Posted in 19th century America, Christianity, Civil War, death, material culture, military, photographs, religion, rituals, violence

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Drew Gilpin Faust is a historian of the Civil War and the American South.  She is also the first female president of Harvard University.  Faust’s latest book, This Republic of Suffering, focuses on how the massive number of deaths that occurred during the Civil War (620,000) forever changed Americans’ understanding of death and their relationship with religion.  As Reverend John Sweet noted in his 1864 sermon that asked “What is Death?”: “There is not a household exempt from the universal lamentation which ascends from a grief stricken people.”[1]  The common belief in the “Good Death” was torn apart as thousands of loved ones faced violent deaths far away from home.  Faust compares letters written by dying soldiers to conclude that “[l]etters describing soldier’s last moments on Earth are so similar, it is as if their authors had a checklist in mind.”[2]  In addition to letters, Faust includes and analyzes political drawings and photographs that were published in newspapers and magazines, as well as literary works that grappled with the nation’s trauma.  Importantly, Faust shows the development of national responsibility for the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the ideals of the country.

Faust does an excellent job of showing how literate white Christian Americans and their families, Union and Confederate, were affected by the war and how the nation responded to their trauma.  African Americans were not completely overlooked, but free and enslaved people’s stories were not given the same nuanced attention as those of white soldiers.  American Indian soldier’s stories were not included at all.  Faust portrays a conservative white Christian understanding of what important factors contributed to the United States as a nation during and immediately following the Civil War.  Additionally, with Faust’s major focus on deciphering meaning from letters, tales from illiterate soldiers, of any color, were omitted.  Oral history did not appear to be an included research methodology.

[1] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 171.

[2] Ibid., 17.

Posted in civil religion, commemoration, material culture, memorials, military, monuments, myths, religion, rituals

Monuments of Civil Religion

Caterine, Darryl. “Monuments of Civil Religion.” In The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture, edited by John Lyden and Eric Michael Mazur. London; New York: Routledge, 2015.

In this chapter, Caterine presents religious and national notions of memorial space as distinct. He bookends his argument with Robert Bellah’s 1967 essay on American civil religion to show that the Puritan-derived national mythology has not unified the nation. According to Caterine, “Bellah hoped that by directing public attention to the mythic core of national identity—an amalgam of biblical ideals inherited from the Puritans—scholars of American religion could lend a hand to the cause of national reconciliation.” (393) But memorials since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial have “enshrined dissent as the unifying ideal of the citizenry. (Bellah’s essay was written at the height of the Vietnam War.) These memorials speak to American pluralism rather than a unified identity.

Caterine describes the creation of the National Parks Service and Washington, D.C. as national tourism spaces. As a transportation infrastructure developed, tourism provided Washington with a new way of conceptualizing and showcasing national memory. The National Mall became the memorial hub of the nation with the Washington Monument at its center. War memorials, which commemorated and sanctified the ultimate sacrifice that citizens undergo for their nation, “come closest to traditional religious monuments—analogous to temples of human sacrifice dedicated to the gods, or shrines built to house the holy remains of martyrs.” (388) Sacrifice is venerated because it is through sacrifice that the nation continues.

Caterine notes that during the 1960s, with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the mass protests against the Vietnam War, the National Mall was transformed from “a memorial space of unity into a theater of protest.” (390)

Interestingly, he also points out that national unity was originally undercut by the Republican ethos of political decentralization and individualism. He states,

A striking example of this perspective was reflected in the proposal made by John Nicholas, a Virginian congressman and close friend of Thomas Jefferson, during the first debates over how to memorialize George Washington. Rather than building a crypt or erecting a statue, Nicholas suggested leaving a plain tablet in the nation’s capital, upon which each citizen could express what the Revolutionary hero meant to him. Further, the ambiguous meanings of Civil War battlefields, as interpreted alternatively by Northerners and Southerners during the heyday of national consolidation, offers a precedent for the political battles over national memory in the late twentieth century. (391)

Posted in commemoration, historical reenactments, material culture, military, photographs, resistance, rituals, Vietnam War

Historical Reenactment: Romantic Amnesia or Counter Memory?

Apel, Dora. “Historical Reenactment: Romantic Amnesia or Counter Memory?” In War Culture and the Contest of Images, 47-76. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

(This post focuses on only one aspect of Apel’s book.)

