Creative legacy of the Civil War

Having just finished watching the entirety of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, I was struck by the vast amount of creativity it inspired. Indeed, the war itself still resonates today with meaning. Burns himself refers to it as “America’s Iliad“, the epic narrative of American history.

With the new art-form of photography developing through the Civil War, war reporters had a new means of bringing the war home to those living far from the battlefields. No longer were articles accompanied by sketchings, drawings or daguerrotypes, instead, real photographs could be included. But in addition to the shots of soldiers, ranks, and regiments came the terrible horrors of the war itself: images of corpses spread across the fields in a thousand different locations, in a thousand different ways, some known, others identities never to be discovered. Quick shallow graves were made by surviving soldiers or the townspeople nearby, the soldiers buried in land far from their homes. Lincoln dedicated Gettysburg Cemetery, Arlington was formed in Lee’s backyard, and national cemeteries were set up across many states to account for the hundreds of thousands of the dead.

Although initially morbidly captivated by these images, as the war dragged on, it seemed that people were no longer interested in seeing yet another image of a poor dying soldier, or a survivor on crutches with a newly amputated limb. The documentary contains a fascinating photograph of a greenhouse who glass wall is made from the original wet-plates of Civil War photography. Wetplates were used to develop photographs on, it served as the negative. Battles and soldiers peer out from tiny glass plates across the greenhouse.

Walt Whitman was a great recorder for the time. He worked in some of the hospitals during the Civil War, exposed to much of the suffering of the soldiers. His prose and poetry were filled with direct and subtle references to the war, and his writings are a wonderful source for seeking insight to the war beyond the military strategies and battles, and instead into the social and cultural changes that resulted during and after the war.

Once the war was over, commemoration began in America as it never had before. The end of the 19th century marked the highest rate of public monument production. Practically every town square that was involved in the war constructed a monument for the men and boys they lost, and those that fought. Gravestone, monument, and stone companies in general made a good deal of business – so much so that some companies offered deals in which the face of a soldier statue could be modeled after individual men, if a photograph was provided! And as time passed and the direct memory of the varied causes of the war became murkier (slavery, states rights, the protection of the union, and countless personal reasons) one of the places in which nostalgia and memory held the most power was in cemeteries, whether large or small.

The Civil War had the most casualties of any American war (and still does). With so many dead, and often the cruel realities of retreat, rank seperation, or lack of manpower to sort through the dead, the “Unknown Soldier” became a familiar sight across many graves. Walt Whitman was haunted by such a sight, and the thousands who flock to places like Gettysburg and Arlington still are to this very day.

AS toilsome I wander’d Virginia’s woods,
To the music of rustling leaves, kick’d by my feet, (for ’twas autumn,)
I mark’d at the foot of a tree the grave of a soldier,
Mortally wounded he, and buried on the retreat, (easily all could I understand;)
The halt of a mid-day hour, when up! no time to lose—yet this sign left,
On a tablet scrawl’d and nail’d on the tree by the grave,
Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.

Long, long I muse, then on my way go wandering;
Many a changeful season to follow, and many a scene of life;
Yet at times through changeful season and scene, abrupt, alone, or in the crowded street,
Comes before me the unknown soldier’s grave—comes the inscription rude in Virginia’s woods,
Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.

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