Title: Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America
Author: Kirk Savage
Categories: Memorialization, Memory, Civil War, Race, Slavery, Emancipation
Place: The United States
Time Period: 1850s-1890s
Working as an art historian, Kirk Savage analyzes public memorials and sculptures made to commemorate the Civil War. Prior to the war, public war memorials were relatively rare, but in the decades after the war they witnessed an explosion. But this growth, Savage argues, followed a particular path in order to serve a particular purpose: reconciling white Americans at the expense of excluding and marginalizing black Americans and slavery. Before the war, the black body had long posed a problem for white sculptors, who upheld classical sculpture as the ideal of human form. Black bodies, therefore, were a negation of idealized classical sculpture and, in fact, racial theorists used white classical sculpture to argue for the scientific inferiority of blacks. In the immediate aftermath of war, sculptors struggled with how to commemorate emancipation and slavery, eventually settling on the trope of Lincoln as the Benevolent Emancipator standing over a servile, crouching slave. Savage argues that this vision, one that reinforced the dependency and marginality of blacks, won out over a brief example of an alternative image: John Quincy Adams Ward's Freedman, sculpted in 1863, that showed the humanity and heroism of black slaves. Instead, black bodies became a vessel for valorizing Lincoln and, as the decades wore on, melted away entirely from depictions of Lincoln.
In the South, commemoration of the war increasingly settled on a military one through the figure of Robert E. Lee - portrayed as a manly, heroic master via his mastery over his horse (a veiled reference to mastery over slaves). Finally, Savage traces the penultimate rise of the common-soldier memorial across both North and South. The memorial served as a means of depoliticizing the war, instead emphasizing the shared experience of sacrifice and quiet heroism of white men on both sides. Black soldiers were almost completely excluded from this vision, and in fact their exclusion was crucial for the process of reconciliation occurring by the 1890s between North and South. Slavery receded as a vague symbol, subsumed under shared military experience.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Reconciliation of whites in decades after Civil War at the expense of blacks
- Dissonance of sculpting black bodies with classical ideals of beauty and aesthetics - turn in part towards racial categorization
- Common-soldier motif erases slavery from memory
- Lincoln as Beneficent Emancipator with a kneeling slave as his side
- Lost opportunity: flashes of memorializing an interracial society, but these ultimately are eschewed in favor of racial exclusion
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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