Home » FeatureSpring 2011

Beyond North and South

by Sandy Smith No Comment

For the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, students and scholars examine its issues, image and legacy.

Some 150 years after the first shots were fired, the Civil War still raises questions and strong emotions. Some of its foundational issues—whether citizenship can be defined by race and whether states can secede from federal jurisdiction—are as current as today’s headlines. Other matters haunt us when we’re forced to face them.

Still, Michael Kreyling, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English, wonders if there will be significant national events to mark the sesquicentennial of the war’s beginning at Fort Sumter in April 1861.

“It’s hard to find in the Civil War a metaphor for what we’re going through now,” says Kreyling, who just finished teaching two courses devoted to the topic, including one that compared the 1961 centennial and 2011 sesquicentennial celebrations. “In the 1960s, at the centennial, it was uncomfortably easy to find a metaphor. We remember things not because of what happened in the past, but because there are things we need to think about in the present. I wonder what the anniversary will help us with.”

Kreyling predicts that the sesquicentennial will be celebrated largely as a tourist event—but not in the College of Arts and Science. Here, students and professors explore various issues and aspects related to the war.

What it Means Today

That, believes Mona Frederick, executive director of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, is vital to Vanderbilt’s mission. “It’s very important that on our campus we have careful scholarly examination of the 150th anniversary and that we do not allow the anniversary to rehash a perhaps mythical North/South divide,” Frederick says. “It’s not only the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, but also of the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, and that comes as we have our first African American president. It’s important that our students get an opportunity to study this more deeply and think about it in deep ways, to reflect what it’s about and what it means to us today.” As part of the dialogue, the center’s annual Harry C. Howard Lecture brought historian David Blight to campus in March to discuss Warren’s look at the centennial, The Legacy of the Civil War.

Watch David Blight's lecture on Robert Penn Warren’s look at the centennial, The Legacy of the Civil War

Campus discussions will not solely look back. Richard Blackett, Andrew Jackson Professor of History, believes that many issues are contemporary. With Kreyling, he team-taught the spring Humanities 161 course, which brought in numerous guest lecturers from around the country.

The Civil War “transformed America from being a series of states—of entities that aspired to achieve the principles that were enumerated in the American Revolution—into a country with a strong central government,” Blackett says. “As a result, what we have had ever since are these attempts to question the legitimacy of a strong federal government by individual states. We see it even today … Periodically in its history, America always finds a way to stretch itself over a barrel on issues that you thought were previously resolved.”

Shifting Images of the War

The war continues as a popular theme of movies and books and a passion for re-enactors. But its image has changed through the past 150 years. Rory Dicker, senior lecturer in English and women’s and gender studies, taught a course that explored the fiction of the war, both that written in the immediate aftermath and that with the perspective of time.

“You can see a change through the shift into realism,” Dicker says. “If you think about Stephen Crane (Red Badge of Courage) or William Faulkner (The Unvanquished), there’s more artistic license. Earlier on, as with Louisa May Alcott (Hospital Sketches), writers are trying to get at the point of view of someone who has been there. There is more literary distance in things that were written in the 20th century.”

Visual images of the war and of African Americans also have changed in perspective, says Vivien Green Fryd, chair of the Department of History of Art. Her advanced seminar explored how artists dealt with this scar on American history in work ranging from Thomas Ball’s depiction of a paternalistic Lincoln hovering above a subservient freed slave in his Emancipation Group, to work by Edmonia Lewis—herself part black—that showed slaves celebrating their newfound freedom.

We remember things not because of what happened in the past, but because there are things we need to think about in the present.

—Michael Kreyling

“Slavery is such a fraught issue in the U.S.,” Fryd says. “We’re supposedly a country founded on the concept of freedom. Yet our founding fathers had slaves, so they themselves made distinctions between white people and African American slaves. Some images in the nineteenth century denigrate African Americans, while others, especially after the Civil War, show genre scenes of everyday life among African American families that depart from mainstream racist caricatures.”

Vanessa Beasley, associate professor of communication studies, also myth-busted in her course on the rhetoric of the American experience, tackling the most celebrated figure from the war years. “We have this idea of Lincoln as the reluctant hero,” she says. “Lincoln clearly wanted to be president, and he has more ambition than is represented. He’s also not as consistently anti-slavery throughout his career as popular culture represents him. He’s not always convinced that it’s a good idea to abolish slavery in slave states, for example. Often, he’s depicted as this isolated man in the White House who knows the right thing to do. There seems to be an ongoing need to depict the presidency in particular ways of this notion of a strong individual who doesn’t want to have the power.”

Founded Out of the Conflict

Because of the campus’ proximity to war sites, Teresa Goddu, director of the American Studies program and associate professor of English, offered a traveling course to area Civil War monuments, memorials and battlefields.

Students in Brandi Brimmer’s first-year seminar on black women’s activism in post-Civil War America also visited local sites. Assistant Professor of History Brimmer and her students explored locations connected with the life of Callie House, a Tennessee woman born into slavery who later led the fight to secure pensions for slaves.

Vanderbilt University’s ties to the Civil War are indelible, and not just because the Battle of Nashville was fought a few miles from where the campus stands. Shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt supported the Union Army and loaned numerous ships to the Northern war effort. Nearly a decade later, he made his first—and only known—significant charitable endeavor: $1 million to found a university in the South to help the region heal from the ravages of war.

It is partially for that reason and partially because it is located in the South that Vanderbilt must lead in discussions of the Civil War, Beasley believes.

“We need to have these conversations for a lot of reasons,” she says. “What does it mean to be a leading intellectual center in the South? Do we have a special obligation to the rest of the nation because we’re in the South?”

Like the Civil War itself, sometimes the questions have no easy answers.

illustration credit: Kurz and Allison Chromolithograph of the Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864,
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

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