- The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History with Documents
Presenting abstract academic topics such as the history and politics of memory in a manner that remains engaging in the classroom poses one of the biggest challenges for scholars and teachers. Thomas J. Brown's recent addition to Bedford/St. Martin's "Series in History and Culture," designed primarily for use in undergraduate courses, succeeds admirably in solving this problem. In a unique approach that combines aspects of an introductory history with those of a primary-source reader, Brown asks his audience to draw conclusions concerning the intersection of remembrance with themes such as politics, race, and gender after examining the excerpted speeches, newspaper articles, and photographs of monuments that follow each brief background section. The mix of succinct narrative prose and well-chosen historical documents allows Brown to demonstrate as much as elucidate the conflicted and changing nature of Civil War commemoration.
Brown divides his book into five case studies designed to highlight current scholarship in fields as diverse as the memory of the war's military figures, [End Page 111] gender studies, and African American history. In his first chapter, "The Citizen Soldier," Brown explores military service and the meaning of the war reflected in soldier monuments, memorial inscriptions, and dedication speeches. A section on "Women of the War" examines public depictions of women's service and sacrifice that reflect the changing nature of gender roles throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. "Robert E. Lee and the Lost Cause" and "Lincoln's Legacies" are treated in two separate chapters that examine the fluctuating reputations of two of the war's central figures with particular emphasis on the changing climate of racial politics. "Representative Regiment: The 54th Massachusetts" highlights that units' continuing importance in reminding the public of the role African Americans played in ending slavery and preserving the Union. Each chapter supplements Brown's introductory narrative with selected examples of commemorative artwork and oratory with accompanying "Questions for Consideration."
Brown's book is not intended to supplant previous scholarship on the topics he highlights. The advanced student of Civil War memory would do better to consult the work of David W. Blight, Gaines Foster, Gary W. Gallagher, Kirk Savage, Charles Reagan Wilson, and Thomas J. Brown's co-edited Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54 th Massachusetts Regiment (2001), among others. Nor does the book provide students with a definitive documentary reader. Though the scope of the book ranges from the immediate postwar period through the late 1990s, some topics and eras remain more fully documented than others. The debate presented in the first chapter between the NAACP and conservative columnist Charley Reese over public display of the Confederate flag, for example, is effective in highlighting the relevance of ongoing political conflict surrounding the memory of the war. None of the subsequent chapters, however, include contemporary documents to match it. Still, Brown's book provides a succinct introduction to the main themes in the scholarship of Civil War memory, points to sources for further reading, and serves as a handy resource by collecting in one place key excerpts some of the most useful primary source documents in the field.
Brown displays a judicious editorial eye in selecting both familiar and less often cited documents for inclusion. Some of the most well-known works of Civil War commemoration are given ample treatment, such as Augustus St. Gaudens's Shaw Memorial, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the "Soldier's Faith" by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Charles Francis Adams Jr.'s reconciliationist tribute to Robert E. Lee. More interesting and useful in the classroom, however, are the more obscure but revealing sources Brown includes. Clara Barton's address honoring the wartime service of female nurses [End Page 112] while chastising her audience of male Union veterans for assuming she opposed the growing women's rights movement says much about gender in the postwar era. A collection of newspaper reactions to the 1890 unveiling...