21 August 2009

"Fantasy?" I Don't Think So

In my last post, I defended Gary Casteel's most recent statue against some baseless and agenda-driven criticisms coming from Kevin Levin's blog. The critical comments have now sunk to linking to 19th century cartoons featuring the KKK. Legitimate criticism of art is one thing, but what in the world does that have to do with a statue of two brothers embracing and reconciling at the end of the Civil War? The comments and criticisms being offered are a little on the weird side. Why all the fuss and snarky comments over a very well-done depiction and interpretation of events and sentiments that were a well-documented part of the Civil War? I just don't understand the over-the-top, negative tone of the criticism. Even some of Kevin's readers, who normally agree with him, are having the same difficulty understanding the criticism and animosity. Very strange.

But to the point that these "art critics" are characterizing the Brothers statue (which shows two brothers--one Yankee and one Confederate--embracing after the war), as a "fantasy", I'd like to quote from Daniel N. Rolph's excellent book: My Brother's Keeper - Union and Confederate Soldiers' Acts of Mercy During the Civil War. As several readers have noted in my last post, Casteel's statue also conveys the same theme as Rolph's book.

". . . the many individual 'Good Samaratin' acts of kindness and generosity of common soldiers and citizens toward their enemies are largely unfamiliar to both the scholar and the general public. Both "Rebels" and "Yankess" were by and large raised from the cradle to the grave on the same fundamental values and principles contained within the Judeo-Christian Bible. At a time when honor and chivalry were virtues not only to be idealized but also emulated, it is little wonder that such cases of human charity and compassion did indeed occur."

(Rolph holds a M.A. in history from the University of Kentucky as well as a Ph.D. in folklore/folklife from the University of Pennsylvania, so I would assume he holds some credibility with our snarky academics turned art critics.)

Rolph's book gives detailed accounts of many of these "cases of human charity and compassion", including probably the best known: the Richard Kirkland (Angel of Marye's Heights) story. (The statue which portrays that "fantasy" is featured in the header of the NPS/ Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania website.)

One of my favorite stories that Rolph recounts is something that happened at the 1913 "Gettysburg Reunion" (which is where the iconic photo featured here was taken). This story describes not only one of these acts of charity and compassion, but also contains the theme of reconciliation that was prevalent after the WBTS. Rolph recounts the story like this:
During the famous "Gettysburg Reunion" held in 1913 at the former battlefield, two veterans of that engagement--and former enemies--met one another again, but under much different circumstances. Participating in the famed Pickett's Charge in July 1863, A. C. Smith of the 56th Virginia had actually "just climbed over" the wall "when he was hit" by a Federal bullet. He told friends at the wall in 1913 that after being wounded "a Union soldier gave him some water and took him to the hospital," adding, "He's gone to his reward by this time I reckon."
Rolph continues . . .
At that moment, Albert N. Hamilton, a veteran of the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry, arrived at the same wall, and was telling his friends that "it was right here that a Johnny fell into my arms. I lifted him up and gave him a swig of water, and then got him on my shoulders and carried him off, but . . . " At that instance, Smith, who'd been listening, called out to Hamilton and shouted, "Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, it's YOU, brother!" Then the two former foes are said to have "fell into each other's arms, embracing.
The reconciliation theme of the WBTS is also a major theme at the new Gettysburg Visitors Center and Museum. Frankly, I think the animosity and crititism directed toward Mr. Casteel and his work is motivated by something other than scholarship.


Chaps said...

"At a time when honor and chivalry were virtues not only to be idealized but also emulated, it is little wonder that such cases of human charity and compassion did indeed occur."

I think the reason that there is such vitriolic criticism is that we live in an era where the virtues mentioned above are snickered at by academics and intellectuals.

"We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst."
-C.S. Lewis

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


You are absolutely correct and that is one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes.

Michael Bradley said...

I don't usually look at Levin's site because I know that his biases rule his writings; I also know he does not tolerate dissenting views being posted on his site. However, I did look to see what was being said about Casteel.

While there I ran across pictures of the "final projects" his students had done for the summer trimester. Guess what! One of the featured "projects" deals with reconciliation between North & South--a picture of figures of Lincoln, Lee, and a soldier of the 54th Mass.

I am pleased the student gets the concept of respect and reconciliation. But I wonder why his teacher thinks the student's work is good but Casteel's represesnts a "childish, mythical approach"

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


It doesn't fit the current faddish template of historiography.

Thanks for the comment.

Michael Bradley said...

Well, Richard, you are right. I am amazed that so many teachers of history (I did not say "historians") are ignorant of historiography. History is subject to fads and fashions and the interpretation of the past is constantly changing. There have been numerous "schools of interpretation" concerning the CW since the first books were published on it, beginning in the late 1860's.

The current school of historiography uses the lenses of race and gender to understand the war. This view emerged in the 1960's as an offspring of the Civil Rights movement.

Too many people who think they know history think this is the only way the past can be seen and that no other view of the past has any legitimacy. Of course, in time the current view will be outmoded as a new interpretation will arise.

In short, no student of history can afford to think that their view is the only or the permanent way of seenig the past.

Unfortunately, many who write about the past do not understand this.