Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 21, 2017
Kirk Savage, ed. The Civil War in Art and Memory Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2016. 292 pp.; 88 color ills.; 57 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9780300214680)

The 2016 anthology The Civil War in Art and Memory, edited by Kirk Savage, assembles fifteen essays presented in the symposium of the same title, sponsored by the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in November 2013. The conference paralleled the exhibition Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial, curated by Sarah Greenough and Nancy Anderson, which took place from 2013 to 2014 at the National Gallery. Both the exhibition and symposium honored the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863. These events refocused attention on the African American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and the history of their memorialization. Augustus Saint-Gaudens created the bronze Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment to commemorate the fateful campaign of the 54th on July 18, 1863, at Fort Wagner, South Carolina. Three years after the monument’s inauguration in Boston in 1897, the artist replicated the memorial in a full-scale plaster for exhibition in Paris; today it is located in the National Gallery. The anthology presents multiple views of the role of newly freed slaves, the symbolism of war monuments, and ongoing protest at Civil War sites. As Savage notes in the introduction, the assembled topics are intended to move the discussion from the already well-known history of Civil War monuments “to engage directly with the historical shadow of slavery and with its twin legacies of white supremacy and racial conflict” (2).

The scholarly papers, edited into an impressive volume, feature a stellar group of scholars whose fields include art and architectural history as well as American literature, philosophy, American studies, and social history. In the “Battlefield” section, Savage’s contribution, built on his extensive study of Civil War monuments across America from his seminal publication Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), draws attention to “The Unknowable Dead: The Civil War and the Origins of Modern Commemoration.” His research configures the limits of commemoration at sites of great destruction, especially the Civil War battlefield where the unburied dead long lay without identification—soldiers who must be memorialized at sites of national sacrifice even if their names can never be recovered.

The essays circle out from Union redoubts of abolitionist fervor in Boston, where the soldiers of the 54th marched out in May 1863, to the exploration of monuments new and old in the Deep South. They are divided in four sections: “Home,” “Battlefield,” “Public Space,” and “Heroism,” and encompass diverse media—mass-circulation illustrated newspapers, broadsides and posters, historic and contemporary photographs, stained glass, monuments and memorials.

First is a timely essay by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw under the rubric “Home” on interracial families and their portraiture in the antebellum period. Dana E. Byrd then details a reconstructed history of Federal camps created on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, for recently freed slaves. Over twenty-three thousand freedmen sheltered there—today it is a resort community—where the Union Army gained ground in 1862. The third essay, by Joshua Brown, documents the vivid media that quickly spread fiery images during the draft riots in the summer of 1863.

In “The Summer of 1863: Lincoln and the Black Troops” in the “Battlefield” section, James Oakes contributes an important view of the volunteers’ role as they rose up to solidify the Union forces. He also highlights Frederick Douglass’s persuasion in bringing Lincoln’s full endorsement to the recruiting effort that brought over two hundred thousand black soldiers to serve in the war. Richard J. Powell examines the issue of contraband—freed slaves who did not volunteer or serve—through photography. He deepens the context of Mathew Brady’s Scene Showing Deserted Camp and Wounded Soldier (Zouave) (ca. 1860–65), a “well-known but little discussed” image (67). Here, the “standing soldiers, kneeling slaves” paradigm of nineteenth-century sculpture is challenged, because the contraband wearing a Union greatcoat stands, offering water to a Zouave. Powell names this paradox “the Cyrenian Paradigm,” a typology of the black man interpreted as the transient “racial other and social outcast,” represented by Simon of Cyrene in the bible (68). Shawn Michelle Smith analyzes Sally Mann’s 2000–2001 photographs at Antietam, in which she reimagines decay in the “unrelentingly dark,” scarred historical landscape (107–108).

The section on “Public Space” reflects the persistent echoes of the Lost Cause in the contemporary controversy over images that breach boundaries for many, not only African Americans. Evie Terrono (“‘Great Generals and Christian Soldiers’: Commemorations of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in the Civil Rights Era”) details the history and ongoing controversy of stained glass with the Confederate flag, dedicated to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Maurie D. McInnis provides a close reading of the long-lasting symbolic power and protest at the monuments in Richmond, Virginia, specifically the Lee equestrian statue created by Antonin Mercié in 1890, and Thomas Crawford’s iconic equestrian of the Virginian George Washington, begun in 1860. She chronicles the Confederate States of America’s appropriation of the Washington statue for its medallion seal (129), and its use in commemorative publicity when the Lee monument was inaugurated (141). Dell Upton describes a failed monument, created in 2008 after a tangle of enfeebling compromises in Wilmington, North Carolina, meant to commemorate the Wilmington coup and massacre of 1898, a tragic event that deprived middle-class blacks of their businesses and livelihood.

