On Civil War History, Literature, and Popular Memory
ABP: During the 1990s, numerous historians took an interest in how popular memory of the Civil War had evolved in the decades after Appomattox. One result was that scholars grew increasingly interested in literary representations of the conflict. Do historians continue to be fascinated by imaginative writing about the war? Or has interest waned over the last several years?
C. REARDON: I think we’re still fascinated by imaginative representations of the past. The incorporation of “memory studies” into our understanding of the Civil War breathed some new life into a field that was getting a bit stagnant and seeking new interpretive lenses through which to view the past. One reason why I think poetry, songs, fictions, etc., about the war have become so interesting to us is because these sources were accessible to so many elements of the Civil War generation, military and civilian, victors and vanquished alike. Serious study of women and, especially, children during the war years owes much to our growing interest in poetry, schoolbooks, songs, and more. Serious exploration of such topics as death and separation and “the future” require us to look to sources that tap into emotions rather than reason. Indeed, all these sources provide great cultural “bridges” between homefront and front lines, and, as we learn to appreciate that the Civil War involved entire societies and not merely isolated armies, we need to continue to consider these sources for what they can tell us.
Still, at times, I have felt that we may getting a bit formulaic in our efforts; I sometimes worry that we might get a bit too tightly locked into writing about “[insert Civil War topic of your choice here] in history and memory.”
ABP: Alice Fahs and others have studied the popular fiction and poetry published during the war itself. Do historians tend to see wartime literature as more worthy of attention than postwar literature about the conflict?
C. REARDON: I think of wartime and postwar literature as equally compelling and equally worthy of historians’ consideration. It all depends on one’s research question. I’ve worked with two major events during the war years – Pickett’s Charge and Sherman’s March to the Sea – and, in both cases, I’ve needed both. The wartime literature – from newspapers to eulogies to guide books – set the baseline of wartime “knowledge,” or at least understanding. The postwar literature is absolutely necessary to demonstrating what elements of the original story remain in memory, which depart, which receive greater emphasis, which emerge later (and why were they hidden at the start?), and which are created from scratch later on with no basis in reality at all. (The perpetuation of the Pickett’s Charge image we tend to view as “history” today owes far more to postwar Lost Cause fiction writers than it did to most wartime writers.) Then the fun begins – determining why some things changed and others did not. What drove changes to the standard story, or additions to or deletions from it? Some social or political imperative? If so, what?
ABP: Are fictions about the war a useful tool for the historian, or an obstacle to the discovery of historical fact?
C. REARDON: I guess it depends on what kind of “historical fact” one seeks. I would never base my understanding of troop movements on a novel or a poem (although it’s been done). But fictions about the war are useful as alternative realities that speak to the authors’ own dreams and nightmares, and, as measured in sales, about the dreams and nightmares of the writer’s audience. The popularity of “Old South” themes in postwar Southern literature provided comfort and familiarity in a strange new world. The popularity of certain fictional works or individual novelists provides another way to inform our understanding of underlying social and political tensions in the postwar years.
ABP: Many postwar narratives by Civil War veterans, purportedly nonfiction, contain mythical and fictive elements. And then there are those “wartime” letters and diaries that were actually written after the war. (I am thinking, for example, of the published letters supposedly written by George E. Pickett to his wife, La Salle Corbell Pickett.) How can historians make practical use of historical documents that blend nonfiction and fiction in this way? Can any source be taken at face value?
C. REARDON: Items such as Sallie Pickett’s letters that blend fiction and nonfiction seamlessly and without letting a reader in on the author’s methods should not be used as a source for historical reality. Period. But they make great teaching tools for lessons about historical methodologies. Sallie Pickett’s letters, for instance, provide a whole series of exercises in source analysis. If George Pickett wrote a letter on 3 July 1863 in which he comments that the Union attack on Culp’s Hill that morning began when General Geary (misnamed as Gary) fired his pistol, it is reasonable to wonder how a Confederate general posted in the center of his line can know this level of detail about a very small event in the morning’s action on the far right flank of the Union line, well outside his line of sight and out of his corps area. That item was so insignificant that it did not get into the contemporary newspaper coverage of the battle. How could Pickett, that same day, know that the hill on the Union left flank was called “Little Round Top,” when nearly all after-action reports written after the battle generally gave it no name – or used local appellations such as “Sugar Loaf” or even “Champion Hill”? Can any source be taken at face value? No. Indeed, if one does not apply the basics of the historical method to each source one uses, then “history” is not the ultimate result.
ABP: This question is a follow-up to the last. What do myth-laden memoirs and regimental histories have in common with the more traditional forms of Civil War fiction: the short story and the novel?
C. REARDON: The authors of both kinds of literature have a story they want to tell. Authors of short stories and novels realize from the start that they are working in the realm of fiction, dealing with characters who never existed in real life or giving to actors on the historical stage thoughts, words, or deeds that they may not have considered, said, or done. On the other hand, many authors or compilers of memoirs or regimental histories assert quite strongly – usually in the preface – their commitment to “tell the truth.” That commitment lasts until the first uncomfortable or unflattering incident, and then equivocations begin to slip in. Often enough, though, these authors, editors or compilers are not guilty of a premeditated distortion of the past. Indeed, sometimes they are motivated by an honest desire to protect a colleague’s reputation, add a bit of color, promote one’s own state, promote regional tourism, or gently (or not so gently) slam a personal foe, or serve some other non-historical purpose.
