Hot off the Press: War Matters Review

by Cameron Sauers ’21

War Matters: Material Culture in the Civil War Era
Ed. Joan Cashin
University of North Carolina Press
ISBN: 9781469643205
262 pages
$29.95

This collection of essays illustrates that a material culture approach to the past can help us better understand some of the deeper complexities of the Civil War era, such as the expansion of consumer culture, the common soldier’s experience, and behavioral history, as well as issues of race, bondage, and emancipation. Cashin argues that it is important to study the objects featured within the book to understand their multi-valenced roles in the daily lives of 19th-century Americans, as well as the cultural and emotional significance they held for those who utilized them. From Robert Hicks’s essay on vaccinating the Confederate armies, to Sarah Jones Weicksel’s examination of shelter in refugee camps, these pieces explore a wide assortment of artifacts. The authors reveal that these artifacts enabled historical actors to shape events in specific ways and give meaning to their surrounding world.

In her own essay, Cashin focuses on the relationship Civil War soldiers had with artifacts from the American Revolution. She specifically notes southern whites’ veneration of Revolutionary War artifacts and their desire to protect them from Union soldiers. Union soldiers were eager to find jewelry and cuts of wood from Founding Fathers as they campaigned, items that were valuable to them but were also easy to physically carry. Cashin argues that soldiers wanted physical contact with these artifacts to serve as second-hand connections to great figures, especially George Washington, which would serve as inspirational reminders of the past, as well as mementos that could be taken away as souvenirs of war. Cashin’s essay ends with a sentence that sets up this new subfield of historical scholarship: “The study of material culture can illuminate yet other undiscovered aspects of politics and memory in the long sweep of American History.”

Two other essays in the collection that complemented each other were Earl Hess’s, “The Material Culture of Weapons in the Civil War,” and CWI Director Peter Carmichael’s, “The Trophies of Victory and The Relics of Defeat: Returning Home in the Spring of 1865.” While exploring different aspects of the soldier experience, both pieces cover the tenuous relationship that many Civil War soldiers had with their weapons during the war. Hess explores the ambivalence that soldiers felt toward their guns and the act of shooting them. Some Civil War soldiers were petrified by the power of their rifles, realizing that the weapon purposefully took the life of an enemy or could accidentally discharge into a comrade. For other soldiers, America’s emerging gun culture made them supremely confident in the handling and use of small arms while campaigning. Carmichael discusses how rifles and other militaria carried heightened symbolism during the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. Some Confederate soldiers were so grief-stricken, or in denial, over the Confederacy’s demise that they could not bring themselves to personally surrender their weapons. Instead, they simply left their weapons in their tent and walked away rather than face the indignity of handing over these much-desired trophy pieces to Union victors. Enlisted men felt that the surrender of their weapons encroached on their personal honor because the decision to surrender was not theirs.

For casual buffs or serious scholars, War Matters is a rewarding read. Each author reconstructs the physical and symbolic importance of objects for readers. Moreover, the authors give voice to different human stories and the material objects through which individuals made sense of their world. The more we understand the artifacts themselves, the more we understand the people who used them. As the contributors to War Matters successfully showcase, material culture is an important complement to traditional history. Cashin and the contributors to the volume illuminate new subjects and provide another layer of understanding to the construction and unpacking of historical narratives.

Remembering the Violence of Antietam

By Cameron Sauers ’21

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Ranger Keith Snyder from Antietam National Battlefield delivering his program Saturday afternoon in Antietam National Cemetery. (photo via Cameron Sauers)

Saturday, September 8th, saw a powerful collaboration between the Civil War Institute, Antietam National Battlefield, Eastern National, and Shepherd University. Together, these organizations hosted an event titled “Remembering the Violence of Antietam” which had a morning session at Shepherd University’s Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education. Those fortunate enough to have secured a seat in the auditorium were treated to a thought-provoking and informative string of talks. The afternoon session took place at different sites around Antietam National Battlefield.

The day began in earnest with an insightful lecture from Amelia Grabowski, a Gettysburg College alumna from the class of 2013. Grabowski’s lecture, “The Making of the Angel of the Battlefield,” focused on Clara Barton , a school teacher and clerk in the patent office who became a nurse at the outset of the war. The lectured paid special attention to how Barton’s experience at Antietam field hospitals influenced her later work with the Missing Soldiers Office and the foundation of the American Red Cross. Clara Barton’s early life was illuminated for the audience, dispelling the common notion that Barton was some angel just dropped on the Antietam battlefield. One of the events in Barton’s early life that was highlighted was Barton’s experience nursing her brother to health for two years after he fell from a roof. This gave Barton the rudimentary knowledge of nursing that she would take to the battlefield with her.

