Cartoons, Historiography, and Art, oh my

This particular post focuses on a number of different points made between Thursday July 12 and Monday July 16 during our NEH Summer Institute on Visual Culture of the Civil War.

At the Newark Museum, Josh Brown discussed the transformation of cartoons during the period and focused on two images in particular that covered questions of universal freedom, one constitution, and one destiny.  Where was the country headed?  Was it to something like Kimmel and Forster’s heavily caricatured “The Miscegenation Ball,”  or somewhere else?  The same artist who produced the previous piece, also made “The end of the Rebellion in the United States,” and this image does not portray African Americans in the same manner at all, so where was the nation headed in its views?

Brown presented us with thought about how to take apart images and portrayals of a specific event as it possible relates to the questions above – he chose the draft riots in New York City of 1863.  The riots were covered in great detail – eg, illustrations from London as well as all the New York papers.  By examining one notorious incident deeply, we can start to examine questions such as how much of this is eyewitness accounts, how much is constructed, how much is memoir, etc.  What do these images show?  It may show victims and powerlessness but such images are bracketed by views that preceded and followed the events of the riots portraying people, particularly African Americans, in a more positive, powerful light.


Bruce Levine, spoke to us on the topic of “Not Your Grand-Daddy’s Civil War: Recent Trends in Civil War Historiography.” As Levine pointed out, there is a veritable cornucopia of Civil War writing and therefore it is difficult to keep up with all of the material. Levine suggested that a good book to start with, thought it is getting a bit dated, is Writing the Civil War by James McPherson and William Cooper. In addition, The Journal of the Civil War Era, published by University of North Carolina Press and available with an online supplement, is another good source.

Over time , areas of research have included topics such as technology and relation to strategy and tactics, guerilla warfare, the role of union navy, ethnicity and the war, women, gender, life on the two home fronts, literature on Lincoln (policies, ideas, etc), ethnic regional identity, nationalism, race, racism and whiteness, international comparisons (national unification, ending slavery in Russia, etc.), relating civil war to environment, state of medicine, and most recently, examining how the country remembers the war (see Kevin Levin’s blog Civil War Memory).

Levine asked us to think about other questions we might consider. For example, what do we make of racism remaining strong in north and south in the war’s immediate AND long term aftermath? What does the war tell us about various beliefs in terms of gender? How did the beliefs of governments and their populations in other countries shape the war itself? Did the government change tremendously as a result?

Recent work has told us less about how and to what degree a strong and specifically anti-slavery segment grew in the first half of the 19th century – he asked, could more can be done here? There should be much more work on Native Americans and how the war intervened within their socieities, more on politics in the union on local and state levels, more work on border slave states and their leaders. Oddly, despite many books on campaigns, generals, etc., there remains a need for high quality military history. For example, we need a military history of reconstruction – an idea I found particularly interesting in light of our nation’s role as “occupiers” in the twentieth and twenty-first century.

Finally, Levine traced how scholarly explanations have changed somewhat over time from the 1920s through the more recent past. While he focused on one particular argument that emerged in the past and has re-emerged (the necessity of the war), I would have liked to have spent a bit more time on the interesting questions Levine raised that are listed above.

The Met with Sarah Burns
On Friday , we headed over to the Metropolitan museum of art with Pr. Sarah Burns to take a closer look at several paintings we had discussed.  While our first stop was a Lily Martin Spencer, it was “Prisoners from the Front” by Winslow Homer where we spent the most time initially.  In this piece, it is the losers who are the central focus, not the victorious, commanding officer.  The figures are “typed” so viewers can understand who everyone is more clearly.  The aristocratic pose by the main prisoner and his overall appearance indicates class, while the rustic, aged soldier suggests problems of the Southern army.  This oldest prisoner  looks resigned and apprehensive while perhaps submissive too.  The last is a country boy, and perhaps Homer is having a bit of fun with us as he might be the same figure from “Defiance.”  The hat on his head is riddled with bullet holes, inviting further comparison with that painting.

The Union guard appears very “lead soldier like;” is he meant to appear to be somewhat unfinished as if the war is not quite done?  Homer takes the time to indicate a specific unit of these soldiers and it is typically that unit that he paints into his works.  In the foreground, there are cast down guns and some Georgia pine branches underneath; one of our number pointed out that Georgia pines are trampled under Sherman’s  horse in a statue.  Ultimately though, while there is a face off portrayed in the painting, there is no real visible struggle – perhaps this is why a critic called it “true historical” art?

“The Veteran in A New Field,” we have discussed already, but there are a few additional observations to be made when looking at the original.  The uniform jacket in the lower right corner, along with the canteen atop it are markers for us to recognize that the painting contains a veteran figure.  Questions we discussed and considered –

  • Can he show his back because he is not under threat?
  • Is it indicative of a theme like beating swords into plowshares?
  • Is it possibly an elegy for the death of Lincoln?
  • Is there a grim reaper analogy?
  • Is he perhaps the sharpshooter from and earlier Homer piece completed during the war?

Critics at the time suggested that the painting was both healthful and manly yet somewhat slapdash in manner.  For example, Homer painted the cradle off to the side and the wheat appears disorganized.  One of our number pointed out that the painting reveals three different plains – air, the living field, and the crop lying askew, lending the piece an allegorical, not realistic bent.  As always, seeing these pieces in front of us has made the experience all the richer.

Homer’s “Dressing for the Carnival,” located in the same room  was originally titled “Fourth of July, Virginia.”  Initially, the piece was dismissed as a humorous portrait of negro life in the postwar southern states.  Instead, the piece evokes a lot of deeper meaning about life in the Reconstruction south.  Are these former slaves engaged in preparing for Jonkonnu when slaves left their own quarters to dance at the master’s dwelling?  The colors being sewn onto the male figure evoke some aspects of African culture – despite the male being made into a festive type character in the costume, there is an earnestness about how the women approach their work.

Sitting with Hovenden

Also in the room is one of my favorite John Brown paintings, a piece by Thomas Hovenden.  “The Last Moments of John Brown” was completed in the 1880s and contains no fewer than seven African American figures in the painting including the iconic babe in arms receiving the kiss of the doomed Brown.  The focus is on Brown as he descends the steps.  Most figures peer at him or in some cases push towards him; the soldiers hold some people back, but in a subtle manner.

I believe Brown’s arms are somewhat bound so as to limit freedom – I wonder if this was actually the case in 1859, because he was, by most accounts, accepting his fate.  The painting is quite large (77″ X 66″) and I wonder why?  What was its intended audience?  Was Hovenden calling to mind the forgotten issues of the war?  The piece was commissioned by Robbins Battell long after the hanging and even after formal reconstruction has ceased.  Finally, a colleague at the institute shared with me that Hovenden was married to a daughter of abolitionists – she grew up in PA perhaps a stop on the underground railroad – so perhaps all of these factors combined to result in the creation of the piece.

I have used this image in my classroom for a number of years in concert with other John Brown images ranging from photographs to other paintings t0 modern portrayals for advertising and in connection with sporting events.  Discussing the evolving images of John Brown alongside reading primary documents connected to his life and actions has made this particular aspect of history come alive more for my students.


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