bugaboo for the South.
I oftentimes get the feeling that the larger country would like to just forget the Civil War ever happened, to move on from it. Maybe this is not true for all Americans, particularly African Americans (given slavery ended with the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865). But, it is certainly a trope I notice in my adopted country. But for the South, it couldn’t forget the war even if it wanted to.
Both the Union and Confederate armies marched up and down Tennessee, between Nashville and Chattanooga, along the railway that runs between the two cities. That railway runs next to I-24 for much of that stretch, at most a few miles apart. There are a series of battlefields between the two cities and, of course, the fall of Chattanooga in Autumn 1863 is what allowed the Union Army of General Sherman to march into Georgia and towards Atlanta.
It is hard to forget and move on from a war when there are reminders of it in almost every direction. And mis-remembering the Civil War also serves a purpose beyond the macro political. For one, it removes the nasty part of the rationale for the war on the part of the Confederate States: slavery (this also, obviously, has a macro-political impact). This allows some Southerners to mis-remember the Civil War in order to claim their ancestors who fought in it, to celebrate those that came before them for defending their homes, family, and so on.
Nevermind the inconvenience of slavery, or the fact that these very ancestors in the Confederate Army were deeply resentful of being the cannon fodder for the small minority of the Confederate States of America who actually owned slaves. Nevermind that these ancestors recognized they were the pawns in a disagreement between rich men. Nevermind the fact that these ancestors didn’t own slaves. In fact, that makes it easier to claim and sanitize these men. They were innocent of the great crime of the Confederacy.
And thus, it is easy to take this mis-remembered vision of one’s ancestors fighting in the Civil War for the Confederacy. It is easy to forget that war is terrifying, and to forget the fact that these ancestors, like any soldier today, spent most of their time in interminable boredom, and only a bit of time in abject terror in battle. It is easy to forget all of this, and thus, it is easy to mis-remember the essential reason why this war happened: slavery.
“War is Hell”: Public History?
September 16, 2015 § 2 Comments
This is Wesleyan Hall on the campus of the University of North Alabama. It is the oldest building on campus, dating back to 1855. Florence, the town in which the university is located, was over-run by both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War. Parts of northern Alabama were actually pro-Union during the war and at least one town held a vote on seceding from the Confederate States of America. This was made all the more complicated by the fact that the CSA was actually created in Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, and the first capital of the CSA, before it moved to Richmond, Virginia.
Wesleyan allegedly is still marked by the war, with burn marks in the basement from when Confederate troops attempted to burn it down in 1864. A local told me this weekend that there is allegedly a tunnel out of the basement of Wesleyan that used to run down to the Tennessee River some 2 miles away.
The most famous occupant of Wesleyan Hall during the war was William Tecumseh Sherman. It is in this building that he is alleged to have said that “war is hell” for the first time. Of course, there are 18 other places where he is alleged to have said this. And herein lies the position of the public historian.
Personally, I think Sherman said “war is hell” multiple times over the course of the Civil War, and why wouldn’t he? From what I know of war, from literature, history, and friends who have seen action, war is indeed hell. But I am less interested in where he coined the phrase than I am in the multiple locales he may or may not have done so. What matters to me is not the veracity of the claim, but the reasons for the claim.
So why would people in at least 19 different locations claim that Sherman coined the phrase at that location? This, to me, seems pretty clear. It’s a means of connecting a location to a famous event, to a famous man, to raise a relatively obscure location (like, say, Florence, Alabama) to a larger scale, onto a larger stage. It ties the University of North Alabama to the Civil War. But more than that, since we already know the then LaGrange College was affected by the war, but the attempt to claim Sherman’s most famous utterance creates both fame for the university, and makes the claim that something significant connected to the war occurred on the campus. There are no major battlefields in the immediate vicinity of northern Alabama, so, failing that, we can claim Sherman declared that ‘war is hell’ in Wesleyan Hall.
Slave Narratives and the Carolina Chocolate Drops
March 31, 2014 § 6 Comments
Last night, we were up in Woodstock, VT, to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band from Durham, North Carolina. The band is comprised of three African-Americans and fronted by Rhiannon Giddens, who is of mixed white, black, and aboriginal descent, they play a mixture of traditional and modern folk/roots instruments. They’ve revived a number of songs from the slave era in the Deep South, most of which, according to Giddens, were set down in the 1850s, just before the onset of the Civil War. Most of these, however, come without lyrics, for perhaps obvious reasons. The band were incredibly talkative on the stage last night, which created an incredible community vibe inside this small theatre in small-town Vermont. Both Giddens and band mate Hubby Jenkins kept up a running monologue with the crowd, telling us about their songs, how they came to perform them, write them, play them, their traditional instruments, and so on.
Before one song, Giddens told us about her explorations of American history, specifically African-American history, and about a book she read that collated slave narratives, and analysed them collectively, as opposed to the usual individuated approach to slave narratives. However, Giddens also noted one story that stuck out for her, about a slave woman named Julie at the tail end of the Civil War, as the Union Army was coming over the crest of the hill towards the plantation that Julie lived on. Julie is standing with her Mistress, watching them approach in the song, “Julie.”
This video was shot last night, by someone sitting close by us, though I don’t know who shot it, I didn’t see it happening. This is one powerful song, and it got me thinking. I’m teaching the Civil War right now in my US History class, and as I cast about for sources I am intrigued by slavery apologists, then and now, who argue that the slaves were happy. But even more striking are the stories about slave owners who were shocked to their core when the war ended and their slaves took their leave quickly, looking to explore their freedom.
