A People’s Conflict
There is an enigmatic quality to Eastman Johnson’s, The Girl I left Behind Me that cuts straight to the central mystery of the American Civil War. Viewing Johnson’s painting, we wonder what thoughts, feelings and memories motivate the melancholy young woman on his canvas. In equal measure, we are drawn to ponder the emotional sentiments of a society dedicated to liberty and union that proceeded to tear itself apart over the issues of slavery and secession.
The Civil War occurred 150 years ago. Despite the vast numbers of books and articles dedicated to analyzing America’s most tragic and violent era, there are still fundamental questions that remain to be answered.
In this concluding part of our Civil War 150 essay, we will focus on the war as a “people’s conflict.” The Civil War was fought in the hearts and minds of the American people as well as on the battlefields. It became part of their daily reality, seized control of their psychic and spiritual energies and in time defined the collective identity of all Americans.
The fighting and bloodshed of the Civil War may have stopped when Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant clasped hands in reconciliation at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. The emotional struggle, however, continued for decades and in many an American heart still rages.
The American Civil War was not a war we left behind us.
Who then is this young woman with wind-blown hair and a “far away” look in her eyes? Johnson’s painting is one of the key works on display in the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Civil War and American Art. The title of Johnson’s work refers to the 18th century Irish ballad that the military bands of the British Army played as Wellington’s troops marched-off to fight Napoleon at Waterloo. The Girl I Left Behind Me was adopted by both the Union and Confederacy as a rousing send-off for the “Boys of 61.”
On the surface, Eastman’s The Girl I Left Behind Me may appear to have no connection with the Civil War. With her streaming hair and billowing cloak, the protagonist of this painting might just be a school girl late for class or the heroine of romantic novel. Don’t be deceived. Look closely at the ring finger of her left hand. The gold band identifies her as a young widow or the betrothed of a fallen soldier in the Civil War. Eastman’s The Girl I Left Behind Me is the portrait of the lost happiness of this tragic young woman and of so many of her generation.
As guides to comprehending the lived experience of the 1861-65 war, the paintings in the Metropolitan exhibition and the photographs in the related exhibit, Photography and the American Civil War, are a remarkable visual testament. So too is the new book, The Civil War in 50 Objects, which closely examines a wide-range of period artifacts – uniforms and military gear, diaries and documents, school books and satirical prints – all from the collection of the New-York Historical Society. The actual artifacts discussed by historian Harold Holzer in the book will be on view at the New-York Historical Society over the summer months. These “50 Objects” will be shown in rotating displays, rather than in one exhibit.
The Metropolitan Museum exhibits and The Civil War in 50 Objects brilliantly complement each other at numerous points. The great evocation of soldier life, Home, Sweat Home by Winslow Homer can best be appreciated by reading the diary of Union soldier, William Rothert. A nineteen-year-old New Yorker, Rothert enlisted in one of the colorfully-clad Zouave regiments. He recorded his experiences in a small leather-bound volume which is one of the “50 Objects” from the New-York Historical Society.
The boredom and fatigue that mark Winslow Homer’s Billy Yank, is relieved in the painting by such “homey” details as the pot of coffee boiling on a small campfire and the military band practicing in the background. Here are a couple of matching entries from Rothert’s diary early in 1862. At the time, Rothert was on duty with a joint U.S. Army-Navy amphibious operation on the coast of North Carolina:
Friday Jan. 24 Rain the company had to go after wood in all the rain and we got pretty well soaked there are 25 gun boats over the swash now [.] It is reported that 8 drowned Zouaves belonging to the 53 Regt were picked up on the bea[ch.]
Monday Feb 3. Warm Rainy We packed up this morning and marched to the Fort where we took the boat “Union” which took us over the swash to Ferry Boat “Eagle” where our quarters were in the horse road no coffee nor tea
Rothert’s experience of war entered a new phase when he took part in a major engagement on February 8, 1862, in which he glimpsed sights “very sickening to behold.” This was the true nature of war. Tedium one day, terror the next. The smell of frying bacon on February 2nd. The nauseating stench of dead bodies on February 8.
Rothert’s diary and Homer’s Home, Sweat Home underscore the normalization of war. What seemed so remarkable in the early phases of the conflict were later shrugged-off or kept at emotional arm’s length. Even in wartime, life must go on – until a bullet or a bout of camp fever strikes home.
