Of all wall art about American history, the Civil War is the most popular subject. In the market for Civil War prints, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson outsell by many times Lincoln, Grant, Sherman and Sheridan.
Even Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine infantry regiment and defender of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, is a more popular subject of popular prints than Grant, general in chief of the armies of the United States and victor of Appomattox, not to mention Chamberlain’s own commander at Gettysburg, General George Gordon Meade.
Is Chamberlain more important than Grant? And why do Americans still celebrate traitors who fought to destroy the United States and expand slavery (and lost) over leaders who fought to save our country and restrict and then end slavery (and won)?
Blame Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel The Killer Angels and the film it inspired in 1993, Gettysburg directed by Ron Maxwell where Chamberlain was a star and Grant didn’t even appear.
Novels and films influence ordinary Americans’ knowledge of history in general and the Civil War in particular far more than the work of historians, writes Gary Gallagher in Causes Won, Lost and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War.
Looking at pop cultural depictions of the events and people of the Civil War shows how what the public today cares about differs both from what Americans thought in the nineteenth century and what historians today say were the facts of the period.
Four Competing Stories about the Civil War
Here, as in much of his work, Gallagher identifies four different narratives that Americans have used to interpret the Civil War, starting right after Appomattox and continuing into the present day.
The Union Cause. Loyal Americans of the time knew that slavery was the cause of the war, even though white people in the North fought to save the Union first and end slavery second.
Emancipation. Black people in both sections were overjoyed to find a chance to seize their freedom and for them, the war was always about emancipation.
The Lost Cause. But many white Southerners were sore losers who grudgingly accepted the fact of defeat but not its moral or legal consequences. They came up with the story of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” to justify secession, find honor in defeat and deny the role of slavery.
Reconciliation. Finally, leaders like Lincoln and Grant offered a lenient peace to rebels who would lay down their arms, helping to set the stage for a story of the war that was about reconciliation. Later, this story became a way for white Northerners and Southerners to clasp hands as long as neither side talked about race.
Civil Art Art Then and Now
The most important leaders of the war for loyal Americans were Lincoln, Grant, Sherman and Sheridan. Their faces were on prints all across the North well into the 20th century, as Gallagher explains and demonstrates with illustrations.
By contrast, Joshua Chamberlain was almost entirely absent from Civil War images of the nineteenth century. He didn’t start to appear until Shaara’s novel and Maxwell’s film.
The first Civil War movies, especially the two blockbusters Birth of a Nation released in 1915 and 1939’s Gone with the Wind, celebrated the Lost Cause, with a bit of reconciliation thrown in. After the civil rights movement, movies switched over primarily to a narrative of emancipation, with Glory in 1989, or merely a post-Vietnam malaise, where both sides fight brutally for no good reason, as seen in 2003’s Cold Mountain.
As an exception to the rule, that same year Ron Maxwell released Gods and Generals, a prequel to Gettysburg, the last popular film to celebrate the Lost Cause. But even this film, so sympathetic to Stonewall Jackson, paid homage to emancipation, for example, by depicting the respectful friendship between Jackson and his Black cook, Jim Lewis, who both want to defend their “home” (ie, the Confederacy) and both share a vision of an independent southern nation free of slavery.
As to wall art, since the late 20th century, the top selling subjects of Civil War art from such historical painters as Mort Kunstler, Don Troiani and Dale Gallon are mostly Confederate — Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Pickett, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Lincoln still moves merchandise, but Grant and top Union generals do poorly among collectors of Civil War art.
As Confederate Statues and Flags Fall, Will They Take the Popularity of the Civil War Down with Them?
Today, the Civil War remains the most popular topic in American history for the ordinary person. But it’s more popular among Southerners and even non-Southerners who romanticize the Confederacy as more dashing or sympathize with them as underdogs. Civil War fans remain generally lukewarm on Union leaders and the Union story.
But successful efforts to remove Confederate statues and flags have spoiled some of the romance for the ordinary Civil War enthusiast.
In the future, if Confederate images continue to become less acceptable in polite society, it’s a question whether the Civil War will remain popular or if it will start to fade away.
As ordinary white people from Georgia to California take down their Künstler print of Stonewall Jackson entering Winchester bedecked in Confederate flags or William L. Maughan’s portrait of Robert E. Lee reading the Bible to a child asleep on the general’s lap, they probably won’t replace them with prints of Grant at Vicksburg or Sherman on his March to the Sea.
In that case, there must be a lot less Civil War art in the future — and a lot less public interest in the era.
It’s good news that Americans are learning to reject most of what they learned about the Civil War and its leaders from movies and wall art as lies. But it would be sad if Americans replace the fake story of the Lost Cause with no story at all.
Can we get ordinary Americans to find the excitement and inspiration of the Union cause, as they have started to do with the emancipation cause?
Maybe we need more movies about Grant and Frederick Douglass together.