Telling History vs. Making Art: An upcoming series at Emerging Civil War

Introduction to a series

As part of my doctoral work, I recently had to do some work that focused on Civil War literature. I use “literature” in a broad sense to cover fiction, nonfiction, and film.

My interest in the topic stems from my work as a historian for Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. Visitors come to the battlefields for many reasons—frequently because they’ve read a book or watched a movie. Therefore, such texts serve an important function in inspiring visitors to actually visit. However, those texts also serve to influence the way those visitors understand history. Seldom do visitors make the distinction between “history” and “art”–and fewer things seem to aggravate some of my colleagues more! 

So, in conjunction with my exam adviser, we drafted a list of more than thirty texts for me to read/watch, and when I finished, I had a “question” to address (and 72 hours in which to address it):

Collective and popular memories of any important historical event often tend to perpetuate foundational myths about regional or national identity that are belied by history. This is particularly true of the American Civil War. Write an essay in which you, first, describe some of what David Blight and Gary Gallagher call “collective memories” of the war that have survived at the expense of others; and second, examine popular works about the war that perpetuate such memories, and how (or whether) they balance fiction and history. In your conclusion, please also address the following issue: when history and the creative license of art conflict, where does the historical novelist’s or film-maker’s obligation lie? In writing your essay you should feel free to refer to any novel or film on your reading list, of course; but please choose four or five to concentrate upon and discuss in detail. And please cite any historical or critical works on your list that are relevant to your argument.

What follows over the next five weeks is my answer to that question. I’ve broken my essay into chunks to make it more digestible for you (and, I promise, it’s not written in boring scholarly “academese”!).

There were texts on my initial list that I didn’t end up drawing from in the series, and I’m sure there will be texts that do not appear in the series that you’ll want to read about. I also suspect there will be texts in the series that will surprise you. I’ll poke a few sacred cows, and I invite you to poke back. (And anything I don’t cover in the series that folks do want to talk about can certainly be the subjects of future posts–just let me know!)

My hope, in the end, is to challenge some assumptions that historians, artists, and audiences have about “art” and “history” and the relationship between them.


For anyone interested, here’s the list I initially had to work from:


Benet, Stephen Vincent. John Brown’s Body.

Bierce, Ambrose. The Civil War Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce.

Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage.

Frazier, Charles. Cold Mountain.

Foote, Shelby. Shiloh: A Novel.

Jiles, Paulette. Enemy Women.

Kantor, McKinley. Andersonville.

Mitchell, Margaret. Gone With the Wind.

Olmstead, Robert. Coal Black Horse.

Shaara, Jeff. Gods and Generals.

Shaara, Jeff. The Last Full Measure.

Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Whitman, Walt. Civil War Poetry and Prose.


Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative—Fort Sumter to Perryville (Vol. I).

Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative—Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vol. II).

Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative—Red River to Appomattox (Vol. III).

Grant, Ulysses S. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.

Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic.

Lowenfels, Walter (ed.) Walt Whitman’s Civil War.


Burns, Ken (dir). The Civil War.

Maxwell, Ron (dir). Gettysburg.

Maxwell, Ron (dir). Gods & Generals.

Minghella, Anthony (dir). Cold Mountain.

Wood, Sam (dir). Gone With the Wind.

Zwick, Edward (dir). Glory.

Theory and Criticism

Ashdown, Paul. A Cold Mountain Companion.

Blight, David. Race & Reunion. (This book has become the Memory Studies bible for Civil War scholarship since it’s publication a decade ago. I would like to use this and Gary Gallagher’s book (below) to provide the theoretical framework for the exam.)

Blight, David. American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era. (A look at the Civil War-related writings of four prominent American writers—Bruce Catton, Robert Penn Warren, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin— during the war’s Centennial.)

Desjardin, Thomas. These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory.

Fuller, Randall. From Battlefields Rising: How the Civil War Transformed American Literature.

Gallagher, Gary. Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What we Know About the Civil War. (Gallagher is the most famous academic working in public history. He writes a lot about Civil War memory and the Civil War in popular culture.)

Gallagher, Gary. “How Familiarity Bred Success: Military Campaigns and Leaders in Ken Burns’s The Civil War.” Lee and His General in War and Memory.

Hartwig, Scott. A Killer Angels Companion.

Perry, Mark. Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship that Changed America.

Toplin, Robert Brent. Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond.

Warren, Robert Penn. The Legacy of the Civil War.

Waugh, Joan. “Ulysses S. Grant, Historian.” The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture.

Wills, Brian Steel. Gone with the Glory: The Civil War in Cinema.

Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. (The editors of Modern Library chose Wilson’s book as one of the Top 100 works of nonfiction in the 20th Century. Patriotic Gore no longer has much impact on popular culture, but his examination of the war’s impact on Civil War-era writers would give me some historical context useful for my explorations.)

8 Responses to Telling History vs. Making Art: An upcoming series at Emerging Civil War

  1. A very interesting topic, and I am awaiting the discussion to follow. Years ago when I was in college, a professor dealt with a similar issue from a different slant: the role of the novel as a reflection of culture during the time it was written–how people talked and thought and what was important in their everyday lives, irrespective of the plot of the novel itself. There were lessons to be learned from the interaction of the characters based on the mindset of the author who was a product of his/her times (ie. Charles Dickens in Victorian England). Where does that place Uncle Tom’s Cabin in our literary output during the period in which it was written? Does it have any historical value irrespective of its theme? What we are discussing here, however, is post-Civil War literature and film in which our contemporary cultural milieu has, at least psychologically, influenced the perspective of its creator. This is so not only in the language of the characters, but, more importantly, how they would have actually thought about things and what was important to them in those days. The larger issue, then, is how can the novelist or movie producer today transport himself/herself back in time and yet avoid vestiges of modern 21st century thought in portraying what occurred? Another issue is how pervasive these subtle influences really are in our literary and film output and whether, over time, could they eventually distort our appreciation of the past and give a false impression of its characters? For example, how might one view Lincoln or Aaron Burr as portrayed in Gore Vidal’s novels and would those portrayals be accurate? This is particularly significant if the main source of historical information is the novel or film.

  2. As you guessed, I can hardly wait for this!! I have been swamped by my own academic work, but would greatly appreciate links to the theory/criticism articles because–as we all know–there just isn’t enough out there about the Civil War!!! After I typed that. albeit facetiously, I realized that I actually meant it–there is never enough good stuff to read, look at, think about, immerse oneself in. What is it about this war?

  3. I have a question: so that we can better prepare for your answer essay as it unfolds, can you please tell us ahead of time which five novels/films, etc. that you chose to focus on? In your list you indicated the critical works that you rely on, but not the artistic works unless I missed it. Thank you!

    1. Amanda —

      Part of the fun for me as a writer is to keep my audience a little in suspense. 😉 The way the series will unfold, most of the segments focus on a particular work rather than interweaving five or six works throughout the full series. That’ll make it easier to keep track of things for folks, I hope.

  4. I agree… there isn’t a lot out there that covers the Civil war. However, I was grateful to have stumbled across a good one the other day- a fabulous historical fiction titled, “Up From Corinth: Book 2 of Journey Into Darkness” by J. Arthur Moore. The book was remarkable. In fact I think that colleges and universities should consider it as a teaching tool to help preserve our history though the use of historic fiction.

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