Sunday, March 9, 2008

Kurz & Allison and Memory of Combat

As I was recently browsing Wikipedia's Civil War articles I noticed that they had many of the old Kurz & Allison prints posted in fairly high resolution. Now, I myself don’t “collect” Civil War art per se (a graduate student has more important things to budget for, unfortunately), but I do enjoy seeing how combat has been depicted by various artists at various times (up to and including the present). Think of it as a twist on the memory studies that have come to be prominent in our scholarship. The memory of Civil War combat.

Now, K&A, as I’m sure most of our readers are more than familiar produced these prints in the 1890s. I was always fascinated with how clean, heroic, uniformed, and generally fake they looked. It always astounded me – even as a child – how little these paintings seemed have anything to do with the chaos of combat. I had coloring books that were more authentic!

Of course, looking back now in a post-David Blight world, I can understand why a company in the heyday of the Reconciliation era, of the UCV and GAR reunions, of the establishment of the first battlefield parks would want to paint this picture of the war. Ordered lines of men, well-uniformed, heroically doing battle with one another, dying with arms outstretched to comrades in arms (on both sides). A clean war was a war that moved beyond the four years of carnage. A heroic war ignored the deep divisions over slavery and other issues that sparked the conflict (and were arguably still as unresolved in 1890 as they had been in 1860). Order and heroism could focus on the shared sacrifice of combat and yet not dwell on the harsh memories that could arise if the brutal facts of war were brought back up. Sectional reconciliation is easier with clean and honorable deaths rather than the reality of 20-year-old comrades being ripped to shreds by lead and steel. K&A prints were not what the Civil War was, but what the 1890s needed the Civil War to be.

All that having been said, looking back at K&A’s Chickamauga print, I have found a handful of “neat” little inclusions that are normally not K&A’s standard fare.

For once, K&A’s depictions of ridiculously close engagement ranges are actually appropriate. Soldier after soldier mentioned the extremely limited visibility in those woods (which, it should be pointed out, are noticeably missing from the print…so much for accuracy, eh?). Though the lack of forest is disturbing, it doesn’t completely distract.

For example, look at all the instances of troops fighting out of ranks, not standing, and generally “disorderly.” I’m really pleased with this little group of Federal soldiers in the foreground. There they are, behind some improvised breastworks of rocks and brush, kneeling and firing as Confederates assault the position. If they were going for a XIV corps troops dug in around the Kelly Field area on the 20th, then they’ve got the right idea. If you look to the man wounded in the head you can even see some bushes that are likely going to catch fire from the muzzle flashes above them. Also, neat to see US troops with blanket rolls. Were they giving a nod to that no-nonsense Western volunteer image (even if it comes complete with leggings)?

Compare that corner of the print to a photo of the 33rd Ohio’s monument at CCNMP (one of my favorites for getting an idea of how the battle looked), and you can see that K&A are actually not too far behind how the veterans themselves depicted the fighting.

We once more double shotted with canister and poured into them a murderous musketry fire… they threw themselves at full length on the ground, and, lying on their backs so as to expose themselves as little as possible they loaded their muskets, then turning over and resting on one knee they delivered their fire, then threw themselves on their backs to load as before. Our Infantry followed their example and for the next half hour an almost muzzle to muzzle (we were about fifty yards apart) musketry fire was maintained.
- Member of Battery I, 4th US Artillery

...and sure enough, we get these fellows on their bellies.

The citizens of today will doubtless wonder how any man could escape such a rain of shot and shell, but by the old soldier it is readily understood. While ninety per cent of these shots were being fired the men were lying flat on their faces and were overshooting each other when suddenly one or the other would spring to his feet and with a bound and a yell rush at a double-quick upon their foe, giving him time to fire one or at most two rounds when his ranks would be broken and compelled to retire.
- Lt. Lot D. Young, 4th KY (CS)

Maybe there’s more to good old Kurz & Allison than I ever gave them credit for. I know I’m certainly going to start looking deeper at what they got right before discounting them for what they “remembered” wrong. Buried under all the memory might just be a few nuggets of historical reality.


Daryl Black said...

I looked over my shoulder at the K&A version of the "Battle of Chattanooga". I am struck by a few things. First, the landscape is both compressed in space and generalized in nature. This is a familiar trope in K&A prints. Compressing the narrative to an understandable scale seems to fit with much of the memory being generated during the late 19th century. The images seem to make the same move that so much of the literature does -- replace complexity and confusion with simple, comprehensible narratives that focus on the heroism of men on both sides. In the Battle of Chattanooga print you can pick out minor details that seem to point to some form of realism -- an artistic style that was out of favor in the late 19th century by the way -- a few rebels are seen in civilian clothes (though neat and clean) for example. But overall the image "works" to uphold the simplistic notion of what the war was about/like.

Second, as with most K&A prints this one represents landscape with little reference to historical conditions. In the Battle of Chattanooga, the contestants fight amidst a broad open forest of Douglas Firs that appears almost parklike. This isn't really surprising in a time when increasing numbers of Americans were experiencing "nature" in "parks" or other constructed spaces.

Finally, the uniforms -- not even close. As with many of the K&A prints many of the rebel infantry wear uniforms trimmed in red. Now we could say "gee, the artist must have talked to some of the AOT veterans who wore red trimmed CD jackets". But I doubt it. The tone of the uniforms worn by both sides is decidedly late 19th century. Again, given the popularity of things manly and military in the late 19th century this self-referential move isn't that surprising.

Perhaps we can all put our heads together and pull together an article on the K&A images of the western campaigns.

Anonymous said...

I would beg to differ with regard to the "race angle." In several of their prints K&A did not depict a clean, white man's war. Have you seen the depiction of the Ft. Pillow Massacre? It's pretty brutal stuff. And unlike many of their white contemporaries K&A actually gave the Colored Troops their due, depicting them as brave, skillful soldiers in scenes depicting Ft. Wagner and Olustee.