Our continuing series features the spring 2016 course:

The American Civil War: Art and Material Culture

In Robert Lowell’s words, “The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier / grow slimmer and younger each year.” The Civil War remains divisive, subject to myth-making as well as historical interpretation. In one sense, it has never ended. By looking at the role material culture and visual representation played in the war, and continue to play in its remembrance, this seminar is trying to come to terms with the legacy of the conflict, and with the relationship between collective memory and history.

We are assembling material for an online exhibition. We examine ten themes, one each week. They include “Slavery Before and During the War,” “Raising Regiments and Companies,” and “Care of the Sick, Wounded, and Captured.” Within each theme there are five topics. Each student researches one topic each week, choosing an object as the focus of discussion. Following presentation in class, they post their texts on the course wiki. They can continue to revise their postings until the end of the semester. The students’ choice of objects takes me by surprise every week. For instance, under “Sufferers for a Cause,” Jefferson Davis, sometime president of the Confederacy, was represented by a crown of thorns given to him by his wife while he was in prison (Confederate Memorial Hall, New Orleans).

One of the many challenges of this undertaking is to be even-handed, making sure that neither North nor South is overrepresented. There is also an ethical dimension to this project, and I hope that all of us will bear in mind that if to establish grounds for judgment is among the duties of the philosopher, among those of the historian is to ensure that none should be too comfortable in its exercise.

—Professor Ivan Gaskell

1 of 3
Lee’s surrender, Appomattox Court House, Virginia, modern print from original glass and wet collodion negative, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Gladstone Collection of African American Photographs, Washington, DC.
1886, zinc, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn.