As the semster ends, my intro to U.S. history students are quickly approaching the Civil War. Last week we looked at two Mexican War-era lithographs depicting the death of Lt. Col. Henry Clay, jr. of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry at the battle of Buena Vista. I asked my students to think about these two images in light of 1) the potential political implications of each and 2) how warfare is depicted. They drew out some fantastic points, including:
- The most common reaction was to the American flag flying above the scene. It seems "extremely patriotic," one wrote.
- Continuing on this nationalist theme, some noticed that "American troops are in straight line & seem more organized, [with] more intricate uniforms." They linked these lines advancing under the flag to themes of the constant and "always advancing" progress of Manifest Destiny.
- Like many of the young men in uniform in Mexico, the students saw this image as a depiction of the heroism and glory of military service. "It shows the great leader dying an honorable death on the battlefield giving an inspiring quote to his officers, handing over his pistols." The inspiring quote, for those who can't make it out: "Leave me, save yourselves. Take these pistols to my father and tell him I have done all I can with them and now return them to him."
- Many linked Clay's drive to acquit himself well on the battlefield to the expectations of manhood and honor, some even to Clay jr's attempt to "fill the shoes" of Clay sr. by "dying fighting for" the family reputation.
Discussion of the second image focused on the "otherization" (my word, not theirs) of the Mexican enemies. The enemy is "hostilely [sic] killing the man with little emotion/remorse." It tries to depict "defeat not by a noble enemy but by [a] barbaric people." They concluded that this encouraged Americans to fight against Mexican "barbarity," justified by God's providential designs for the U.S. carrying its civilization to the entire continent. ...or so Jimmy Polk might say.
- Discussions about the depiction of war in the second image versus the first were insightful, too. In contrast to the first lithograph where "the battle continues in the background...while the figures in front look peaceful," and Clay's grapeshot wound in the thigh is "unreal" "sanitized violence," the second image shows "disarray," and "chaos." Most concluded that the second image was more "blunt," even more "realistic," and shows warfare with "very little honor" indeed. In our class discussion we talked about how movies today serve many of the same purposes as these images did in the 1840s.
- Looking toward exam time, I was quite pleased to see the students pick up on some irony in the very fact of Clay jr's death. One noted that the Col. died "because of a border dispute [of which] Henry Clay [sr] didn't want to be a part...he felt it was unnecessary." Another found it "ironic b/c [ah, the age of text-speak!] Clay is always being defeated (1844 by Polk) & his son is portrayed being defeated." (That one's for you, Chris!)
All in all, a useful little assignment that the students got into. I asked them to relate these themes -- both the political implications of the debate over the spread of free soil/slavery into the West and the impact of images of war on young men of military age -- in relation to why men would enlist to fight in the Civil War. And we'll be there in just a couple weeks!