Public performances, such as anti-war demonstrations and guerrilla theater, continue to be powerful vehicles for raising social awareness and producing significant instances of counter-memory. In War Culture and the Contest of Images, Dora Apel investigates how photography and other visual practices (including public performance) can be used to create a culture of social consciousness and encourage people to question the world in which they live. She argues that, depending on context, images can critique the reality of war as easily as they can reinforce the practice of romanticizing it. Apel contends that America’s perpetual state of war cultivates a militarized society. Her work explores ways to interrupt this mindset. Claiming that art and war occupy the same space, she argues that contemporary artists are uniquely positioned to engage in social justice activism.

When performing historical reenactments, individual experience outweighs historical or political meaning. Apel notes that the reenactor-soldier “allegorically embodies the uniform he wears.” [1] Reenactments provide access to a particular quality of manliness consisting of “virtue, courage, and the sublimation of personal needs to a higher purpose” that are forged only in the heat of battle.[2] In other words, the primary goal of reenacting is to generate meaning for the participant rather than to reinforce or challenge public memory.  Reenactors wish to experience the “intensity and intimacy of male bonding” that occurs in real wars. Apel emphasizes that over eighty percent of reenactors have relatives who served in the wars that they reenact.[3] Soldiers are traumatized by war and then share that trauma with their families and communities upon their return. Reenacting is a way for family members to find meaning through performance and to connect with relatives who are unwilling or unable to communicate their experience.

Most reenactors are civilians with no desire to experience real war, and veterans of real wars generally do not participate in reenactments because they have little desire to reconnect to their traumatic past.[4] This is true as well for African Americans, who show little interest in engaging in activities that revisit painful memories of enslavement or segregation. Their image of previous wars is not nostalgic. Whereas, white Civil War reenactors tend to mythologize the war and reject its real historical implications.[5]

Apel claims that it is possible to use reenactments to deconstruct official histories and to study our own biases.[6] Rather than performing passion plays or historical pageants of earlier times, reenacting events from wars, such as Vietnam, allows us to reexamine traumatic histories and myths that shape contemporary social and political realities. Apel’s studies reveal how performances can “reframe [the] past from the perspective of those who were silenced or obscured.”[7]  In Apel’s study, “Vietnam in Virginia: An-My Lê,” a group of Vietnam War reenactors in Virginia allowed Vietnamese American artist An-My Lê to photograph them on the condition that she also join them as a participant.

An-My Lê participated in historical reenactments of the Vietnam War in Virginia over the course of four summers in order to photograph the experiences. The relationship was two-sided: the reenactors hoped to win her sympathy and she hoped to win their trust.[8] She often played a North Vietnamese army soldier or Vietcong guerrilla. The reenactors would often construct elaborate scenarios around her character, which Lê describes: “I have played the sniper girl (my favorite—it felt perversely empowering to control something that I never had any say in). I have been the lone guerrilla left over in a booby-trapped village to spring out of a hut and ambush the GI platoon. I have played the captured prisoner.”[9]

Lê found that her participation in the reenactments reawakened childhood memories from Saigon of night explosions, screams, and the trauma of finding dead bodies in the streets. Apel notes that Lê’s desire to interrogate those experiences can be seen as part of her desire to photograph and reenact the Vietnam War.  Small Wars (1999–2002), the resulting art exhibit, has been shown in major art venues across the country.  Unlike the violent photographs of the real war that “implored the viewer toward a moral stance,” Lê’s photos are “quiet, lush, beautifully printed silver gelatin prints” that were produced with a large-format camera and tripod, similar to those used by Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan for the studio of Matthew Brady during the Civil War.[10]

Apel explains that due to Lê’s respect for the reenactors’ “complicated motivations,” the photos selected for the show rely less on drama and focus more on a feeling of quiet introspection.