In the last section, titled “Heroism,” essays illuminate the two memorials to African Americans who fought in the war: Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and The Spirit of Freedom: The African American Emancipation Monument (1998), by Ed Hamilton, located in Washington, DC. Henry J. Duffy, curator at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, gives a stirring account of the battle for Fort Wagner. He also situates Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment within the artist’s own reminiscences, offering evidence of his studio practice as the work dragged on for fourteen years. Robert H. Bell sensitively evokes William James’s inaugural speech for the memorial in Boston. James experienced the full range of remorse for his younger brother Wilky, who was wounded at Fort Wagner with the 54th Regiment. The antimilitarist philosopher memorably evoked the living quality of the soldiers in bronze.

The essay “Unknowns: Commemorating Black Women’s Civil War Heroism” by Micki McElya describes the role of women contrabands, vital aides during the war. McElya pieces together the efforts of Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Keckley. Their histories and those of ordinary women are remembered in Hamilton’s Spirit of Freedom.

One question arises in several essays: is there racial bias in one of the greatest of American Civil War memorials honoring the fallen African Americans, the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment? The authors present different interpretations, just as Saint-Gaudens’s regard shifted from sessions with models to the greater importance of “troops of bronze” (199). The last plaster version of the memorial in Washington is inscribed with only the colonel’s name and located in a serene setting that frames the work of art; it is on extended loan from the Saint-Gaudens Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire. Unacknowledged in the essays, the title of the plaster monument in Washington is incomplete, leaving out the regiment’s name and misstating the date of the battle at Fort Wagner. It inevitably carries a different valence from the original bronze monument in Boston, which was purposefully placed on public ground, the Boston Common, facing the Massachusetts Statehouse across Beacon Street. The patinated plaster, reworked by Saint-Gaudens for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, shifts from the original intent and omits the inscriptions of the Boston memorial. The bronze, set in a marble surround with inscriptions on the back and front, includes a dedication—although it did not originally name the soldiers on the marble back facing the Common. Rather the top line simply read: “To the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts,” and on the lower socle, the five white officers were named above laurel wreaths.

Powell, Charles H. Karelis, and Thomas J. Brown give the correct monument title in their essays, naming the 54th Regiment as well as Shaw. This point is not negligible as some essayists critique the position of the equestrian soldier Shaw as superior to his men, who are degraded by comparison (McInnis, Dell). Karelis positions the equestrian Shaw as an idealized figure, based on aesthetic theory but conveying a racial hierarchy in sculpture. He probes the complications of Saint-Gaudens’s own mixed sentiments toward “my darkeys” (206–207). Against the ideal hero, Karelis opposes the realism of the portraits of African Americans, with the details of age, physiognomy, and clothing (even the pinecones of remembrance), as signifiers of a lower class. The artistic realism, exemplified by the drummer boy who leads the march forward, could also be interpreted as the element that makes these figures so engrossing, believable, and sympathetic.

The fervent protest of Shaw’s sister from a century earlier could have been cited. A friend of Saint-Gaudens, Effie (Josephine) Shaw Lowell’s now-forgotten pleas went unheeded: “I want very much to have the names of all the men of the 54th killed at Fort Wagner & afterwards, put on the base at the back,” she wrote to the committee in 1886. Her father, who first opposed the idea of a monument for his son altogether, concurred: “This would be but simple justice.” The engraving of all the names of the 54th Regiment did not occur until 1982, when each soldier’s name was carved into the back of the monument with its other bold inscriptions and laurel wreaths.

The book features the full-scale plaster of Shaw and his soldiers on its cover, and it is the last essay, Brown’s “The Peaceable War Memorial,” that synthesizes the meanings, reception, and reactions from the first concepts of Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment to the present. As the project was first envisioned by Senator Charles Sumner, through three decades of delay until its dedication in 1897, the monument was immediately received as a “consecration.” As Brown argues, a nuanced interpretation of the memorial to soldiers elucidates its status as an antiwar monument. The film Glory made the monument famous for new generations upon its release in 1989. Stirring poetry and music have described the battle, the sacrifice, and the futility of war. Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead” (1960) is a focus here, with its memorable line: “Their monument sticks like a fishbone / in the city’s throat.” As Brown details, the “exceptionally multilayered monument,” built on the sculptor “Saint-Gaudens’ elegant complexity” (261), enriches a renewed contemporary discourse. This volume provides an overview of the historical forces that pervade the continuing racial divide in America, as Savage articulates in the introduction, enriching the literature on contemporary culture and our American legacy of slavery.

The review was submitted prior to the decision to remove the stained glass windows of Lee and Jackson from the National Cathedral in Washington DC, which took place on September 8, 2017.

Nancy Scott
Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Brandeis University