Reviewed by Jae Tyler (Kent State University)
Published on H-War (March, 2020)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Anniversaries, as a rule, are an invitation for a variety of responses to the commemorated subject. When war is the subject, processes of remembering, consensus, and forgetting can be fraught with contestation and conflict as multiple parties seek to connect wartime experience with postwar reality and identity. These dynamics constitute the foundation of Ian Finseth’s piercing examination of the United States’ cultural and intellectual relationship to the victims of the Civil War, collectively referred to as the “Civil War dead,” published just after the end of the American Civil War's 150th anniversary.
Intricately theoretical, cohesively interdisciplinary, and meticulously systematic, The Civil War Dead and American Modernity consists of only four chapters, each of which could easily be a standalone essay but which cohere equally well as a singular work. Finseth highlights different strategies witnesses and spectators used to reckon with death and integrate it into their personal, regional, or national experiences. The probing, thoughtful use of well-known and understudied sources provides weight and depth to his analyses.
The breadth of Finseth’s theoretical and disciplinary undertaking is especially notable. Carefully balancing insights from literary theory, psychology, and philosophy with history, his work is at once cultural commentary, historical study, and historiographical survey. His familiarity with his source bases allows for clarity and consistency as he outlines what it is about the Civil War dead that has kept them compelling subjects for contemporary and subsequent generations. What role, he asks, has the United States sought to make the Civil War dead (and, by extension, the American Civil War) play in defining the modern, national self (pp. 3-4)?
For Finseth, the continued relevance of the Civil War dead to the national story has come from their transformation into both agentive subjects and symbolic objects. The combatant dead receive primary consideration in Finseth’s consideration since the wartime context of their deaths lent their legacies to symbolic reinterpretation and appropriation. However, the primary thrust of Finseth’s argument is that the Civil War dead cannot be reached, since in death they entered an “altogether separate category of existence” (10). Any symbolic significance they are assigned speaks more to the entity doing the assigning. This core of inaccessibility, Finseth argues, makes the Civil War dead resistant to total assimilation, since multiple narratives have tried to fill and dominate their indomitable silence.
Finseth takes this perspective throughout his work. The first chapter deals with the immediate experience of encountering the dead, related through memoirs and letters from people at the front. In their attempts to communicate the impact of witnessing the “ghastly spectacle” of Civil War death, witnesses had to make an ultimately disruptive, unfamiliar experience more familiar. To do this, they had to define, redefine, abstract, or typify the dead. Even as they established experiential authority, then, those experiences ultimately reflected at least two degrees of mediation: first, the subjective interpretation of dying itself could only be a matter of speculation influenced by age, race, gender, or ideology; second, the experience of witnessing the dead firsthand, an experience unfamiliar to many of the participants in the American Civil War and readers, had to be retooled and made coherent.
The witnesses and their contemporaries were increasingly aware of this mediation, which Finseth argues is one of the characteristics of the developing American modernity by the 1860s. This sense of inauthenticity may have also been influenced by race, though Finseth states that what struck him the most from eyewitness accounts were the similarities rather than any differences, and he defers substantial discussions of racial difference in experience to later chapters. His approach to these witnesses is integrative and instructive. He considers the experiences of white and African American participants in tandem to demonstrate the commonalities in representation as symptomatic of this broader cultural recognizance of a gap between “genuine” experience and the “residue” of that experience in textual representation (p. 47). African Americans appear as equal participants in the cultural shift toward modernity, rather than outliers or outsiders.
Finseth’s own treatment of the identities behind the sources he considers is a central part of his approach, as he explicitly acknowledges the tension between remembrance and de-racialization that whitens the “Civil War dead.” This process obscures the multiracial character of wartime death and witness to that death, which could result in slaves on burial duty handling the dismembered bodies of white men who had died to keep them enslaved. Cognizance of such complexities, Finseth argues, is what studies of death in the American Civil War must maintain to be truly ethical in their approach or their conclusions. The ethical impact is, in his estimation, avoidance of the “cultural melancholia” (p. 7) that has required the continued relevance of the Civil War dead and the simultaneous rejection of their individual historicity. This attitude, Finseth argues, has not allowed the Civil War dead to die, but has kept them silenced and visible, accessible for appropriation that reinforces cultural dependency.
Finseth grounds his discussion of collective remembrance and identity in the actions of individuals throughout his work, which makes it a valuable contribution to memory studies. It encourages continued reflection and reexamination in self-reflexive, historical practice that constantly interrogates the conclusions that have become commonplace through collective remembering and forgetting. He also applies this understanding of the relationship between individual and collective memory in his later chapters. His analysis and inclusion of sources also makes this work particularly valuable as a foundational work inspiring further study.
