Entry 36: Murdering through Georgia

The Keeping Room. Directed by Daniel Barber. Written by Julia Hart.

Release Date: September 25, 2015.

I decided to watch The Keeping Room because it’s recent and in my Netflix queue. Turns out, it makes an perfect companion (or counterpoint) to Free State of Jones. Films like Jones are chipping away at popular culture’s longstanding love affair with the Lost Cause narrative, but others like The Keeping Room show we still have a long way to go. It’s not that The Keeping Room is a pro-Confederate movie. It’s using the Civil War to tell a story about gender and the horror of war but it incorporates elements of the Lost Cause seemingly as a matter of course. Yankees are murderous rapists, William Tecumseh Sherman is a monster, and slaves are invested in protecting their masters. I kept wanting to like this movie but the script’s outdated depiction of the Civil War proved more grating than I could bear. Read More

Rosalee is the Female Character Slavery Fiction Needs

I haven’t written a full review of Underground because I’m still two weeks behind the series. It feels a little odd to write about it with an incomplete picture, but after watching the third episode, “The Lord’s Day,” last night, I was struck by what a great historical and dramatic character the show has in its co-protagonist, Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Her arc in this episode is especially encouraging because it not only breaks with some bad habits in fictional portrayals of enslaved women, it also reflects the show’s overall success in avoiding cliches that often plague these kinds of stories. Read More

Entry 30: Battle Cries

“The Battle Cry of Freedom.” Written by George Frederick Root.

Release Date: July 26, 1862.

“The Battle-Cry of Freedom.” Music by Hermann L. Schreiner. Lyrics by William H. Barnes.

Release Date: 1864.

I’m currently neck-deep in an article on the mid-19th Century Chicago music publishing firm, Root & Cady. It will likely appear in the fall edition of Chicago History and I’ll probably expand it into a longer piece down the road. In practical terms, this means I’m blogging a little less, at least for now. In intellectual terms, it means I’m starting to think about Civil war music more deeply—something I haven’t really done since I wrote my book a few years ago. Those of you who read Battle Hymns probably picked up on my fondness for Root & Cady, since the firm embodied my central idea of Civil War Americans using popular music to reflect and influence public opinion. Thus, although I’ve already blogged about three Root & Cady songs (here, here, and here), I thought it would be fun to write a little about the firm’s biggest hit, “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” But I think I’ll do it with a twist. A lot of people wrote their own versions of the song, but the most popular contrafactum (as musicologists call songs with the same melody but different lyrics) was probably a Confederate version by Hermann L. Schreiner and William H. Barnes. So, let’s compare the two and see what we find. Read More

Entry 28 (Part 4): Autopsying Mercy Street

Mercy Street. “The Diabolical Plot,” Season 1, Episode 6. Directed by Jeremy Webb. Written by Lisa Wolfinger, David Zabel, and Jason Richman.

Release Date: February 21, 2016.

I don’t think historians or critics ever reached a consensus on Mercy Street. This is probably a good sign. It means the show was at least interesting. I generally enjoyed it but, even when I didn’t, the history was solid enough that viewers at least learned something. Yesterday’s finale generally followed this pattern, despite its fictional inclusion of Booth and Lincoln. The eponymous “Diabolical Plot” didn’t really grip me, but the episode had enough solid dramatic and historical moments to keep away the sour taste in my mouth I’d been afraid of since the storyline originally leaked. That allowed me to be objective in my evaluation of Mercy Street as a whole, and my final take is generally positive. Read More

Entry 28 (Part 2): Settling Into Mercy Street

Mercy Street, “The Haversack” & “The Uniform,” Season 1, Episodes 2 & 3. Directed by Roxann Dawson. Written by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel.

Release Dates: January 24 & 31, 2016.