ABP: You have written at length about the battle of Gettysburg. How has Civil War literature helped to shape popular memory of that battle?
C. REARDON: Nearly everyone who visits Gettysburg sees a photograph of two very old men, one in a blue suit and one in a gray suit, shaking hands across a stone wall. Its message is a powerful one: sectional ill-will is gone. We move forward as a nation reunited. Civil War literature turned Gettysburg into a central element of national reconciliation in the postwar years.
It didn’t start that way. The first print genre to preserve the story of Gettysburg were tour guidebooks. Their authors celebrated the Union victory and targeted a Northern audience. The first stirrings of a battlefield preservation movement resulted in the purchase of acreage in the Union line only. A Northerner, John Bachelder, endowed Gettysburg with the “high water mark of the Confederacy” appellation. The Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association that flourished in the 1880s went to great pains to encourage Northern veterans to visit the battlefield, erect regimental markers, and write up their accounts of the fighting. By contrast, only a few Southerners came to Gettysburg; it cost too much for many to travel there, and they had little incentive to visit the site of a major defeat.
That changed in the late 1880s, when the war’s silver anniversary helped to spawn a spirit of national reconciliation. What better place than Gettysburg to symbolize the end of sectional hostilities than to celebrate the battle where the nation’s future had hung in the balance (true or not)? The artistic outpouring – from novels to poems (some of it quite horrid), paintings, oratory, and music – from Southerners and Northerners alike during the 25- to 50-year anniversaries, cemented Gettysburg’s standing in national memory as the place where one nation could have become two, but did not. No other battle brought together such high risk, such drama from a Union defeat on Day One to a Union victory on Day Three, such great sacrifice by both winners and losers, and the two greatest sectional icons (both Lee and Lincoln). No other battlefield could have done this. Antietam almost could have done it, but the injection of race into that battle’s legacy – Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation just a few days later – could not have the same sectional appeal in the Jim Crow South.
ABP: As an expert on Pickett’s Charge, you must enjoy Faulkner’s famous passage from Intruder in the Dust, in which the speaker says that the Charge has meaning for “every southern boy fourteen years old.”
C. REARDON: I love that passage! Since I am a Pennsylvanian and since my academic roots are in the sciences, I really did not discover Faulkner and Southern literature until I started graduate school in history.
ABP: James McPherson has said that Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974) is his favorite novel about the Civil War. Do you have a favorite work of Civil War literature, and if so, why does it appeal to you especially?
C. REARDON: I have to admit that I have a special fondness for The Killer Angels, too. Indeed, I have used it in my Civil War class and my American military history class. Naturally, I am not using it as “history.” I do want my history majors to think about the elements of the book that are historically accurate, what parts are not, and – even more – I want them to think about the sources Shaara used to research his novel. Shaara’s sympathetic approach to General James Longstreet, for instance, stands at odds with nearly a century of Longstreet-bashing by partisans of the “marble man” image of Robert E. Lee. If Gettysburg was a Southern defeat, they would argue, then somebody – and that somebody could not be Lee – had to be held accountable. Lee had accepted blame himself, and as long as Lee lived, that was the accepted story. But after his death, Lost Cause authors blamed Longstreet for the defeat, removing from Lee the blame he had accepted as his own. If a student can learn to appreciate how this is not a book that Douglas Southall Freeman likely would embrace, then they have made a great intellectual step forward. The concept of historiography can scare off undergraduates, but it is easy to introduce it by asking, “Would someone who really admires Robert E. Lee like this book?”
I also like this novel because it drew to Gettysburg millions of people who otherwise might not have given that battle a second thought. Sure, not everything they take away from Shaara is 100% accurate, but oftentimes they learn enough from his novel to be inspired to make a visit to the battlefield, take a history walk with a park ranger, or read another book or two about the battle or its key leaders. Sooner or later, thoughtful readers will find discrepancies between what Shaara wrote and what they read or see on the battlefield, and they start asking questions, or read another book – or two! And once they learn to ask questions, watch out!
Another great benefit of this book (and all good fiction) is that the author makes readers genuinely care about and connect with the main characters. That can encourage folks to read a formal biography, too. It can backfire, though. The only fictional soldier in The Killer Angels is Private Buster Kilrain, who fell mortally wounded in the 20th Maine’s stand on Little Round Top. The monument that stands there today contains the names of the regiment’s dead. Naturally, Kilrain’s name is not there. On one visit, I saw a woman approach the marker, read the names, step back with a quizzical look on her face, and then quietly say, over and over, “He’s not here.” I thought perhaps she was looking for an ancestor’s name. I asked her if I could help, and she said: “Kilrain. He’s not here.” I explained that his name was not there because he was a fictional character, and, thus, he was not killed in the battle. I thought this would come as a relief, to know that someone had not died. Instead, she got angry. “How dare he make me care about somebody who never even existed?” she practically screamed. And she went off in a huff, saying she would never read another book.
Copyright © 2007
The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights