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Looks Like Fun! and Other Civil War-Related Problems

August 31st, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

The problem with reenacting, I wrote earlier today, is that you’re supposed to enjoy it. You’re supposed to enjoy doing it and to enjoy watching it. And for an exercise designed to bring one closer to war, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Turns out that this was precisely the critique some critics made of the popular Civil War historian Bruce Catton, whose books I grew up reading. (And reading and reading.) This is from David W. Blight’s excellent new book American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era:

A formula for enjoying the war: although Catton himself denied this accusation in numerous forums, legions of devotees who came of age reading his books or who discovered them in their mature years experienced a vicarious, if ennobling pleasure—sometimes guilty and often not—in learning about the war. They came to “love” the Civil War in an age when war, with its unfathomable destructiveness, was no longer lovable. Catton offered them young heroes fighting for what they considered right, and willing to sacrifice their lives for something larger than themselves—a story with particular resonance in the Cold War era of inhumane, push-button weapons of mass destruction. His appeal and success in conveying the human face of war were so great that to some commentators his name became a verb. The frequent New York Times book reviewer Charles Poore snidely remarked in 1962 that the appeal of Civil War Centennial books may have flattened a bit. “Although many new books about the Gray and the Blue appear, few, these days, achieve brucecattonizing appraisal.”

Blight is remarkably evenhanded with Catton, I think, but finds the writer’s blind spot with regards to race to be worth noting:

Catton, it seems, loved to play with notions of “destiny” and “fate” and triumphal “progress.” In an address in Schenectady, New York, in 1956, with nary a hint of irony, he tried to speak for the whole happy land. “We,” he boldly announced, “have always had the feeling that life in America began to the sound of trumpets. Somewhere behind us we feel there was a golden dawn.” One wonders if Catton’s adoring white audiences at these gatherings, some of whom were veterans of the World Wars, understood just what he may have meant by such rhetoric. Some mixture of a little bit of intellect, nationalism, and spirituality went a long way in Cold War America. The doctrine of progress, bone marrow to American civil religion, needed history, especially the Civil War, on its side now that the Russians had the A-bomb too. And no one likely asked the mother of the murdered boy Emmett Till, or the Little Rock Nine, or the weary, sore-footed women who held together the Montgomery Bus Boycott whether they felt part of Catton’s “heaven-sent mystery” or his Civil War–induced, all-encompassing “we.”

IMAGE: Charge at Trevilian Station by Mort Kuntsler; for an interesting take on the perils of Civil War art, see this post on Robert Moore’s Cenantua blog

Tags: Virginia History · Visual History

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