[S]he concentrates on moments of anticipation or reflection, such as two soldiers taking a break to write letters or read the newspaper (Stars and Stripes), resting in the grass (GI), a misty forest opening with the blurred movement of soldiers (Ambush I), or the trails of sparks captured with a slow shutter speed of an explosion in the forest (Explosion). The quietude of the scenes is underscored by the middle-gray scale of the photos that downplays the dramatic, instead shifting the focus to the immersion in the landscape, which takes on a mythic quality and becomes a character in the scenarios, almost overshadowing the dwarfed soldiers in frozen tableaux.[11]

The resulting photographs of American soldiers in Vietnam offer another image of the warrior. Unlike most of the teenagers drafted into the war with Vietnam, these noncombatants volunteered to participate. Not much information is offered about the reenactors. We only know that they were men who did not fight in the war, but claimed that they wanted to. They felt a need to connect to the enormity of that experience. One reenactor had lost a brother and the fathers of two others had fought in the war.[12] Apel provides an image of the warrior’s extended family and a civilian survivor.

[1] Dora Apel, War Culture and the Contest of Images (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 50.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 51.

[4] Ibid., 55.

[5] Ibid., 57.

[6] Ibid., 64.

[7] Ibid., 63.

[8] Ibid., 65.

[9] Ibid., 66.

[10] Ibid., 67.

[11] Ibid., 68.

[12] Ibid., 66.

Posted in civil religion, commemoration, religion, rituals

Civil Religion in America

Bellah, Robert N. “Civil Religion in America.” Daedalus 134, no. 4 (2005): 40-55.

In “Civil Religion in America,” Robert Bellah examines Presidential addresses from Lincoln and Kennedy to argue that American civil religion is distinct from traditional religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, etc., although it exhibits the defining characteristics and features of those religions.

The phrase “civil religion” comes from Rousseau’s The Social Contract, where he outlines the simple dogmas of the civil religion: 1) the existence of God, 2) the life to come, 3) the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, and 4) the exclusion of religious intolerance. Bellah points out that Rousseau was a contemporary of the founding fathers, pointing specifically to Benjamin Franklin.[1]

Bellah notes that most Americans are familiar with certain stories and archetypes, which originate in Judeo-Christian traditions, regardless of religious affiliation. Some of these ideas include the Exodus story of Moses and the Hebrews leaving Egypt, the concept of a promised land (found in multiple incarnations throughout the Old and New Testaments), and act of sacrificial death and rebirth to make way for a new world. Bellah writes,

Until the Civil War, the American civil religion focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny.[2]

The important turning point for America’s civil religion was the Civil War. This is when “a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the civil religion,” according to Bellah. [3] This change is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln. The Gettysburg Address became the “New Testament” of the civil scriptures. Bellah asserts that Lincoln, “our martyred president,” became linked to the war dead, “those who ‘gave the last full measure of devotion.’” [4] He also notes that the “theme of sacrifice was indelibly written into the civil religion” through physical and ritualistic expression. Bellah writes,

The great number of the war dead required the establishment of a number of national cemeteries. Of these, the Gettysburg National Cemetery, which Lincoln’s famous address served to dedicate, has been overshadowed only by the Arlington National Cemetery. Begun somewhat vindictively on the Lee estate across the river from Washington, partly with the end that the Lee family could never reclaim it, it has subsequently become the most hallowed monument of the civil religion. Not only was a section set aside for the Confederate dead, but it has received the dead of each succeeding American war. It is the site of the one important new symbol to come out of World War I, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; more recently it has become the site of the tomb of another martyred president and its symbolic eternal flame.[5]

America’s civil religion incorporates many of the same types of religious elements found in traditional religions: beliefs  and events that seem to reveal God’s purposes (most notably the American Revolution and the Civil War), prophets (especially Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln), sacred places (shrines to wars and presidents), sacred texts (such as the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address), ceremonies (Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans’ Day celebrations, etc.), and rituals (prayers at public events and saluting the flag).

Bellah wrote this essay in 1967, near the height of the Vietnam War (and a year before the Tet Offensive). He reflects on the dangers of a country that feels that it answers to no one: “Without an awareness that our nation stands under higher judgment, the tradition of the civil religion would be dangerous indeed.”[6]

[1] Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus 134, no. 4 (2005): 43.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Ibid., 48.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 54.

