Posts Tagged Civil War

Review of Recent Scholarship on the Civil War

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.

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Civil War Prison Camp Discovered in Georgia

The archaeological remains of an Annex to the notorious Confederate prison camp Andersonville have been discovered in Millen, Georgia. You can hear an overview of the discovery in this CNN news clip.

More in depth information on the project is available through this Georgia Southern University website.

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Booth Family Drama

Nora Titone’s My Thoughts Be Bloody (2010) provides an interesting new perspective on the Lincoln assassination.  Unlike most books on the topic, Nora begins with the colorful exodus of the Booth family patriarch, Junius Brutus Booth, from England in 1821.  Fleeing his first wife and a three-year old son back in London, Junius Brutus Booth sought to begin a new life in the United States with his mistress Mary Anne Holmes.  He would eventually sire ten children with Mary Anne, including Edwin and John Wilkes Booth.

The first portion of the book is largely devoted to the life of Junius Brutus Booth who was not only a Romantic in every sense of the word, he considered himself a pantheist and was fiercely vegetarian, but also a drunkard.  By doing so, Nora strives to illustrate the environment from which the president’s assassin emerged.

John Wilkes Booth was forced to live as a boy with great economic privation and shame as his father’s first wife found out about Mary Anne and moved to Baltimore expressly to taunt and expose her through the courts as an adulteress.  The first Mrs. Booth would follow the family around the city’s streets screaming “whore” at the family as they went about their daily chores.

Nora also exposes a Oedipal struggle of sorts between the father and his two most famous sons, Edwin and John Wilkes, which later metamorphosizes into a struggle between the two brothers.  Edwin was by all accounts the son who inherited his father’s theatrical talents while John Wilkes merely obtained his old clothing and stage props.  Yet John Wilkes refused to concede that he would forever be outshone by his older sibling.

By the time that Nora reaches the last chapter of the book and the fateful night of Lincoln’s death at Ford’s Theater, we are already prepared to see this horrendous tragedy as in fact another dramatic play in the struggle for ownership of the Booth name.  Through killing the president, she implies, John Wilkes did not so much seek to influence the southern cause as he did to win the struggle that began between him and his father and then continued with his older brother Edwin.

Hindsight suggests that John Wilkes won the contest that Nora outlines as his name remains far better known than that of his brother Edwin or his father.  The great tragedy, however, that becomes apparent in this book is that John Wilkes could no longer distinguish between life and life on stage.  The two had merged towards the end of his days into one tragicomic stream.

My only complaint with the work is how long it takes the narrative to begin.  In her quest for proper contextualization, Nora runs the risk of losing the reader in the early sections of the book.  Nonetheless it is refreshing to see that “well-researched” popular history is alive and well as a genre.  Here is a work that is both authoritative as well as fun to read once you get past the first 30 pages.  Who would have imagined that in killing the president John Wilkes was actually killing the image of his brother?

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Civil War POW Camp Discovered

Archaeologists have discovered a POW camp in southeastern Georgia that was briefly used to house Union soldiers.  Since they had to leave in a hurry to flee the advance of Sherman’s army, a lot of interesting artifacts were left behind.  If you’re interested, here’s a link to the article:

For those of you in Chicago.  We had a POW camp here as well in the Bronzeville area:  Camp Douglas.  It housed Confederate POWs.  No traces of the site itself remain.  It was built over years ago.  But a monument does exist at Oak Woods Cemetary to commemorate the many unknown dead from the camp, called Confederate Mound.


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