The Civil War is Now More Pop Culture Than History in the American Psyche


War has a way of becoming romanticized. For each year that we remove ourselves from a conflict, it becomes something more and more glossed over and immortal. Iconic images from the past mix with our pop culture of today in a way that makes the war something noble (in some cases) and isolated from the real world we experience in a larger-than-life way.

Some wars.

As the Civil War celebrates its 150-year anniversary period (starting last year), we can see first hand a war that has become something so romanticized that the fact that America was once at war with itself can become largely overlooked. Look at any local newspaper’s “What’s Happening in X” Section and you are sure to find a Civil War re-enactment nearby. The Civil War, like so many other wars, has become an epic story that we tell and retell separated from what the war was about or felt like.

And no one is to blame; it is just something that happens.

A recent, ambitious art project called the National Civil War Project is a collaboration directed by choreographer Liz Lerman. The project will bring together productions and produced pieces of art from Harvard, the American Repertory Theater and nine other universities and performing art organizations. All the pieces will be performed throughout the United States with stories coming from both Union and Confederate states. The project will extend until 2015, the duration of the war’s 150 year anniversary (1861-1865).

The project, while serving a very important purpose, does shed light on how war, over time, becomes something almost mythological in its scope. To look at a photograph from the Civil War is to see a world that we are no longer a part of, but yet, it is the very same world we live in. A recent photo-set featured on NPR features wet-plate photographer Todd Harrington retracing the steps of Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner in what is a very interesting juxtaposition of the then and the now. The photos show one place in two very different contexts.

But, when seeing Gardner’s old photographs, one can’t help but feel separated from them. They are a picture of what was that will be forever remembered in that way; as a hard moment in our nation’s history that we hold little connection to or understand very little about. It is a moment that is alive everywhere, but remains elusive in the scope of how it connects to who we are today.

It seems like our choice of wars to emblazon across the big-screen and keep alive in our collective consciousness skips over some. World War II, thanks to Saving Private Ryan and a multitude of other fantastic films, will always keep the greatest generation and that war alive in our memories as something almost unreal to the point of becoming a modern epic with a compelling good-verses-evil narrative. However, WWII’s Great War counterpart of a generation prior, World War I, seems to have largely escaped that level of public narrative save most of Hemingway’s work.

The Vietnam War, while not having the same good-verses-evil narrative as WWII, has definitely been solidified in the public consciousness in a vivid way. Think of Platoon. All the while, the Korean War of the 1950s is more of a footnote in our national cultural conversation of iconic wars. It is still too soon to tell what our cultural will make of the recent Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then there is the Civil War; our Civil War.

Growing up, I was obsessed with the Civil War. My family would take me to reenactments where I would show up in full union uniform and take it all in. I spent four years of Halloween in a row as the youngest soldier on the front lines. I had (and still have) piles of history books beyond my years in my closet that I would look through just for all of the old photographs. There was just something about the Civil War. Maybe it was the uniforms or that pre-turn of the century frontier atmosphere of America, but the Civil War for me, was something beyond compare.

But, it never felt like something real, it was just something fascinating.

To this day, the debate over the main cause of the Civil War is still, according to a Pew Research Poll last year, a fresh debate and like anything else in this world that involves humans, it will never be black and white. Was the driving force behind the war slavery, as it is widely believed to be, or states rights? Was the Union Army really a vastly more affluent war machine than the Southern Confederate forces or were they really just as much an army in disrepair?

And, when the debates are put to the side and solid research is conducted to piece together the individual stories, we are left with pictures of a horrible, divisive and political war. Case in point, read this fascinating story about the Mosby Rangers.

As time passes on, we become more and more separated from our own history and each time we recall that period of our nation’s history, something is lost and replaced with an inaccurate picture. The Civil War will be a moment we never quite understand or have a full picture of and the only thing we can do is continue to remember it in any way we can. If last week’s burial of two Union soldiers found in the turret of the USS Monitor is any indication, we are forever running away from our past while we try to keep it alive as best as we can.