Posted in African Americans, civil religion, commemoration, material culture, paternalism, racism, religion, rituals, slavery

In the Name of the Father

Furstenberg, François. In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

In In the Name of the Father, Francois Furstenberg argues that American nationalism was created in the aftermath of George Washington’s death through public engagement with material culture, especially civic texts. To a large degree, Washington was deified and his 1796 Farewell Address was canonized, along with The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. A prominent feature of evangelical Protestantism was the action of “engraving” key words on the heart.[1] Furstenberg asserts that Americans were taught to “take Washington into their hearts just as they took Jesus into their hearts.”[2] The Constitution was to be read in the same manner as citizens read the Ten Commandments. Furstenberg notes that American nationalism developed like other cultural systems, such as religion.[3] Furstenberg’s arguments build from Benedict Anderson’s work that stresses the power of print and education to construct national bonds.

Washington’s legacy was manipulated through popular civic texts. Furstenberg argues that through reading civic texts, such as Washington’s Farewell Address, Mason Locke Weems’s Life of Washington, and schoolbooks like the Columbian Orator and English Reader, Americans “learned the meaning of citizenship, and future generations learned to subscribe to the values of their fathers.”[4] Furstenberg shows how nationalism was promoted through “affective, emotive, even patriarchal appeals.”[5] Washington was to be venerated as the father of a new nation.

National identity was generated through two concepts that were diametrically opposed: “consent” and “slavery.” Even as the Founding Fathers articulated their vision of government grounded in consent, slavery was woven into the fabric of everyday life. “The presence of slavery, in short, undermined both the meaning of consent in the republic, and the very unity post-Revolutionary nationalism sought to enact.”[6]

Washington’s last will and testament, which legally freed some of his slaves, was added to the canon of nationalist texts. His will was “widely republished and quickly became a celebrated document.”[7]  Eulogies that followed Washington’s death focused on the threat slavery and slave insurrections posed to the nation’s future.[8]  Furstenberg also notes that slave insurrection were real fears of this time. News of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831), and Gabriel’s slave conspiracy (1800) traveled far. Even Martha Washington, wife of the “father of the nation,” lived her last days among “hundreds of enslaved people she called family, people she believed would try to kill her.”[9] In addition, Jefferson’s grandchild-in-law feared that her black “family” would murder her.[10]

Furstenberg identifies two distinct narratives of Washington and slavery that emerged after his death. The first was an abolitionist interpretation that dwelled on Washington’s decision to free his slaves. It helped to mute fears of slave insurrection and threats to national unity by advancing a teleological understanding that all slaves would eventually be emancipated. The second narrative promoted the myth of plantation benevolence and slavery as a benign institution based on paternal affection. Furstenberg points out that both narratives promoted a “paternalist ideology of early American nationalism” which placed slavery at the center of Washington’s life.[11]

The particular challenge for those building American nationalism was to reconcile the consent of the governed with the enslaved, who could not give their consent. In a painting, “Death of Washington Dec. 14 AD 1799,” crying slaves and stoic white people surround Washington on his deathbed.[12] Furstenberg claims, “the Washington mythology opened a space for the incorporation of slaves into this national family, with slaves, like white Americans, united in bonds of affection and gratitude to Washington.”[13] Furstenberg claims that the enslaved’s bonds of affection (e.g., tears at Washington’s death) signaled a tacit consent to their enslavement, which allowed for a reconciliation between slavery and the new U.S. nationalism.[14]

The autonomous American identity was constructed against the idea of “the slave.” Schoolbooks taught free, white American children how to be “industrious, virtuous, thrifty, and religious” autonomous individuals.[15] However, white people imagined slaves to be “lazy, immoral, dissolute, and heathen.”[16] Different texts instilled an ethic of self-control, subordination, and obedience in enslaved black children, which helped to abate concerns about slave unrest. But, as Furstenberg shows through Frederick Douglass and his story “The Heroic Slave,” slaves also valued and fought for autonomy. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the conception of the autonomous individual was extended to slaves. Citizenship began with an individual choice.[17] Yet, this allowed white people to blame slaves for their enslavement. Furstenberg claims that this valorization of individual autonomy grounded citizenship and slavery in tacit consent.

[1] François Furstenberg, In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), 58.

[2] Ibid., 59.

[3] Ibid., 63.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 84.

[8] Ibid., 82-83.

[9] Ibid., 74.

[10] Ibid., 81.

[11] Ibid., 83.

[12] Ibid., 93.

[13] Ibid., 21.

[14] Ibid., 103.

[15] Ibid., 150.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 220.