Thursday, November 6, 2008

Historical Fiction and the Civil War

Two recent events here at UK (trying now to put effigies aside) have got me thinking about the role of historical fiction and the Civil War. A couple of weeks ago, University of Georgia emeritus Dr. Charles Hudson gave a talk on the role of historical fiction in illuminating the often obscure world of Indians in the pre-white-contact South. An anthropologist by training, Hudson uses fictionalized dialogues between Spanish priests and Scottish backwoodsmen and the Indians whom each encountered (the Coosa in the first instance and the Cherokee in the latter). Hudson argued that historical fiction can fill in gaps in the historical, anthropological, and archaeological record, allowing a skilled author to illuminate a "history of a far older South" than the one normally associated with the Civil War era.

I relate this to understanding the Civil War because, well, I relate everyhting to the study of the war. But the real catalyst was that my US History to 1865 classes are reading The Killer Angels, perhaps the most popular piece of Civil War fiction and certainly so in the latter twentieth century. Not having read Shaara for a few years, I was struck at his characterization of North and South when I went back over it recently. Of the Army of Northern Virginia he writes, "It is Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Though there are many men who cannot read or write, they all speak English. They share common customs and a common faith..." The Army of the Potomac, on the other hand, "is a strange new kind of army, a polyglot mass of vastly dissimilar men, fighting for union. There are strange accents and strange religions and many who do not speak English at all. Nothing like this army has been seen upon the planet."

But is that correct? Is that a fair assesment of the armies? Would Joseph Glatthaar agree with Sharra's assertions? I don't think history supports these generalizations. The bigger question is: what happens when historical fiction no longer patches a skeletal documentary record, but contradicts scholarly understanding of the past? Hudson spoke to this during the Q&A. As the fiction is built upon the bedrock of scholarship, he said, when the understanding of the past changes, the "truth" of the fiction must therefore change.

But at the same time, as a work of art, of literature, historical fiction endures as a representation of the era that produced it. Hudson read a selection from one of his books, relating the story of the burial of the two stone idols at Etowah. He explicitly, he said, moved away from the documentable theories on their destruction and spun a mythological tale through the narration of The Raven, a Coosa priest. The Coosa, Hudson said, would not have remembered an academic analysis of the socio-political upheaval that caused them to abandon their gods, but would have instead remembered the emotion of it, the story of it, through their oral tradition. His brand of social anthropology which seeks to understand people as they understand themselves -- not as they are understood by others -- produces more of an impressionistic watercolor than a high-def photograph.

So too, I think, with Civil War memory. Postbellum generations of Americans (Northern and Southern) remembered the emotion, the feeling, the watercolor rather than the hard details which are being born out through historical research. So, then, is the study of Civil War memory history or anthropology? Art history? What does an 1880s memoir or a 1920s work of history tell us more about: the Civil War it discusses or the ways in which later peoples understand thier world and their past? Does the fact that The Killer Angels mischaracterizes the warring armies diminish its value? Or does the fact that it struck a chord in American society reflect its "truth" as percieved by many Americans? Which is more real today: historical reality or modern perception of reality? Which will prompt people to act? Do historians have a duty only to observe this cultural phenomenon or to realign the perception?

My classes will have the option to write on this theme in a short paper, and I'll be interested to see their responses. In the meanwhile, I'd love to hear any of your own.


Jubilo said...

Dear Sir ,
Perhaps you should read "Melting Pot Soldiers," for an appraisal of ethnic groups in the Civil War. Since the North had the majority of immigrants , many non-Protestant, I do not see what you object to. Lee's army had Catholics and Jews and immigrants but was overwhelmingly Protestant and native-born , if more of a "British Isles " mixture than not. The novels of Howard Barth can certainly bear some scrutiny as well.
cordially ,
David Corbett

Patrick Lewis said...


I'm not denying the role of ethnic soldiers in the Union army. However, in the wake of recent political rhetoric on "real America," the Anglo-Saxon vs. Polyglot Mass characterizations struck me as an attempt to make the Confederate army seem more "American" than the United States Army. I think many a former Know-Nothing in Union blue would have wholeheartedly objected to that. The Confederates are overgeneralized -- "all" are WASPs, "all" speak English -- while Union soldiers are denied any sort of cohesion or connection to the modern group most concerned with the Civil War (and especially so when the book was written), WASP men. The reader, I fear, is more likely to identify and sympathize with the group that sounds more like himself.

So what, is that a bad thing? Personally, I am trained to be wary of and point out bias, especially when it paints an overly-simplistic and often overly-Romantic portrait of one group or the other. I see this most often in Confederate apologetics, though the "Union soldiers = abolitionists" line of thought is equally guilty. (Chandra Manning's article a few months back in North & South dealt with this well)

The point is, I am wary of emotion wedging its way into our understanding of the past and harming objectivity. My field values understanding through "knowing" a subject rather than "feeling" it.

Lee White said...

"It is Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Though there are many men who cannot read or write, they all speak English. They share common customs and a common faith..." is the key phrase here, ALL. I wonder what would have been thought of the 14th Louisiana? As to the shared faith, also what about those youngsters of the first round who really were'nt that religious at all?