Commemorating the Civil War

A great new exhibit, The Civil War and American Art, is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Steve and I took Joe, a fan of Civil War history, and Karen, after they arrived unexpectedly from San Francisco just after I had heard the show’s curator, Eleanor Jones Harvey, on the Diane Rehm show. She spoke with knowledge and passion about how art before during and after the Civil War reflected the gathering storm, the horrors of war and the agonies of reconstruction. The paintings, especially those of Winslow Homer, concentrate the emotions of people of that time with great impact, as you will see in this link (photography is not allowed in the exhibit). I bought the book, so I can learn more. Fifty years ago, my mother was fascinated by the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, in which her grandfathers fought on opposite sides. After visiting Antietam Battlefield in September and seeing these paintings, I have a new perspective and a deeper appreciation of the era.

On July 16, 2013 I returned to the Smithsonian for a wonderfully engaging lecture by historian and tour leader Gregg Clemmer: “Are We Still Fighting the Civil War?”

…the Civil War defined us as what we are, and it opened us to what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you’re going to understand the American character…to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.”-Shelby Foote, historian and novelist

The Civil War continues to echo through our nation’s life. It is reflected in films, (Lincoln, Gone With the Wind, Birth of a Nation, Gods and Generals), music (Battle Hymn of the Republic, Dixie, Yellow Rose of Texas, and even I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day) and literature (Leaves of Grass, When Lilacs Last by the Dooryard Bloom’d, Red Badge of Courage). It also influences how we fight modern wars and conduct our battles over civil rights. Clemmer delved into the meaning behind this enduring legacy, and pointed out what we learned from the conflict that so influences our thinking today. Might our confusion over the war’s causes versus the war’s purpose—from our 150-year-distant perspective—explain why we seem to be growing more divisive as a people?

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