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Monday, October 2, 2017

Civil War Art

Fortunately, most wars end in the surrender of one armed
force to another, as seen in the dismal laying down of arms
by the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865.
There have been civil wars as far back as the Egyptians and the days when the Greeks of Sparta and Athens came to blows. I'm not unaware that the English, the French (misnamed a revolution but actually a civil war), and in the 20th century, the Russians and Spanish suffered through similar uprisings. But in this case I'm delving into the art of the American Civil War fought between the spring of 1861 and that of 1865. In the past I've trudged through the art of World War I (Paul Nash), World War II (George Grosz), Afghanistan, as well as Art and War and the Art of War. Most recently, I've dealt with anti-war art. In that I'm a U.S. Air Force veteran, and our son is currently serving in the air force, I don't consider myself a pacifist. But as the highly insightful Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman noted, "War is Hell," and art has proven to be one of the best means known to man in driving home that point.

The Battle of Nashville, 1907, Howard Pyle
In selecting paintings representative of the American Civil War I'm making no pretense of being neutral or even-handed. I'm not going to sugar-coat the conflict. The war was fought over slavery. The South started the war. The cause was not noble. The South lost the war. And the South paid dearly for having done so. War is not glorious. Sherman said it well--it's hell.
"Tyrants preserve themselves by sowing fear and mistrust among the citizens by means of spies, by distracting them with foreign wars, by eliminating men of spirit who might lead a revolution, by humbling the people, and making them incapable of decisive action…”                                                                --Aristotle
Glorious Fighting, 1885, Gilbert Gaul
Despite the title of Gaul's Glorious Fighting (above), no amount of rewriting of history by artists several decades later is going to contradict the general who drove home the hell of war to countless Georgians during his relentless march across that state from Atlanta to the sea.
Hold at All Costs, Dale Gallon
As for the North, even when you win you lose. Even when the "cause" is no less than the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery, the loss in lives, suffering, and economic upheaval fails to make the cost unquestionable. Yet, for better or worse, social change is inevitable; and when it is blocked for an excessively long period of time, war also becomes inevitable.

Even when you win you lose.
On April 12, 1861, a single cannon shot fired across the ramparts of Fort Sumter, suddenly unleashed a cataclysmic earthquake. An entire nation's way of life was jolted into four long years of hellacious conflict. Hatreds were embedded. Lives were lost, yet other lives were changed. Hope was engendered. It has taken more than a century, but an entire nation changed. The United States would never be the same again.

Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Artists depicting the historic event couldn't even agree on a carpet pattern.
Harry Davis capturing the battle
flag of the Thirtieth Louisiana
Regiment at the Battle of Ezra
A surrender was signed. An army laid down its arms. Slavery ended. A pres-ident was assassinated just days later. A sort of uneasy peace gradually evolved despite Reconstruction and the Jim Crow laws which followed. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived and died. Civil rights were won. Yet the aftermath of the war wounds, now more than a hundred years old, remain. Today, sores are reopened. Flags come down. Statues fall on their face, or are rightly relegated to the dark recesses of art museums. Even some of the very paintings seen above are falling into question. Change takes time. When it happens too slowly, pressures build, tempers flare, nerves fray--then snap--in places like Charlottesville, Virginia, and Ferguson, Missouri. When changes hap-pen too quickly, despots and the tyrants condemned by Aristotle arise to make the most of them.

The Aftermath at Bloody Lane, 1862, James Hope. Only when the hell of war creeps into the living room is there hope in avoiding such horrors.
Stonewall Jackson, 1911, N.C. Wyeth


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