Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Learning About Our Civil War

Photo of Civil War soldierJohn L. Burns, the "old hero of Gettysburg," with gun and crutches. Gettysburg, PA, 1863. Timothy H. O'Sullivan, photographer. Library of Congress

Isn’t it fascinating how the presentation of the Civil War has changed so radically in our lifetime? I imagine that after the war veterans, and later matriarchs, handed down family tales at the kitchen table. But in my youth magazines and books were the only options. Now, we have award winning documentaries on DVD and the internet.

My first exposure to the American Civil War was through conversations with my grandmother, and the books of Bruce Catton. My grandmother was a voracious reader and raconteur of family history. I sat down with her at the kitchen table clutching a notebook expecting to discover exciting, or at least scandalous, stories of our family’s part in the Civil War. At first she only responded with a terse explanation: “all those people are dead and buried. Just leave ‘em in the ground.” When I pushed, she explained that “we had people who fought on both sides.”

Bruce Catton, on the other hand, filled my teenage mind with visions of heroic men dressed in blue or butternut charging across open fields against impossible odds. Battlefield names like Antietam, the Wilderness, and Vicksburg sounded as glorious as any battle fought by Alexander or Caesar. The writing was mesmerizing to a teenager, and though it sounds clich├ęd, Catton truly brought the war to life for me. I remember reading about the siege of Vicksburg and experiencing an odd, dueling sensation of pity and confusion. How could anyone feel anything but pity for the citizens of Vicksburg? Men, women, and children were reduced to eating first their horses and mules, then vermin, to survive. But I was confused by the path the Confederate commander of the doomed city, John Clifford Pemberton, had chosen for himself. He was born and reared in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and had graduated from West Point. Yet he chose to fight for the South.

Several decades later I watched Shelby Foote in the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War. The epic nine-episode masterpiece left me with an overwhelming sense of sadness. The bittersweet tune "Ashokan Farewell" playing over images of senseless deaths at the hands of hapless generals at places like Burnside’s bridge, the Crater, and Fredericksburg reminded me that there is little glory in war. I will never forget the grainy image of the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The old, maimed soldiers who were brought to the battlefield refused to take part in a mock recreation of the carnage. Instead, they embraced each other like survivors of some terrible storm.

And of course the Civil War has found a home on the Internet. (In fact, all of the above links, with the exception of "Ashokan Farewell," are from the library’s various subject guides.) While reading about a battle I can view maps, photographs and video. There is no doubt that learning about the Civil War online can be an immersive, sensory experience. But the Internet can’t duplicate sitting at your grandmother’s table. The library can’t recreate that kitchen table experience either, but we can come close. Beginning March 15th, the Birmingham Public Library will host a free five-part reading and discussion series called Let's Talk About It: Making Sense of the American Civil War. The series encourages participants to consider the legacy of the Civil War and emancipation. Come, join us. You may not learn what your ancestors did in the war, but you will learn about their legacy.

Submitted by D.N. Ryan
Social Sciences Department
Central Library

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