Archive for category Civil War

The Power of Film

No matter how many times I have read about slavery and all its accompanying violence, I was still unprepared for the impact of visualizing the beatings, the rapes, the breaking apart of families, the hangings and other assorted fears and horrors portrayed in 12 Years a Slave.   This new film by British director Steve McQueen tells the story of Solomon Northrup, a free Black man from Saratoga New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and then wrote a book about his ordeal upon his release after 12 years working on a string of southern plantations in the mid-18th century.

Solomon, from his autobiography published in 1855

Solomon, from his autobiography published in 1855

I had to cover my eyes on several occasions; my wife walked out during one scene, so disturbed.  Yet, while she said at the end of the film that she “hated the movie,” I walked away thinking this was a movie every American should see.  Both sentiments came from the same effect of the realities of the institution of slavery.  She hated to see the suffering so vividly captured.  She

was right in that it was certainly something to hate.  The film though succeeded in evincing her reaction, and therefore was effective in forcing people to see exactly what it means to read about a slave getting a whipping, the oozing welts crisscrossing the back, the keloid scars, and the immediate return to the fields to work.  It would be hard to walk out of that movie and think that those scars on individuals long since dead do not still, or should not still, weigh on the national consciousness.

It wasn’t just the graphic violence which was so horrifying. The film was also able to show the endemic fear and indifference on the plantation.  “I survive,” said Solomon at one point to a mother whose grief over her lost children was inconsolable, leading ultimately to her own death at the hands of her owner.  Living in fear of the whims and temperament of the person who controlled your existence was the norm.  So was the indifference, as McQueen showed owners’ wives watching casually from the balconies of their houses as punishments were meted out.  Even other slaves went about their daily chores as Solomon struggled to stand on his tiptoes to avoid choking to death from the noose around his neck.

This film reminded me of 42 or Brokeback Mountain, Schindler’s List, or even The Passion in their ability to evince a transformational reaction, through the visual portrayal of suffering, despite the abundance of the printed word on

topics portrayed in those movies.  People have heard of the abuse Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues, received when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, but seeing an opposing manager yell out the n-word repeatedly has the ability to shock that words on a page simply cannot convey.

I am unsure of the appropriate reaction, from a national, collective perspective.  It has to lie somewhere between the c

asual “national conversation” and the probably unrealistic reparations claims.  Steve McQueen, said in a New York Tim

es interview that he wanted people to see the connections of this historic past to the present, in Trayvon Martin, in our prisons crowded with African-American offenders, in still segregated neighborhoods.  Ridley Scott, the script writer, said on the PBS News Hour that he wanted Americans to confront this past.

 Two final points.  Going back to Roots or even further To Kill a Mockingbird, film has helped place race and slavery in the forefront of our national consciousness.  The frequency of films exploring these themes has increased in recent years, from 42 to The Help and even Django Unchained.   These films have achieved both commercial success and critical acclaim.  Do their frequency

and success have more to do with an increased public acceptance to confront this uncomfortable past, or more of a need for the country to face its legacies?

Finally, it is unfortunate that 12 Years a Slave is not in theaters in my hometown.  Movies like Ender’s Game and Thor, the Dark World dominate the local complexes, so we had to travel to an adjoining town to an arts theater to see the movie.  So much for my hope that every American view this film about the real dark world, that of slavery in our past, and its vestiges in our present.

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In plain sight

It’s an invisible monument, in plain sight.  The Soldiers Memorial sits in a prominent position on Park Plaza, the small, central park of Pittsfield, at the crossroads of main thoroughfares in western Massachusetts.   Thousands of people pass by it daily, but I wonder how many are like my wife who grew up in Pittsfield but did not know there was a monument in Park Plaza.  The last time the memorial appeared in the press was on the 110th anniversary of its dedication, in 1982.

On Park Plaza.  Photo: JDickson

On Park Plaza. Photo: JDickson

On the one hand, it’s hard to miss the 6-foot bronzed color guard soldier holding the flag, atop a 12-foot granite pedestal, dedicated just seven years after the end of the Civil War.   Divided into their regiments, the names of 102 Pittsfield soldiers who died during the war are inscribed on plaques on the granite sides.  Yet, so many of these statues of soldiers, or generals riding horses, populate our public places that they have lost meaning of memorializing the fallen, blending into the landscape almost like a telephone pole.

Each of the men on the plaque must have his own story worth telling, but lost now.  The pamphlet[1] memorializing the dedication ceremony on September 24, 1872 adds a little flavor.  The name of the conflict was “The Great Rebellion”, not the Civil War; the artist whose painting served as the model for the sculptor himself survived the Battle of Antietam but lost an arm.  The booklet includes the names of the regiments of the Pittsfield volunteers, and their engagements, from the well-known Gettysburg or Chancellorsville to lesser known battles with names like Yellow River, Grim Swamp or Cane River Crossing.  Soldiers “died from their wounds,” “killed in action,” “died in Libby Prison,” or simply “died.”

Reading from a 21st century perspective, several other story-lines with gender and racial overtones emerge.  The original idea for a monument was floated shortly after the end of the war, studied by several committees, including one of women who went on to raise money when the town delayed pursuing a memorial so that it could pay off its war debts first.  With $3000 in the bank, these women stepped aside (or were shunted?) when an all-male town council took over the plan, appropriated public funds, but still drew on the collected monies.  In addition, four soldiers from the all-black Massachusetts 54th (highlighted in the film Glory) died during the war, but an additional ten from Pittsfield served, including the chaplain Samuel Harrison, whose names are all included in the booklet.  An article from the local paper on September 25, 1872 which lists all the regiments of the 2000 soldiers who marched in the parade did not mention the 54th, leading to speculation on their absence – from  the story or the parade?

An orator spoke at the dedication, a professional orator, winner of prizes and contests: a certain George William Curtis, from New York, who speculated on how posterity would interpret the war.  Not once mentioning slavery, his reference was implicit but unmistakable:  “equal rights of every citizen are the sacred care of the whole people.”  Curtis thought to anticipate the day when a youth from Carolina or Georgia would stop at the statue and invoke that these “men died for me as well as for you.  They saved Carolina as well as Massachusetts.”  We’re not there yet.

How does this statue speak to us today?  Hardly at all, unfortunately.  This memorial invisible in plain sight, should tell us a lot, about a war which still divides us as it preserved and united, about the sacrifice it took to get to where we are, on race and gender, on patriotism, on loss.

[1] Proceedings of the Dedication of the Soldiers Monument, edited by J.E.A. Smith, Pittsfield MA, Chickering &Axtell, Steam Printers, 1872


On Park Plaza. Photo: JDickson

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Are we still fighting the Civil War?

From The Last Full Measure: Civil War Photographs from the Liljenquist Family Collection

Probably not, if the fighting is “kinetic” to use a current Defense Department term.  And yet, few will deny that the tensions which gave rise to the fighting 150 years ago are still present in contemporary America.   Whether it is the sparks over the confederate flag, or statues on university campuses and town squares;  the omission of references to slavery by a current Governor in remarks about the Civil War  or proposals to repeal the 14th Amendment which made citizens of “all persons born in the United States,” those tensions still linger close to the surface.

Last week, in the commemorations marking the 150th anniversary of the firing on Ft Sumter, we faced those tensions again.

A few random questions on the war from 150 years later.

— What is its name?  We can’t even agree on the name of the war.  Southerners may call this the War between the States or the War of Secession, but I’ve never heard anyone from the North call it anything but the Civil War.   And come to think of it, there’s nothing civil about this war at all.

— When did the war begin? We may actually have been marking the wrong date as the beginning of the war.  Almost lost have been the first shots which took place, also at Ft. Sumter, but on January 9, 1861 when a northern resupply ship called “The Star of the North” was fired on by cadets at the Citadel, sending the ship back to New York.

— Was the war fought in black and white?  Since I am old enough to remember the centennial, my first memories are from the photographs, of Lincoln, his Cabinet and his generals, of the dead on the battlefields, of John Wilkes Booth and John Brown.  With these black and white ambrotypes and tintypes etched in my mind from a young age, it’s hard to imagine the war fought in living color, or even three dimensions.   The beautiful, pastoral color scenes in Ken Burns PBS series on the Civil War stand in stark contrast to the harsh black and white photos from that war.  The current exhibit of soldiers’ photographs at the Library of Congress (The Last Full Measure) show stiff, slender and sometimes frail posed soldiers in coarse clothing and uniforms.

— Does the Civil War sell well?  You bet it does.   On April 12, The Washington Post had a full section devoted to the start of the war, for which they had no trouble getting advertising.   PBS re-ran the Ken Burns special on the Civil War; a stop at a Virginia tourism center has a whole section dedicated to visits to battlefield sites (“over 60% of the battles were fought in Virginia,” we were told); the Civil War section at any bookstore or library is larger than any other US History; Robert Redford’s movie The Conspirator on Mary Surrat drew large crowds in its first weekend .

Recommended reading:  Confederates in the Attic, a slightly humorous look at the “unfinished war” by Tony Horowitz.  Two thoughts from the book: one in four Southerners are direct descendents from people who fought in the war, while the figure is closer to one in ten in the North; and a quote from a park ranger at one of the battlefield parks: “One guy even asked me why so many Civil War battles were fought  on national parks.”

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