Monday, May 31, 2021

Viewing the Civil War

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

How did Americans experience the Civil War away from the battlefield? Earlier this spring we hosted our annual Civil War Lecture series online. This year’s talks examined how viewers participated in the war through practices of reading, mapmaking, and prison tourism, and how prisoner of war memoirs shaped public understanding after the war. The three talks are now available to watch as one or in parts, and can be found on both our Facebook page and YouTube channel. Each talk is around twenty minutes and offers a new way to view events that took place over one hundred and fifty years ago. Here’s a brief description to entice you to watch them, or watch them again and share.

Dr. Jillian S. Caddell

Our first speaker was Dr. Jillian S. Caddell. Dr. Caddell’s Civil War talk “To Follow with Eye and Pencil: Experiencing the Civil War from Home” showcased alternative ways that American citizens participated in the war by following accounts published in newspapers or telegrams. Viewers recorded the events on specially printed Marking maps.

As she mentions in her talk’s introduction, Dr. Caddell is familiar with the work we do at the Chemung County Historical Society. She also discovered a personal connection with our area, finding a Confederate relative buried in nearby Woodlawn National Cemetery. She reflects on this personal experience in a wonderful C19 podcast she did on SoundCloud titled “Monumentalizing John W. Jones.Dr. Caddell is also one of the 2021 Mark Twain Fellows at the Center for Mark Twain Studies and scheduled to speak in Elmira in the fall.

More about Dr. Caddell's scholarship looking at 19th century literature, concurrent history, and how it affected and influenced a sense of place can be found here

Dr. Michael P. Gray

Our second speaker was Dr. Michael Gray, a professor at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Gray’s talk “Looking Over the Deadline: The Rise of Elmira Prison as a Dark Tourist Destination in the Chemung Valley” considered another kind of viewer participation. Rather than viewing the war through telegrams and reports, Gray’s viewers participated by gawking. They paid money to climb observatory platforms and view the prisoners. These viewers were encouraged to mock, insult, and even throw objects at the prisoners, despite military rules prohibiting this kind of behavior. While not unique to Elmira’s Civil War prison, as Dr. Gray points out, it was practiced enthusiastically and profitably here. Unlike Dr. Caddell’s sympathetic viewers who followed along, these were viewers who wanted to participate directly in the war and were frustrated by social barriers.

Dr. Gray has been series editor on Voices of the Civil War for University of Tennessee Press for over a decade and has published multiple books and writings on the Civil War, including The Business of Captivity: Elmira and Its Civil War Prison published by Kent State University Press, in 2001. His Civil War talk for us was from part of a new chapter in Carceral Footprints Left in the Civil War North: Trappings of the Camp Douglas and Elmira Prison Environs published this spring by Kansas University Press.

Dr. Angela M. Riotto
Our third speaker was Dr. Angela Riotto, a historian with the Army University Press in Kansas, Missouri. Her talk was titled "Poor Helpless Soldiers at their Mercy: Survivors of Elmira and their Memories of Captivity." Viewers in Dr. Riotto’s talk were the Confederate prisoners themselves. Using primary sources in the form of narratives and diaries, she looked at how prisoner views and recollections shapeshifted after the war. During their imprisonment, prisoners made few references of blame in their personal writings, but after the war many feared their confederate cause would be lost. Many prisoner recollections changed to blame, and the shift reinforced common tropes of intentional evil. Rewriting their own experiences affected a public understanding of prisoner experiences, and overall view of the war.

Dr. Riotto has contributed to many books on the Civil War, including The War Went On: Reconsidering the Lives of Civil War Veterans published by LSU Press in April, 2020, and more recently, Useful Captives: The Role of POWs in American Military Conflicts published this past February by University of Press, Kansas.

CCHS was honored to host these three speakers from very different parts of the world. Each speaker’s email is posted in the recorded talk and they encourage and welcome any questions and comments.

We do regret they can’t hear our applause.

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