So, we’re halfway through Mercy Street and I’m still not sure how I feel about the show. This is partially because I think it’s trying to do too many things, and this inevitably makes it a little uneven. The history remains impressively solid and the lead performances are getting stronger (particularly Winstead and Radnor), but the production is still struggling to find the right tone. This is especially evident in the second episode, “The Haversack,” which veers wildly from almost whimsical comedy to harsh realism. “The Uniform” is much better on all counts and ranks as the best episode so far. Hopefully, this is a sign that Mercy Street has found its groove and realized the potential that peeked through in its first two offerings. Read More

Entry 28 (Part 1): Getting to Know Mercy Street

Mercy Street, “The New Nurse,” Season 1, Episode 1. Directed by Roxann Dawson. Written by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel.

Release Date: January 17, 2016.

We’re finally getting fully introduced to Mercy Street this week and I’m not sure how to feel about it. Unlike some other reviewers, I haven’t seen all 6 episodes, so my thoughts here are only based on the premiere, “The New Nurse.” There are certainly some promising aspects but the episode didn’t grab me as much as I’d hoped. The good news is the history’s pretty solid, which isn’t surprising given the list of historical consultants. The bad news is it played a little flat.  Read More

Entry 26: Dreaming of a Confederate Christmas

General Lee and Santa Claus. Written by Louise Clack. Modern revision by Randall Bedwell.

Release Date: 1867; December 1997.

Original Available Here.

We’re in the heart of the holiday season and it seems fitting and proper to offer up some Civil War Christmas content for your perusal. Fortunately, I’ve had just such an item sitting on my bookshelf for almost a decade. Back before Amazon, I had to subscribe to a Civil War book catalog to get a sense of what was out there. One issue prominently featured the hilariously titled General Lee and Santa Claus. Of course, I immediately ordered it for laughs and out of morbid curiosity. As with most such purchases, it’s sat unread on my bookshelf ever since—at least until now. Read More

Entry 24: Sympathy for the Rebel

Click to View Larger

The Proud Rebel. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Joseph Petracca and Lillie Hayward. Based on the short story, “Journal of Linnett Moore,” by James Edward Grant.

Release Date: November 2, 1958.

It might seem odd in a post-Glory world, but 20th Century pop culture often portrayed Confederate soldiers and veterans as beleaguered victims. Screenwriters defined these characters—usually protagonists—by their commitment to the Confederate service until the bitter end, making loyalty and toughness their primary traits. Think of Josey Wales, Johnny Yuma, or the narrator in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The Proud Rebel takes this concept to an extreme by placing the beleaguered Rebel in the North and creates tension from the harsh way northerners treat him. This generates some predictable historical problems, made worse because the film largely loses interest in the concept as it goes along and eventually devolves into a fairly standard Western. Read More

Entry 9: A Tale of Two Marys

Lincoln Movie Poster

Lincoln. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner.

Release Date: November 16, 2012.

I decided early on that I would occasionally invite friends and fellow scholars to write entries for this blog, especially if the subject is something I’ve written about elsewhere. In the case of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, not only have I already commented on it (mainly here, but also during my 15 minutes of fame here), I also have an excellent reviewer: my friend and colleague, Stacy Pratt McDermott. As the Assistant Director for The Papers of Abraham Lincoln and the author of a recent biography of Mary Lincoln, Stacy provides a unique and informed perspective on one of the film’s less-discussed characters and I’m just as interested as anyone to read what she has to say. So, without further ado, I’ll turn things over to Stacy… Read More

Entry 6: The Civil War’s Feminist Anthem

http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/media/loc.natlib.ihas.200001829/001.tif/1574

“We’ll Go Down Ourselves.” Words and music by Henry Clay Work.

Release Date: December 13, 1862.

Available: audio (fast forward to 33:35) and as sheet music.

I’ll admit that this gem from Henry Clay Work slipped under my radar until I was asked to make some remarks about it for a Civil War music concert at the Newberry Library. My previous research largely focused on the war’s most popular songs and there isn’t much evidence that “We’ll Go Down Ourselves” enjoyed much popularity, then or now, but it’s a fascinating piece for a number of reasons. Read More