Civil War scholars challenge views

Peter Gillette

“New Approaches to the Civil War: An Interdisciplinary Symposium” brought three prominent scholars to the Lawrence campus. The event was an interdepartmental effort that exposed the Lawrence community to some of the foremost thinking on the subject.
The theme of the symposium centered on the effect of imagery on our conception of the Civil War. Analyses of photos, monuments, literary texts, and historical documents formed the core of the experts’ presentations.
Yale historian David Blight delivered the preliminary presentation, entitled “Has Civil War Memory United or Divided America?” Blight gave insight into the process of our nation’s memory of the war in conjunction with its reunification. He argued that memory did indeed unify the U.S., but at great expense to our social and racial relations.
Following Blight was Professor Franny Nudelman of the University of Virginia. Her speech, “Guilty Land: Black Soldiers, Military Discipline, and the Wartime State,” explored the role of masculinity and power in the Civil War. Specifically, Nudelman analyzed the execution of soldiers and drew attention to the differences between the treatment of black and white soldiers.
University of Pittsburgh professor Kirk Savage brought the affronting images of the war to light in his discourse, “Civil War Photography and the Vilification of the Male Body.” Savage confronted controversial issues of culture and gender roles, daring the audience to analyze their own reactions within an historical perspective.
A public roundtable discussion brought the event to its close. Lawrence professors Barrett, Boylan, and Podair posed questions to and engaged their visiting counterparts in a dialogue on the state of contemporary Civil War studies.
The discussion veered into topics ranging from the recent proliferation of “national” Civil War museums, the place of public history in the understanding of the Civil War, and the sadistic stream within American images.
Nudelman argued that to alter the culture of violence, we ought to “displace the Civil War as the central, organizing myth [of American history].”
The forum’s final question, posed by Barrett, considered the effect of 9-11 upon Civil War studies, and drew a complaint from an audience member who felt that the two events are totally unrelated.
That lack of relation, however, is not apparent to many Americans, and that seemed to be the theme of the panelists’ answers: Savage mentioned that the Gettysburg address was read at Ground Zero on the anniversary, even though the circumstances of Gettysburg and 9-11 could hardly be more dissimilar.
Blight recently reviewed a new biography of John Brown, who was hanged in 1860 after trying to seize an armory in Harper’s Ferry; an act that was to start his plan of freeing slaves into motion.
The new biography calls Brown not a revolutionary but a terrorist. Spirited talkback from a crowd that had been listening for well over four hours seems to be the raison d’etre for an event like this, and there were a few more before the event drew to a close.
The final words of the conference, however, weren’t on Grant, Lee, photography, or even the Civil War, so much as they were about the contemporary climate. Arguing that the Gettysburg Address shouldn’t be grafted onto the war in Iraq, Blight inched close to the microphone for his parting shot at the difference between the contemporary situation and that of the Civil War: “Lincoln told the truth about why he went to war.