On September 17, 1862, William Rothert of Company D, 9th New York Volunteer Regiment, was killed in action at the Battle of Antietam.
Rothert died in a battle that President Lincoln chose to regard as a Union victory. A few days after Antietam, on September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the official act to take effect on January 1, 1863. Both Rothert’s sacrificial death and the Emancipation Proclamation were briefly, if terrifyingly, menaced by two events that took place in July 1863. The first was the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. Ten days later, the worst domestic violence in U.S. history, the New York City Draft Riots, broke out. The riots were sparked by outrage against military conscription, wealthy citizens in the North being able to hire substitutes to take their place in the ranks. The social protest quickly escalated to the level of an armed insurrection. An estimated 120-150 people were killed, many of them African-Americans, who were brutally murdered.
The most notorious atrocity of the Draft Riots was the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum, located on 5th Ave and 43rd street. Of the “50 Objects” from the New-York Historical Society, none is more poignant than a charred Bible from the Colored Orphan Asylum, “the sole, improbable artifact to endure the sacking and destruction of the orphanage.” Fortunately, all the children were evacuated, saved in part by the efforts of a handful of Irish transport workers. This act of courage and humanity is proof that Divine Providence works in strange ways since the mob that burned the orphanage and lynched any African-Americans they could lay hands upon was largely composed of Irish immigrants.
Of all the accounts of the terrible “July Days” of the New York Draft Riots, none matches the intensity, insight and invective of the diary of George Templeton Strong. Strong’s diary is another of the “50 Objects” from the New-York Historical Society. A lengthy excerpt of Strong’s first-person account of the Draft Riots appears in the anthology of Civil War writings published by the Library of America, The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It. Covering the events from January 1863 to March 1864, this third in a series of eyewitness accounts of the Civil War is essential reading for anyone who wishes to fully appreciate this “people’s conflict.”
George Templeton Strong’s opinions lived up to his name. A staunch Republican lawyer, Strong wrote with compassion of the African-American victims of the riot and with scathing condemnation of the politicians who failed to take timely measures to defuse the violence.
Strong wrote in his diary for July 16, 1863 that he never “knew exasperation so intense, unqualified, and general as that which prevails against these rioters and the politic knaves who are supposed to have set them going…” And then, in an amazing moment of soul-baring anguish, he declared:
Every impression that’s made on our people passes away so soon, almost as if stamped on the sand of the sea-beach. Were our moods a little less fleeting, I should have great hope of permanent good from the general wrath these outrages have provoked… But we shall forget all about it before next November. Perhaps the lesson of the last four days is to be taught us still more emphatically, and we have got to be worse before we are better. It is not clear that the resources of the conspiracy are yet exhausted. The rioters of yesterday were better armed and organized than those of Monday, and their inaction today may possibly be meant to throw us off our guard, or their time may be employed perfecting plans for a campaign of plundering and brutality in yet greater force… It is a grave business, a jacquerie that must be put down by heroic doses of lead and steel.
The Civil War was a “people’s conflict” that spared no one, North or South. But for the nation’s African-American population, the Civil War was a life-or-death struggle of unparalleled magnitude.
Eastman Johnson painted an epic work embodying the courage of desperation that marked the African-American experience of the Civil War. A Ride for Liberty — The Fugitive Slaves, painted in 1862, evokes the grand sweep of Romanticism, the prevailing mode of thought and expression of Civil War America. But more importantly, Johnson makes clear that African-Americans were not passive recipients of freedom from the hand of Father Abraham or the Union Army. They were also agents of their own destiny.
A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves is an exceptional painting. But most of the other Civil War-themed paintings and illustrations of any merit were created after the end of the war.
Winslow Homer’s Prisoners from the Front, completed in 1866, is a case in point. Homer had served as a war artist with the Army of the Potomac and this notable work bears the imprint of his experience of the war. Although the Union officer can be identified as Brigadier General Francis Barlow (1834-1896), all of the figures are archetypes. Barlow, the citizen soldier, confronts a Confederate cavalier and the “poor whites” of the South who fought and died to preserve the “Peculiar Institution.” But for all its many merits, Prisoners from the Front is too carefully staged to reflect the raw, visceral feeling of the Civil War. Fortunately, another form of artistic expression, invented less than three decades earlier, was available to record the “real war.”
The most remarkable art works produced between 1861-65 were photographs. The amazing intensity of feeling of Civil War photos invites comparison with television during the early 1950’s. The photographs of Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardiner, like Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now, achieved a blaze of creative glory before the ground rules of the art form had been set-down in an “official” format.