His second chapter, on images, takes up the thread of the dominance of the image and of vision in creating and spreading knowledge, another constituent part of American modernity. In such images, creators engaged with the insecurity of their experiences in various ways, like Winslow Homer’s paintings of meditative figures that could evince an interior world still accessible in a busy, noisy, chaotic society. Such images rarely included gore or realistic death, and so they stay in the background as shadowy yet necessary referents. Alongside paintings, Finseth considers illustrations, photographs, lithographs, and other visual media. His systemic approach makes this chapter instructive for scholars seeking to use such considerations in their own work.
It is also in this chapter that Finseth provides one of his most incisive interventions in scholarship on the American Civil War and visual culture. Engaging the debate on photography’s capacity to inspire empathy, Finseth interrogates the conventional wisdom that the shocking realism of American Civil War photographs shifted spectators’ perceptions of war’s moral nature. This seemingly common-sense assertion, as Finseth demonstrates by mining bibliographies of many of the most influential studies on photography and visual culture, comes from studies that rely on two passages from two documents: an anonymous review in the New York Times from 1862, and an 1863 essay from Oliver Wendell Holmes in the Atlantic Monthly (p. 93). His discussion here is a clear call for greater scrutiny in the production of historical knowledge and an encouragement to approach all assumptions critically, especially assumptions about war and wartime society.
Finseth’s systemic consideration of visual sources also sidesteps issues of representativeness in primary sources, since photographs, paintings, woodcuts, lithographs, and illustrations all circulated among audiences of varying size and literacy. Though he does not present his conclusions as absolute truth, his careful treatment and broad inclusiveness are an excellent example for methodological approach and scope. By arguing for the potential of images to hold meaning and inspire reaction, Finseth capably demonstrates the unsettled nature of such sources, exacerbated by the divergent purposes for which different viewers approach them.
Like memoirs, letters, photographs, and illustrations, histories of the American Civil War appeared before the conflict had ended. Straddling the line between objectivity and subjectivity, these histories sought to make sense of the war by placing it within various grand historical narratives. Here, Finseth makes a valuable distinction between Northern and Southern histories. The former sought to integrate the conflict into a narrative of American exceptionalism and progress toward international prominence in which the dead were necessary byproducts. Southern histories had to reconcile the death of their soldiers and of the Confederate dream, while also creating a new identity moving forward and retaining a previous identity the war had not destroyed. The Confederate dead, Finseth argues, occupied a central role in this process, which considered whether their deaths had been in vain and thus challenged their heroism and postwar Southern identities’ historical antecedents.
Where the first two chapters emphasized similarities in reaction and interpretation across racial lines, Finseth dedicates a notable portion of his third chapter to African American histories of the war that sought to maintain its emancipationist implications. This separate historiography developed, as Finseth notes, because of the categoric dismissal of African American experiences in white histories, particularly Southern histories that developed the Lost Cause narrative that valorized Confederate death in the name of the “‘inestimable sovereign right of local self-government’” and attributed Union victory to numerical advantages rather moral or political truth (p. 175). Of necessity, this sanitization of the conflict involved a sanitization of the dead, making them more usable for a changing cultural emphasis on apolitical memorialization.
This apoliticism was only achievable among white Americans because of the persistence of white racism and supremacy, which Finseth names explicitly as the primary obstacle to the type of mourning that would settle the meaning of Civil War death. Though the commitment to white reconciliation was not unanimous, Finseth locates a more cohesive resistance in African American counterhistories that had to focus on something other than the experience of violence in the American Civil War—that violence, after all, was simply “part of [their] condition” as slaves (pp. 182-3). The rupture was emancipation, which represented an irrevocable break with the past. At the same time, however, the effectiveness of these counterhistories faced severe limitations from the multiple challenges they had to meet by “telling a story relegated to the margins of national history that had everything to do with the nation’s ideological center” (p. 184).
Finseth’s approach is valuable for its refusal to evaluate those works on that criteria in favor of a broadly similar interpretive framework that, though cognizant of the differences in experience that may have produced different “ways of death,” nonetheless sought to consider African American historians’ “individual, subjective relation[s] to the past” (p. 185). The insightful discussion in this section is an exciting demonstration of the analytical strength of critical considerations of race. Finseth’s work is a gateway through which scholars can and should pursue broader studies of racial difference in cultural development and collective memory.
