The Cultural Civil War

Julius Hutawa and Leopold Gast, View of the City of St. Louis, Mo. The Great Fire, August 1949. Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.

Julius Hutawa and Leopold Gast, View of the City of St. Louis, Mo. The Great Fire, August 1949. Missouri History Museum, St. Louis.

Adam Arenson. The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War. Harvard University Press, 2011.

Megan Kate Nelson. Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War. University of Georgia Press, 2012.

The Civil War era is a teaching interest of mine, and helping students rethink the conflict is an ongoing challenge. After all, how many more books do we really need on the battle of Gettysburg? The field has been dominated by military and political history for obvious reasons, with the history of slavery and race treated as an important but ancillary consideration. I won’t even go into the never-say-die popular subfield of Confederate apologia.

Two recent works by newer scholars provide plenty of hope for those of us who are looking for something beyond analyses of Lincoln and his cabinet or Lee’s tactical decisions. Megan Kate Nelson and Adam Arenson reorient war scholarship and align it with the concerns of cultural history. As that subfield has moved toward the center of the U.S. history field, even well-tilled soil such as the Civil War can be refreshed.

Nelson’s Ruin Nation builds on recent scholarship examining the unremitting violence of the conflict. Charles Royster’s The Destructive War (1991) concerned itself not only with military tactics but with the escalating Union attitude toward total war bred in the West and patented in Sherman’s (and Grant’s and Sheridan’s) later campaigns and by Southern veneration of Stonewall Jackson’s aggressive work under Lee. More recently, Drew Gilpin Faust’s stately This Republic of Suffering (2007) showed how the Civil War transformed the nation’s culture of death as it dealt out casualties in unimagined numbers. Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club (2003) sees the war as touchstone for a shift toward the nonideological in American thought, with veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes’s conviction that, in Menand’s words, “certitude leads to violence.” The war cleared the way for pragmatism.

Nelson’s focus on four major types of ruins—cities, private homes, forests, and men—relies heavily on evidence historians have been using for decades: the private letters and memoirs of the war’s participants and observers. But she reads through well-chosen lenses that allow her to make fresh points about how Americans lived with destruction. Particularly striking is her chapter on trees. I learned a great deal about camp life, from building winter shelters to the erection of chapels, from Nelson’s willingness to mingle environmental history with the war. Her analysis of ruined men living with missing limbs raises questions of gender in a way that is entirely unforced and scrupulously documented through written and visual sources.

Nelson makes an intriguing concluding point—that the rapid reconstruction of devastated parts of the American landscape, and even the work of historic preservation agencies such as the National Park Service to recreate buildings damaged by war, is part of a larger project of reconciliation that has helped bury the most significant meanings of the conflict. Nineteenth-century Americans fortunate enough to make the Grand Tour in Europe venerated Italian ruins as Romantic markers of antiquity. But they tended to see these as warnings about the course of empire. Nelson describes America’s home-grown ruins and how important it was to erase their traces as soon as possible. I can imagine other readings than Nelson’s of historic preservation efforts, but as with the rest of Ruin Nation, she provides not only intriguing evidence but creative and substantive thinking about it.


Adam Arenson’s book reminds us of the powerful pull of national expansion, of the idea that ruins are for other, less democratic empires whose despotism led to their downfall. In The Great Heart of the Republic, Arenson takes both a narrower and wider view, examining St. Louis from its waterfront fire (which effaced the ruins but ironically strengthened the city’s commercial fortunes) of 1849 to the end of Reconstruction in 1877 as exemplar of a “cultural civil war” tied directly to the expansionist fortunes of the new nation. As Edward Ayers had done with his detailed community study In the Presence of Mine Enemies (2002), Arenson looks at the impact of the national conflict on a particular place. The difference is that St. Louis was an important and growing urban locale with ambitions to be nothing less than the center of an expanding American empire that would reap the full benefits of what Democratic Senator Thomas Hart Benton extolled as the “passage to India.” Even after the war, booster Logan Reavis advocated for a move of the national capital to the Mound City. The city’s destruction of the Indian mounds that provided its nickname, captured memorably in Thomas Easterly’s daguerreotypes and analyzed with grace by Arenson, are a good example of Nelson’s contentions about the significance of ruins.

Rebuilding the ruined waterfront and leveling the mounds were to have been a prelude to St. Louis’s greatness, but as Arenson shows, the visionary hopes of Benton and other St. Louisans were thwarted by, primarily, the slavery issue. Unable to sustain hopes for a St. Louis-routed transcontinental railroad, compromised by the controversy over Kansas statehood to the West, and politically divided from the rest of its own state, St. Louis could only watch as Chicago, fattened up on war contracts, raced past it in the postwar years. At least St. Louis has the Cardinals.

Both historians clearly see themselves as writers, communicating creative interpretations of research data with clarity and occasional wit. Both books are attentive to structure, Nelson’s playing like an elegaic four-part symphony of loss and Arenson’s with a classical arc that nevertheless contains a consistent micro-structure within each chapter as we move through time. And both books treat visual evidence not as illustrations, but as sources full of interpretive substance. Arenson lingers on striking artworks at the end of several chapters, asking apt questions of, say, Carl Wimar’s rotunda paintings in the Old St. Louis Courthouse (home of the Dred Scott case). Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1862) presents a grand vision of the West’s future, picking up on Benton’s oft-stated dreams and once again staking the city’s claims even as the Civil War ensures that it will not happen the way St. Louisans hope.

Nelson’s analysis of newspaper drawings such as those of Edwin Forbes depicting camp life is most welcome, as is her look at secessionist Adelbert Volck’s etching “Track of the Armies,” a work  dramatizing the ruination of home. I remember well encountering this image long ago in Paul M. Angle’s Pictorial History of the Civil War Years. It combines violence, despair, and yes, insidious eroticism in equal measures. It conveys well the emotional toll of ruins, of the conflict itself. Ruin Nation and The Great Heart of the Republic describe a culture, more than anything, of dashed dreams wrought by conflict that spun far beyond the control of those who began and sustained the political arguments over slavery and expansion.

Adelbert J. Volck, Track of the Armies. New York Public Library.

Adelbert J. Volck, Track of the Armies. New York Public Library.

Both authors contribute to the New York Times “Disunion” blog commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War day-by-day. Adam Arenson maintains a blog here.

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