Entry 14: Filling in the Civil War’s Dark Outlines

Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War. By Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman.

Release Date: May 5, 2015.

“The Civil War was unspeakably bloody.” So begins Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman’s harsh but fascinating new comic book about the Civil War.* The sentence serves as a disclaimer to the reader: The Civil War was awful and you cannot refine it. This isn’t the kind of simplified family-friendly Civil War comic you might find in a Gettysburg gift shop. What Fetter-Vorm and Kelman have done is show how combining text and imagery is a highly effective way to depict the war as a massive American tragedy, not the great American epic.

Just look at the cover above. Everyone is either angry or miserable–you know, the way people suffering through a war would actually feel. And this tone isn’t just limited to soldiers–Fetter-Vorm and Kelman show us a broad spectrum of wartime experiences and implications. Indeed, despite the book’s title, combat rarely appears in full view. Instead, we get only peeks through retreating Union troops at Bull Run, a minie ball tearing through flesh and bone, and the aftermaths of Antietam and Gettysburg. When we finally “see the elephant,” it’s a two-page spread of horrifying and disorganized violence at the Spotsylvania “mule shoe.” This is a war out of control, not the stately American Iliad imagined by Shelby Foote, Michael Shaara, and others. There’s little glory here, just horror heaped upon horror.https://i0.wp.com/media.salon.com/2015/05/battle-lines-cover-art.jpg

Despite short newspaper-style intros to each chapter describing key developments in the war, there really is no central narrative. Instead, chapters focus on material items, which provide a sort of narrative anchor for each vignette: opera glasses used to watch Bull Run, a brick thrown through a shop window by a disgruntled plantation mistress, the bodies of fallen members of the 54th Massachusetts at Battery Wagner. These are mostly effective and sometimes provide a little tension, as the reader tries to anticipate what role the item will play in each chapter’s story.

However, the most impressive thing about Battle Lines is how much it compresses into it’s concise chapters. There’s a lot to unpack and it’s a testament to the power of the medium that the authors get so much across in so few pages. The brick chapter, for instance, is only 13-pages long, but manages to address several aspects of the Confederate home-front: slavery’s collapse, economic decline, white women’s wartime penetration of the public sphere, and how all three of these factors encouraged desertion in the Confederate Army. In every chapter, ideas like these are effectively woven into short narratives, making Battle Lines a gripping read and a potentially useful resource for introducing lay readers and students to some of the deeper issues underlying battlefield stories they already know.

And it bears repeating that most of what readers will learn about the Civil War from Battle Lines is visually and ideologically disturbing. Bad things happen to lots of people in this book. It’s the antithesis of the “football analyst school” I’ve discussed on this blog, as it almost never mentions actual battlefield tactics and is anything but sanitized. Battle Lines is full of confused people facing “unspeakable” horrors and the long-term positive benefits of the conflict are vague at best. Even emancipation passes without much celebration and African Americans end the book being lynched and suffering the indignities of segregation.

Indeed, Battle Lines is so bleak it may over-correct the triumphalist narrative it hopes to replace. I don’t want to rehash old arguments about the war’s outcome here, but it’s enough to say that I’m in the camp that thinks the right side won and emancipation was a major achievement. I’m not suggesting Fetter-Vorm or Kelman disagree with me, but there’s little hope expressed for the people depicted in this book. That being said, the brutal lived experience of the war rarely makes it into literature as accessible as Battle Lines and it’s welcome here because it’s presented so effectively. This book deserves a wide audience and will challenge readers to reevaluate their views of the Civil War and American History itself.

* I call this a comic book because that’s what it is. “Graphic novel” is a term invented by people who think it’s too lowbrow to admit reading comics and instead have to classify certain types as sufficiently highbrow for intellectual engagement. I don’t buy it.

Additional Dispatches:

  • I was impressed with the use of color. The book unsurprisingly adopts a blue and gray motif, which emerges in interesting ways, but I found the uses of red especially intriguing. Early on, a dull bleached red represents slavery’s spread across a map of the United States. That same shade reappears often, symbolically showing how slavery’s legacy lay behind every casualty and depredation of the war. In the end, the color is laid over the US map once again, this time spelling “We the People” to show the destruction of slavery and the impact of the postwar amendments, but also how those achievements were bought with blood.
  • Lots of reviewers have mentioned the chapter on Alexander Gardner’s infamous re-purposing of a Confederate corpse as a fallen sharpshooter after Gettysburg. It really is a great chapter; not only for what it tells us about the war but also for its commentary on how we (most immediately Fetter-Vorm and Kelman themselves) manipulate the past to shape our narratives. Very post-modern but also very thought-provoking.
  • Does it Mention Slavery?: Absolutely. Battle Lines places slavery and race at the center of the Civil War. Indeed, the Lost Cause takes an even harder beating here than the “Football Analyst School.”

Next Entry: Gettysburg

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