When I first became interested in the Civil War, I was eight years old and it was all about the pretty dresses. Two years later, I visited my cousins and my older cousin Caleb was really interested in military history. He let me look through his collection of Civil War painting books. Some he turned me loose to explore on my own, others we paged through together, and he shielded me from the more violent paintings. I started to wonder and want to know more about the heroically painted men in blue and gray.
Returning home, I had a couple of age-appropriate “biographies” to “study.” Interestingly, Lee, Jackson, and Stuart were the first generals I was interested in learning more about because of the way they were depicted in paintings. My interest in Union generals came later and not really influenced by art.
Did you ever see something when you were a kid and really, really, really want it but it was on the off-limits shelf? Well, I found on a lower shelf in the family office a book of Mort Kunstler’s paintings: Images of the Civil War. I wanted to pull it out right when I found it, but remember waiting and asking my mom if it was okay! With permission granted, I was running off to the easy chair with the large book, ecstatic to have my very own book of Civil War paintings.
It has a fair share of generals’ portraits and almost-staged Civil War scenes and some battle paintings which I paged through quickly in the beginning. But then I started thinking: maybe I should look at the battle paintings and learn what the war was “really” like. So I looked closer, noting every detail on the falling and fallen soldiers’ faces. I tried to imagine what it might have been like for them. I tried to imagine their families back home. The paintings had pulled me into war studies in an entirely new way.
There was a fun element to my obsession with this book of paintings. My youngest brother always wanted to look with me. Just like my cousin had done when I was younger, I didn’t show my brother all the battle paintings. But we played a game called “name the generals.” Before many weeks had passed, he could name every general in a portrait in that book. (Ever heard a four year say Pierre Gustav Touissant Beauregard?) Then, we would look at the scene paintings, and I would tell him stories that I’d been learning. About the Irish Brigade. About Thomas and Mary Anna Jackson. About Grant and the Fourth of July at Vicksburg.
As I thought about the Civil War and pop-culture, I thought about these visuals that had inspired some of my beginning interests. I looked back through the volumes of 20th Century historical art that I’ve collected through the years. Some of my feelings have changed about the artwork. I don’t look with the same rapt awe that I did when I was ten. The cynical side of my brain questions some of the symbols and story-telling perspectives in the visuals, but for me, that is still tempered with an appreciation for art and the memories of how it shaped parts of my childhood.
Artists who have explored the Civil War through fine paintings in the last few decades have done much to shape and visualize legendary figures or moments from history. It is their “take” and their perspective on the moments. Many of us may think of a favorite painting’s depiction of a moment when we ready about it in a history book or visit the site at a battlefield. In a powerful way, artists shape ideas and put a lens on facts. Recognizing the positives and negatives of this is vital.
For me, my experience with Civil War fine art carries mostly positive moments and memories. It inspired me to explore more and fired my imagination. I’m not sure how many of those paintings I would actually want hanging in my home or apartment, but that’s a personal style choice. I still seek out the historic art galleries and take time to evaluate the messages sent through the visuals.
One of the battle paintings by Mort Kunstler that was in that original book I found on the family office shelf shows General Meagher leading the Irish Brigade at Antietam. It became a painting with special meaning to me. When I arrived at Central Virginia Battlefields Trust and started settling into my office room, I was told I could look through the historic painting prints waiting for an auction in the storeroom and choose one to temporarily hang above my office desk. I found a Kunstler print of General Meagher and the Irish Brigade on a hill overlooking Fredericksburg prior to that battle. It seemed perfect in every way; a location near the area where I’m working for preservation and a nod to original Irish Brigade painting that had fired my imagination and drew me deeper into understanding Civil War military history.