Following Grabowski was CWI Director, Dr. Peter Carmichael, who delivered a talk entitled, “Where is the Blood? Imagination, Violence, and the Sunken Lane.” Dr Carmichael detailed the sanitization of the famous Alexander Gardiner photos of Antietam before public consumption. Gardiner’s original photos of carnage were stripped of their blood and gore before being published as woodcuts for Northern newspapers. This editing of the photos prevented Northerners from seeing the true carnage in Gardiner’s original photos of the battle. Dr. Carmichael also provided the case study of David Beam, who served in the 24th Indiana and fought at the Sunken Lane who wrote a series of emotional and revealing letters home in the days and weeks following Antietam. Carmichael’s example served to prove his point that Civil War soldiers were emotional and would share their feelings with those on the home front.

After concluding his talk, Dr. Carmichael introduced his good friend and newly appointed director of the Nau Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia, Dr. Caroline Janney. Dr. Janney’s achievement as a Civil War historian is well known . She is the author of Burying the Dead But Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause and Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation. Janney’s lecture, “On this Field Died Slavery: Remembering and Reconciling at Antietam,” captivated the assembled audience. One of the fascinating aspects of Dr. Janney’s talk was her detailing of how many soldiers, both northern and Southern, did not want to go to Blue/Grey reunions because they did not want to tone down their rhetoric about the war’s causes. Blue/ Grey reunions were reconciliation meetings that sought to commemorate the valor of individual soldiers and units but ignored larger political forces of the war. Union veterans may have preferred to lambaste the South’s secession, but would have been hesitant to do it on Southern ground in front of Southern veterans.

Janney also made the interesting argument that Antietam is a memorial park to the Union itself because many veterans of the Battle of Antietam, especially those who did not fight at Gettysburg, viewed the battle as the triumph that ended slavery. Following the war, many soldiers would take great pride in the fact that their sacrifice and victory at the battle of Antietam led to the Emancipation Proclamation. After the war, this sense of pride would lead to clashes between Union and Confederate veterans over what caused the war and what ended it, especially as former Confederates developed the Lost Cause mythology . Janney ended with Robert Penn Warren’s quote, “in the moment of death the Confederacy entered upon its immortality ,” which was a perfect example of this new mythology. The Confederacy, when it surrendered, still had ardent supporters who were not yet willing to admit defeat. They vowed to perpetuate “the lost cause,” which promotes Confederate honor and dignity and attempts to manipulate the historical memory of the war. For example, a common example of the lost cause is to say that ‘states rights’ caused the war, instead of slavery, or to sterilize the horrors of the institution of slavery. The sense of awe in the room was palpable as seminar participants headed for lunch.

In the afternoon, visitors were treated to a unique talk from Dr. James Broomall, the Director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War and Assistant Professor of History at Shepherd University. Broomall admittedly stepped out of his comfort zone to deliver a lecture on James Hope’s paintings of the battle of Antietam. Broomall claimed to not be an art historian, but his speech had the audience (myself included) captivated by the subject. Broomall focused on how Hope’s return to the battlefield two decades after the battle inspired him to begin painting once again. The resulting works capture the field of Antietam at its most brutal – from the fighting near Dunker Church, to piles of bodies in the Sunken lane. Seeing how a painter remembered the violence at Antietam was an interesting contrast to how photography and monuments commemorated the violence. Broomall’s talk about painting the battlefield was especially helpful as seminar attendees headed out onto the battlefield.

After Broomall’s talk, a brave few ventured out in the rain for the first of two battlefield tours. Park ranger Brian Baracz’s tour, “Memory in Bronze and Stone,” built on the morning talks, especially that of Dr. Janney. Baracz focused on the monuments erected at Antietam and how their stories differ from Gettysburg’s battlefield. Antietam has less monuments on the battlefield than Gettysburg because many states wanted to put monuments only at Gettysburg and considered the monuments erected at Antietam to be second in terms of importance. Fortunately, the rain started to disappear towards the end of Baracz’s talk and held off for Keith Snyder’s tour. Snyder’s tour, “The Global Sacrifice for Freedom at Antietam National Cemetery,” expanded the day beyond the Civil War. Snyder detailed, for the assembled audience, the stories behind a few of the graves at the cemetery. Included were the graves of Civil War soldiers, African American soldiers who battled against segregation during the first World War, and soldiers who fought on both fronts during the second World War. Snyder’s tour was moving, and it was hard not to become emotional. Even Snyder struggled to hold back tears as he recounted powerful stories of heroism and sacrifice . One story that impacted me personally was the story of Staff Sgt. Maxwell Leo Swain who was killed at the battle of the Bulge on Dec. 19, 1944. Swain’s youth at age 19 years old when he died particularly resonated with me, being 19 myself. The tour was a thought-provoking and appropriate end to a day focused on the remembrance of sacrifice, and the far-ranging impact of battlefield violence.