the Civil War through the Arts
By Emma Walton
Since the dramatic ending of what many Americans consider the
greatest tragedy more than 150 years ago, the Civil War has remained
incredibly at the forefront of national history and heritage,
particularly in the pivotal southern and northern states where many of
the battles took place. Towns up and down the eastern parts of the US
from New York to Atlanta and further inland partially base their merit
on the stake they played during the War, and while many of these
celebrate a strong sense of pride and even nostalgia, without a doubt
there is a tremendous sense of a scarred and troubled past where
generations have struggled to overcome the political, social, cultural,
and psychological wounds of pitching brother against brother and sister
Even today and particularly in the South, there lingers a strong sense of injustice. Memorials, museums, and even within the private collection of homes where relics have passed from generation to generation carry with them an element of the personal which eludes many other traces of history. The Civil War has never truly ended; bloodlines have passed the grieving onto their descendants, and even for those not as emotionally affected, there is an almost irresistible draw towards it. We still see major motion pictures and best-selling novels alluding back to the era even if not engaged with it directly, not to mention numerous documentaries (such as the PBS film by Ken Burns) and re-enactments. People traveling to the US may question why, nearly two centuries later, there is this immense fixation with the Civil War, but the answer partly lies in the tales, songs, and sagas crafted, composed and created in response to the Civil War itself; as a nation, America is still healing.
Presence in Literature
Part of this is because like the World Wars, there is an urgency never to make the same mistake again, to pray "Lest We Forget" and to hope that the nation will not turn on itself again. Arguably, the Civil War continues to take place but on a very different scale, behind closed doors and within the offices of the Government, but that is a whole other issue. There continues to be a significant interest in what took place from 1861 to 1865, and is demonstrated throughout its place in the education system, programs at post-secondary institutions and the sheer wealth of literature available to study and discover different perspectives of the time. Not only do these studies provide a remarkable amount of information, but emphasize the point that the War has been fairly successfully documented given that it occurred so long ago before the advancements of modern technology. Part of this is by virtue of old photographs and written logs from commanding officers as well as well-preserved artifacts in museums and in private collections, but also because of the massive movement it spurred in literature and the arts. From the revolutionary poetry of Walt Whitman to the eerie coldness of Ambrose Bierce's prose, the Civil War becomes more than a major historical event, but a sociological trauma, almost a state of being, for which people continue to ask why and how.
Looking for Answers
Perhaps this is why, alongside its incredible potential for compelling narratives, heroic characters and tragic plot twists, it continues to be so resonant among a good portion of the general public. Not only this, but there remains a strong after-taste of injustice among those whose families fought in the Civil War so many years ago; many Southerners protest that the War wasn't about slavery, but about dependence, and being overtaxed by the Union. Some may even argue that the media continues to portray the South in a negative light because of this, while slavery to some degree occurred in the northern states as well with other immigrants like the Irish and Native Americans in New York. Certainly, even free states harbored a large amount of discrimination, spreading as far northwest as Oregon which implemented horrendous exclusion laws against the African-American community.
Perhaps through literature, and media, the US is finding a way to cope with the wound which festered and never completely healed in history, that through the work of writers, artists, painters, poets, film-makers, musicians, and composers both new and old, the continued exploration of the Civil War as creative material will not only help to reveal new ideas and perspective of what happened, but help America to heal as a nation.