I love reading memoirs written about the Civil War era, you get a real feeling what people thought about their world and the events that they witnesse...moreI love reading memoirs written about the Civil War era, you get a real feeling what people thought about their world and the events that they witnessed.
"A Girl's Life in Virginia Before the War" by Letitia M. Burwell was first published in 1895 when the Lost Cause and Moonlight and Magnolias myth was becoming firmly established in American culture. Following the end of the war the market was overwhelmed by books and regimental histories written by Union veterans which firmly established the Union narrative and celebrated the deeds of President Lincoln, and the Union generals such as Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan. Also being produced were memoirs written by black soldiers and former slaves who detailed the horrors of slavery. By 1876 the mood of the nation began to change, with the end of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crowe in the South, and a devastating financial depression many in the North began to express weariness with the constant reminders of the horrors of the war and the evils of slavery.
Into this void Southern authors began to produce a new genre of literature that promoted the Southern way of life. War veterans penned narratives extolling the virtues of Confederate leaders such as Lee and the bravery of the gallant Southern solider as he battled against the evil Yankees whose mercenary (Irish, German, black) soldiers laid waste to the Southern fields and cities. Southern women writers also contributed their voice and penned nostalgic memoirs about life on the plantation, such as Burwell's offering.
In the opening Letitia Burwell makes it quite clear that she is writing this book so that her nieces will not be ashamed by their slave holding ancestors. Burwell's fears that her nieces are being poisoned by wicked Yankee authors who are once again plotting against the South by writing, in Burwell's worldview, exaggerated stories about the evils of slavery. What the reader gets is a fascinating view of Southern culture from a very sheltered and pampered Southern belle. Her views on the benefits of slavery and plantation life is fascinating--though in our modern eyes highly offensive. Many readers will be offended by her use of slave dialect and how she presented slaves as nothing more than adult sized children, but it sheds light on how many 19th Southerners (male and female) viewed African Americans and the institution of slavery.
Another fascinating aspect of Letitia Burwell's memoir is her depiction of Virginia plantation culture on the eve of the Civil War. Burwell was born into an elite and old Virginia family and her memoir reads like a Who's Who of Virginia plantation society. For all its grandeur, luxury, and romance this was a society that was already several generations past its glory days. In fact, Burwell's elders were more concerned about the achievements of their ancestors and how things had been better back in the day, then with the pressing needs of the future. This was a society that was on the verge of collapse with practically everyone burying their heads in the sand while clinging desperately onto their slaves. This house of cards was already on the verge of destruction when the Civil War came to knock it over. Ironically, Letitia Burwell ends up like her grandmother who gathered the youngsters around her and extolled the virtues of the past and decried the advancements of the modern age.
"A Girl's Life in Virginia Before the War" is a fascinating time capsule and an excellent example of the growing literary genre that would eventually produce the works of Thomas Dixon, Jr. and "Gone With the Wind." (less)
Mark Elson's beautiful photographs and Jeannie Stein's introduction and captions welcomes the reader to the often misunderstood world of Civil War ree...moreMark Elson's beautiful photographs and Jeannie Stein's introduction and captions welcomes the reader to the often misunderstood world of Civil War reenacting. As a Civil War reenactor (or living historian) myself I have seen how the media usually portrays reenactors as uneducated, conservative, rednecks who strap on their Confederate flags and play soldier in an attempt to bring back the glory days of the "lost cause." In fact in a feature Vanity Fair magazine referred to Civil War reenacting as something that is only done in conservative red states, in comparison to the sophisticated, liberal blue states. Rather, Civil War reenacting is a national pastime and can be found in such unlikely places as in Hawaii and has became as equally popular in Europe.
This is what is celebrated in Elson's and Stein's gorgeous coffee table book. Through photographs taken both with period wet plate cameras and more modern cameras, Elson presents a vibrant picture of reeacting. In the pictures the reader sees the passion for history that makes the best reenactor stands out. We are a dedicated bunch, not only are we devoting our weekends to attend reenactments, but being a reenactor is not cheap as an accurate outfit (soldier or civilian) can cost hundreds of dollars. For me reenacting is a chance to become connected to the time and period, even if just for the moment. Wearing the clothes and studying the mannerisms of the Civil War acts as a bridge from today to the past and I stand in awe at the bravery of the average person who lived through such a dramatic, chaotic moment in US history. When I watch the battles, I wonder about the thoughts and feelings of the average soldier who stood facing an enemy whose duty was to try to kill each other. At the conclusion of each battle taps is solemnly played followed by recall when all the dead and wounded soldiers rise again and the audience claps. For me, that brings the reality of the Civil War home to me. At the conclusion of Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, and Shiloh there was no recall where the dead and wounded rose unscathed, but death and destruction with grieving families North and South. "Battlefields of Honor: American Civil War Reenactors" is a beautiful tribute to those who spend their time bringing the Civil War back to life so that we can learn the lesson of history. (less)