It was exactly four years and five months ago that I told about a Book Fair volunteer who was prompted by Gone With the Wind, a Pulitzer-winning novel she didn’t happen to think much of, to ask what was so important about the Civil War. She was the same person, by the way, who would ask me why people read fiction. It never occurred to me to point out that if a novel could convince her to dismiss a four year war, fiction must gave some power.
That wouldn’t have convinced her, but it would have been a nice Chicago conclusion to the story: what goes around comes around.
Anyway, as part of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the Newberry and the Terra Foundation have put together this exhibit called “Home Front”, which tries to do for the folks in the north some of what Gone With the Wind did for the civilians in the south. You won’t find much here on Gettysburg or Shiloh: it’s more about what ELSE was going on at the time. Flag stationery, patriotic songs, military-themed clothing: it’s a grand surprise to the current generation that thinks WE invented merchandising.
People wrote thousands of songs and poems and editorials (politicians saw to it that their business went on as usual during alterations). A lot of them were pretty bad. People drew pictures, made engravings, and painted paintings, some of which have sat unseen for decades, sometimes for very good reasons. There’s a very nice Winslow Homer in the show, but it’s the little painting by Frederick E. Church that opens the show which is apparently going to cause trouble. It is either haunting and evocative or schmaltzy and over-the-top. (A nice military phrase, if from the wrong war.) My suggestion to viewers is that they adopt a suitably Victorian state of mind and remember that a painting can be schamltzy, over-the-top, haunting AND evocative.
Another suggestion to viewers is not to neglect the A.C. (Amazingly Civil) McClurg Bookstore (which, by the way, is named for a Civil War General turned bookseller, and a couple of his mementos are on display there.) Besides the catalog of the exhibit (which features that selfsame painting by Church) there are plenty of other books for sale (um, inside AND on the Book Fair carts) about Lincoln, the Civil War, and other related topics. Chicago has always been a bit gaga about the Civil War.
Part of the reason was that Chicago was in the thick of it, the first time that raucous city on the prairie had been a center for national events. Abraham Lincoln was nominated for President there. During the war, it fought its own internal conflicts. At least one social club that supported the other side would hold a fancy ball and banquet every time the South won a battle. Camp Douglas, a snake pit of a camp for prisoners of war, crouched not far from the city. Companies like the Corn Brigade, a hundred men recruited from the financial district of the day, were formed and marched away to war.
So to continue answering that question from nearly four and a half years ago, the Civil War is important because it helped give Chicago its identity, as it gave an identity to other new cities and states. No longer were they just territories which had been mapped out and named by a legislative body. They were places that had sent off the company of infantry that performed so heroically at Antietam or was shattered at Shiloh. They were the homes of women who organized to sew battle flags or knit socks or turn nurse. They were the birthplaces of men who wrote inspiring songs or painted memorable paintings. The Civil War gave them a reputation and a name.
Well, no. Actually. the Civil War gave them none of that. They had to fight for it.