Civil War photographers, like James F. Gibson, who took this unforgettable group portrait of escaped slaves at Cumberland Landing, Virginia, in 1862, left an indelible record of their times. In the case of this photo, available on the Library of Congress digital site, we behold the face of “Jubilo.” This was the moment of liberation for African-Americans who had freed themselves. The whole range of emotions summoned forth by the turmoil of the war is etched into the expressions of these brave people, resilience and hope, suspicion and fear. If Eastman Johnson’s A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves evokes the romantic spirit of the 1860’s, this photograph captures the exact reality of the Civil War years.
So too does another photo from the Library of Congress site, one of an astonishing array of vintage portrait photographs that were amassed by Tom Liljenquist and his sons, Jason, Brandon, and Christian, and then donated to the Library of Congress, beginning in 2010.
The heart of the Liljenquist collection is the more than 600 original ambrotypes and tintypes. These photographs, though professionally taken, are a great example of American Folk Art. The simplicity and direct focus of these images carefully avoids all of the pretense and posturing of so much of the officially sanctioned art of the time. There are no allegories of Republican virtue here, no virginal Miss Liberty with a flaming sword and a star-spangled shield.
Instead, we have a little girl, clad in mourning for her dead father. This hand-colored tintype pierces the viewer’s heart with an intensity that a print by Currier & Ives could never match. Although the child is holding a portrait of her father, a Union cavalryman, that detail is insignificant. This little girl – and tens of thousands more – is a casualty of the Civil War as were the corpses at Gettysburg photographed by Alexander Gardiner.
Black is the color of mourning, not blue or gray. But even where the distinction of rank and uniform can be made, on closer inspection, such details are of little moment. In Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field, we have to closely examine the picture to spot a dark blue Union soldier’s jacket. In truth, the protagonist in his slouch hat might just as well be one of “Lee’s Miserables,” paroled after the surrender at Appomattox, as a Union soldier from the armies of Grant and Sherman.
Homer’s Veteran embodies the “Grim Reaper,” whose scythe harvested human lives, Union and Confederate alike, making orphans of children on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. That really is all that can be said, at least for now, of why Americans resorted to violence to resolve differences, including slavery, that could have been handled in more humane and rational ways. The social continuities and shared expectations of Americans should have withstood the calls for secession and war.
But they did not.
Perhaps Civil War 150 will promote a greater insight into the causes of the 1861-65 war. Perhaps, if we as Americans can achieve a greater sense of identity as a people, “from the many – one,” we will find an answer to the Civil War at last.
The spirit of the Civil War dead may well be our guides in this quest. As I planned this essay, my wife and I visited a cemetery near our home in Philadelphia. There is a wonderful monument to Union troops there, which my wife photographed and which appeared in the first part of the essay.
While we were there, we came across another monument to one who had died in the war, a local Philadelphia woman named Hetty Jones. She had gone to nurse the sick at the vast Union base at City Point, Virginia, and there she died herself in December 1864.
My wife and I were greatly moved and not a little astonished. We had visited Leverington Cemetery numerous times and yet here was the resting place of a person who had paid “the last full measure” in the service of her country and the noble cause of freedom. Here was a person who had lived and died 150 years ago for our behalf. Here beneath our feet is “hallowed ground” as sacred as can be found on the field of Gettysburg.
Related Art Exhibitions
Photography and the American Civil War April 2-September 2, 2013 The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York, NY 10028
The Civil War and American Art May 27-September 2, 2013 2013 The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York, NY 10028
The Civil War: the Third Year Told by Those who Lived It. Edited by Brooks D. Simpson (The Library of America/905 pages)
Donn Piatt, Gadfly of the Gilded Age. By Peter Bridges (Kent State University Press/320 Pages)
Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction by Allen C. Guelzo (Oxford University Press/576 pages)
Gettysburg, The Last Invasion by Allen C. Guelzo (Knopf/688 pages)
The Civil War in 50 Objects. By Harold Holzer and the New-York Historical Society (Viking/380 pages)
The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South. By Bruce Levine (Random House/464 pages)
The Battle Hymn of the Republic: a Biography of the Song that Marches On. By John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis (Oxford University Press/392 pages)
Lincoln’s Code: the Laws of War in American History by John Fabian Witt (Free Press/498 pages)