The final chapter deals with fiction and American narrative imagination regarding the American Civil War and is his most sustained engagement with the contradiction of death’s essential unknowability and, as a result, unnarratability. Americans’ attempts to confront this disconnect resulted in multiple narrative frameworks that sought to translate this essential otherness into comprehensible conceptual structures. His inclusion of novels and short stories is particularly useful here, since he uses stories that came from prominent individuals like Ambrose Bierce alongside works that circulated widely among an increasingly literate public. He uses these sources to point to the interconnected relationship between realism and romance as opposed to an adversarial relationship between modern and obsolete narrative styles.
Finseth also discusses gender in this chapter as he highlights the roles that women played in producing textual representations of death. They also, as he shows, contributed directly to the effort to assimilate the American Civil War into the country’s history. In fact, Finseth makes an assertion that begs for continued study: that the American Civil War and the dead it produced became part of the foundation for “an increasingly feminist conception of American modernity” (p. 204). In this conception, women could produce texts and take public action to call for reinvention or, as Harriet Beecher Stowe did in 1865, caution against unresolved grief by turning their energies toward social reform. Finseth argues that the experience of loss from the American Civil War provided a distinct impetus and opportunity for women to claim public space and legitimacy and thus renegotiate social boundaries with their death-enabled, self-created womanhood. Finseth’s attention to the language of grief and the relationship between death, loss, identity, and politics is particularly striking for its integration of emotional interiority, psychological development, and cultural change.
Finseth elevates the notion of “sacrifice” in the final sections of his fourth chapter, arguing for its central interpretive utility in making sense of the scale of bloodshed and loss experienced because of the war. The concept itself, he notes, in literary contexts had been abstracted to accommodate the loss of nearly an entire generation. Sacrifice also influenced the meanings the war could have for people, whether the death that resulted was necessary or pointless, and what that meant for the direction and character of American history and identity. The loaded nature of this concept led to a variety of narrative coping strategies and formed the impetus for the competing roles the dead themselves played in representations. A sacrificial hero, the logic goes, willingly assumed the risk of death, and therefore the hero himself, though dead, retained a capacity for agency, retrospectively. For enslaved African Americans, however, this notion of sacrifice in the service of greater good or freedom that courted death mirrored their everyday experiences as slaves. This continuity that Finseth highlights is a valuable complement to other studies that examine continuities in African American experience through the mid-to-late nineteenth century, like Steven Hahn’s influential assertion of the centrality of kinship networks in African American political organization throughout slavery and emancipation. It also parallels many well-known studies of the role of white supremacy and solidarity in limiting African Americans’ postwar opportunities.
At the same time, Finseth’s treatment of white supremacy demonstrates the value of historicizing its presence and its effects on cultural change. It suffuses many of the most well-known (or, at least, best-preserved) historical sources and artifacts from the time period Finseth examines and therefore influences the interpretations that can be gleaned from them. Following his interpretive example in contextualizing sources illuminates what they, like the dead, cannot say, as well as what audiences can hear. This sort of attention, too, reflects the tension between the search for authentic, genuine truth, and the creeping certainty that such truth does not—cannot—exist.
The combatant dead themselves do not play a very active role in Finseth’s analysis, existing mostly as referents against which the living sought to make sense of the world. Finseth limits his treatment of the Civil War dead to the considerations of the living people who talked about them, exemplifying the approach he prescribed at the outset. Rather than make them speak or speak for them, Finseth lets them rest. As a result, his work is a window to the cultural chaos of the postwar period.
The organizational structure makes this book a useful resource for cultural historians, literary scholars, psychological studies, and those interested in how societies make and remake themselves through the crucible of war or in “our own modern relation to [the Civil War] era” (p. 17). It also complements studies from David Blight and Caroline Janney of memory production quite well in its holistic approach to the avenues of memory production and reproduction and its consideration of how individuals contribute to collective processes of remembrance and amnesia. Finally, The Civil War Dead and American Modernity, as a rumination on the nature of modern culture, is a critical commentary on the strategies modern societies (the United States in particular) use to forge a sense of self. These strategies, for all we have gained from them, have also created an incapacity for genuine mourning and closure and the refusal of a three-dimensional, historical existence for the dead themselves. Their sacrifice, it would seem, has been taken from them; left in symbolic limbo, they remain conscripted in perpetual service.
. Steven Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).
. See Finseth’s discussion in his endnotes, 264n63. David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); and Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Jae Tyler. Review of Finseth, Ian Frederick, The Civil War Dead and American Modernity.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|