It should come as no surprise with the Sesquecentennial of the Civil War upon us that a flurry of scholarship is currently being published on the conflict. Each publication tries to outdo the other in its assertion that we misunderstood the war itself or missed the true import of its legacy. Two of these recent works that attempt to shed new light upon America’s most written about war are Randall Fuller’s From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature and Barbara Gannon’s The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic.
The first of these books, a winner of the 2011 Christian Gauss Award, attempts to illustrate how the Civil War changed the way American authors understood themselves, their nation, and their craft. Fuller uses biographies and selected passages from the works of well-known northern authors of the antebellum period as the main sources of evidence for his argument. Arguing primarily by implication, Fuller places each literary figure alongside the historic events taking place during the war. From here he lets the reader draw his own conclusions.
Although the book is well-written and engaging, From Battlefield’s Rising unfortunately adds very little to our understanding of the war’s legacy for American fiction. Fuller’s introduction prepares the reader for a narrative that will engage the much earlier scholarship of George Fredrickson’s Inner Civil War, Edmund Wilson’s eclectic but authoritative Patriotic Gore, and Daniel Aaron’s The Unwritten War. Regrettably, rather than engage these earlier authors he simply adds new data to the framework of their earlier arguments. Perhaps this helps explain why his narrative technique favors argument through implication.
One of the most interesting tasks he accomplishes in this work has little to do with the impact of the Civil War on American literature. Fuller manages in this book to shift blame for the ideological fuel of the war from Harriet Beecher Stowe and the northern abolitionist movement and places it instead on the transcendentalist philosophy championed by Emerson. His idealist philosophy, in Fuller’s view, was the volcano that set the nation on fire from 1861-65. Any examination of the war’s legacy on American fiction, he implies, must therefore start with the hangover left behind by the Boston Brahmins.
An interesting idea, but a new critique of Emerson hardly qualifies as a transformative reading of the Civil War’s impact on American literature and Culture.
Barbara Gannon’s book is more modest in scope while at the same time providing the reader with a truly paradigm shifting narrative. Winner of the 2012 Wiley-Silver Prize for Civil War History, The Won Cause challenges the idea held by historians of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) such as Mary Dearing and Stuart McConnell that the GAR was a racist organization that only grudgingly allowed the participation of African-American veterans.
Gannon argues that “Black and White veterans were able to create and sustain an interracial organization in a society rigidly divided on the color line because the northerners who fought and lived remembered African Americans’ service in a war against slavery” (Gannon, 5).
A shared sense of sacrifice on the battlefield and a common cause, the abolition of slavery, brought together black and white union veterans, Gannon contends, in an era where the color line was more like an impenetrable wall. Their belief in the “won cause” created an egalitarian space (i.e. the GAR post room) in a society where blacks were hard pressed to find any.
Where the GAR fell short, in Gannon’s view, was that their attitudes did not extend much farther than the post room and they had little if any interest as an organization in African-Americans who had not served in the Union army. This, however, she contends is not as grievous a fault as 21st century observers might think. For Americans living in the post-Civil War era, the choice was either between racism or color blind relations with African-Americans. In trying to remain color blind, GAR members were unable to any other way than they did. They along with their black comrades had ended bondage, the rest was up to the African-American race.
One of the few areas where this work disappoints is in the writing. It is often difficult to determine how chapters relate to each other and I had little sense of a narrative trajectory as I read the book. Each section felt like a vignette that lightly joined the ones before and after.
Aside from their intention to provide a new perspective on the Civil War, these works share little in common. They do, however, reveal a conundrum facing scholarship on the Civil War and (one might contend) humanities scholarship in general. With so much written on this conflict, what more is left to say? Fuller’s book shows that the age of grand gestures is all but dead while the task of the micro-historian has yet to begin. The future it seems is in the details.