Creative legacy of the Civil War

Having just finished watching the entirety of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, I was struck by the vast amount of creativity it inspired. Indeed, the war itself still resonates today with meaning. Burns himself refers to it as “America’s Iliad“, the epic narrative of American history.

With the new art-form of photography developing through the Civil War, war reporters had a new means of bringing the war home to those living far from the battlefields. No longer were articles accompanied by sketchings, drawings or daguerrotypes, instead, real photographs could be included. But in addition to the shots of soldiers, ranks, and regiments came the terrible horrors of the war itself: images of corpses spread across the fields in a thousand different locations, in a thousand different ways, some known, others identities never to be discovered. Quick shallow graves were made by surviving soldiers or the townspeople nearby, the soldiers buried in land far from their homes. Lincoln dedicated Gettysburg Cemetery, Arlington was formed in Lee’s backyard, and national cemeteries were set up across many states to account for the hundreds of thousands of the dead.

Although initially morbidly captivated by these images, as the war dragged on, it seemed that people were no longer interested in seeing yet another image of a poor dying soldier, or a survivor on crutches with a newly amputated limb. The documentary contains a fascinating photograph of a greenhouse who glass wall is made from the original wet-plates of Civil War photography. Wetplates were used to develop photographs on, it served as the negative. Battles and soldiers peer out from tiny glass plates across the greenhouse.

Walt Whitman was a great recorder for the time. He worked in some of the hospitals during the Civil War, exposed to much of the suffering of the soldiers. His prose and poetry were filled with direct and subtle references to the war, and his writings are a wonderful source for seeking insight to the war beyond the military strategies and battles, and instead into the social and cultural changes that resulted during and after the war.

Once the war was over, commemoration began in America as it never had before. The end of the 19th century marked the highest rate of public monument production. Practically every town square that was involved in the war constructed a monument for the men and boys they lost, and those that fought. Gravestone, monument, and stone companies in general made a good deal of business – so much so that some companies offered deals in which the face of a soldier statue could be modeled after individual men, if a photograph was provided! And as time passed and the direct memory of the varied causes of the war became murkier (slavery, states rights, the protection of the union, and countless personal reasons) one of the places in which nostalgia and memory held the most power was in cemeteries, whether large or small.

The Civil War had the most casualties of any American war (and still does). With so many dead, and often the cruel realities of retreat, rank seperation, or lack of manpower to sort through the dead, the “Unknown Soldier” became a familiar sight across many graves. Walt Whitman was haunted by such a sight, and the thousands who flock to places like Gettysburg and Arlington still are to this very day.

AS toilsome I wander’d Virginia’s woods,
To the music of rustling leaves, kick’d by my feet, (for ’twas autumn,)
I mark’d at the foot of a tree the grave of a soldier,
Mortally wounded he, and buried on the retreat, (easily all could I understand;)
The halt of a mid-day hour, when up! no time to lose—yet this sign left,
On a tablet scrawl’d and nail’d on the tree by the grave,
Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.

Long, long I muse, then on my way go wandering;
Many a changeful season to follow, and many a scene of life;
Yet at times through changeful season and scene, abrupt, alone, or in the crowded street,
Comes before me the unknown soldier’s grave—comes the inscription rude in Virginia’s woods,
Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.

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Grave found at Dickenson homestead, Amherst, MA

Every time I visited UMass, we would often drive past Emily Dickinson’s homestead. She is one of my favorite poets, her imagery is beautiful and often stark and insightful. She is probably best known for her reclusiveness. She was born in 1830 and briefly attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley nearby, but left after a year due to homesickness. It wasn’t until her thirties that she began to live reclusively, but by that point she had amassed a group of friends and acquaintances to which she held vast correspondance with throughout her life, even if she chose to rarely leave her home. Scholars of Emily Dickinson look to these letters to reveal the personal life of this wonderful poet, and shy but productive human being. Dying in Amherst in 1886, her family discovered a huge collection of poetry (40 hand-bound collections with over 800 poems!). While she often wrote poetry in her letters to friends, she was never recongized during her lifetime as a poet. Several years after her death her first collection of poems were published, and she has since grown to international fame.

On Halloween of this year, it seems, workers doing landscaping at the Dickinson homestead (which is now a museum) uncovered a gravestone buried in the lawn. See the article here. It belongs to Thomas Gilbert, father of Susan Gilbert who was friends with Emily and later married her brother Austin. But it was puzzling at first – because Thomas Gilbert already has an ornate stone nearby in Amherst’s West Cemetery. It was soon sorted out, though – Thomas Gilbert was originally buried in Greenfield, but then was moved to be closer to the Dickinson’s. His original stone from Greenfield, it seems, was placed in the Dickinson’s possession. Perhaps it was used in the front lawn as a stepping stone? Every once in awhile a news story crops up in which that is the case – a garden stone is overturned and its discovered to be an old gravestone.

“What do you do with a used gravestone?” asked Jane Wald, the museum’s executive director. It will be interesting to see!