It seems that the slave owners had really convinced themselves that they and their slaves were “friends” and that their slaves loved them. That arrogance seems astounding to me in the early 21st century. But this song last night powerfully brought the story right back around.
The Civil War and the Atlanta Flames
February 5, 2014 § Leave a comment
Last week, I was watching the Calgary Flames play, I can’t remember who they were playing; I watch a lot of hockey. I’ve never liked the Flames. They were arch rivals of the Vancouver Canucks in the 1980s and, as much as I have never cheered for the Canucks (who wore the ugliest uniforms in NHL history in that era), I never cheered for their rivals either (Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary), with the exception of the Los Angeles Kings. The Flames also committed the venial sin of defeating the Montréal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup in 1989 (to this day, the last time two Canadian teams played for Lord Stanley of Preston’s mug).
The Calgary Flames came into existence in 1980, when the Atlanta Flames packed up shop and moved to the much smaller Canadian city (in a wonderful twist of fate, Atlanta’s next chance at an NHL team, the Thrashers, packed up and moved the much smaller Canadian city of Winnipeg in 2011, where they became the Jets, Version 2.0, the original Jets having moved to Phoenix in 1996, becoming the Coyotes).
When I was a kid, the Atlanta Flames were this team that no one ever thought about. The only real time they entered my consciousness was in 1977 or 1978, when my parents were considering moving from Montréal to Atlanta. We moved to Toronto instead. But, due to the snow storm that hit Atlanta last week and the fact that it was in the news, I was thinking about the old Atlanta Flames whilst watching the Calgary Flames.
I may be slow on the uptake, but the reason why the Atlanta NHL team was called the Flames was a Civil War reference. After Atlanta fell to the Union Army under General William Tecumseh Sherman in July 1864, Sherman, a vindictive sort, ordered the civilian population out, and then proceeded to sack the city old school, by burning it (though he was persuaded to save the city’s churches by Fr. Thomas O’Reilly of the Church of the Immaculate Conception). The city was devastated.
When Atlanta was awarded an NHL expansion franchise for the 1972-3 season, Tom Cousins, the owner, chose the name to commemorate the burning of Atlanta. When the Flames relocated to Calgary eight years later, Nelson Skalbania, the new owner, decided to keep the name, thinking it a fitting name for an oil town. The uniforms remained the same, except that the flaming A was replaced by a flaming C.
Happy Black History Month
January 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
I’m an historian. I teach history. I study history. I write history. I even think about it in my spare time. February is Black History Month. In theory, I support this. I support the teaching of Black history. As well as the history of other groups who have been marginalised, oppressed, and written out of history. I remain deeply influenced by the New Left of the 1960s, particularly the work of E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. Black history has to be incorporated into the rest of the curriculum, it has to be included in the story at the core. Black History Month is important to raise awareness, but we need to do more than that if we’re ever going to get anything done. African American history is central to the American story, and not just through slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights.
I was struck nearly stupid by a post on NPR.org today, “What Does ‘Sold Down the River’ Really Mean?” Seriously. This is considered to be a newsworthy blog post by the leftist, liberal, listener-supported public radio station. The comments on the story on Facebook are predictable in many ways. There are the liberals having pedantic arguments about whether the apocryphal river is the Missouri, Mississippi, or the Niger, whether the provenance of the phrase is American or African. On the actual post on NPR.org,the liberals are arguing about whether or not slavery still exists today in relation to agricultural workers from Central America. But back on Facebook, there are also people claiming that this is race-baiting, or “playing the race card.” Others say that there is no racism in America today. Others say that its racist to even have a Black History Month, because there is no equivalent White History Month. These are the folks who call Women’s Day sexist because there’s no Men’s Day. And then there’s the one who says that this is all ancient history and belongs “up there on the shelf with the other antiques where it belongs.”
Pointing out the history of slavery and the historic oppression of black people in this country is neither race-baiting nor playing the race card. Pointing out that racism still exists today is also not race-baiting or playing the race card. In fact, from my experience, those who make such claims are doing to from a place of racism themselves. As for the one who said that racism and slavery are ancient history and belong up on the shelf with the other antiques, well, the less said about that, the better.
As for the claim that Black History Month is racist because there’s no White History Month. Well, it’s not often I will outright say an idea is stupid. But this is an exception to that rule. The majority of the history we teach, in primary and secondary schools, in university, is about dead white men. Still. In the early 21st century. There is a reason for this, of course, and that’s because most survey history courses are overviews and, at least when it comes to North America and Europe, it is dead white men who were the kings, presidents, advisers, cardinals, popes, explorers, revolutionaries, politicians, and rebels. In short, in the United States, the history curriculum is still overwhelmingly about white people, particularly white men. So the suggestion that Black History Month is racist is ludicrous, ridiculous, and downright stupid.
But, it’s stories like this, and the comments made on them, that point out the real need for Black History Month. We do need to spend some time privileging African American history, if only to draw attention to it. And then to include it in the rest of the curriculum. A high school teacher commented on the Facebook post that slavery IS taught in the schools, and to suggest otherwise is wrong and stupid. Well, yes, it is taught. And then once we get past the Civil War and Reconstruction, black history isn’t generally deal with again until the Civil Rights era, but then that’s it. So, black history appears in relation to slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights. In short, when the national story was dominated by issues related to race and African Americans. When race and African Americans aren’t part of the national story, it’s back to the sidelines. I don’ think this is good, it doesn’t create an inclusive history, it is an exclusive history. The same is true of women and other minorities.
This NPR story and the comments to it on Facebook and NPR show that rather than moving towards a post-racial society (hey, remember those dreams in 2008?), we are caught in a stasis, and we need Black History Month now as much as ever.