2 civil wars, Ric Burns, and “Michael Moore Hates America”

On September 18th, PBS aired the film “Death and the Civil War.” Sadly enough, currently only small clips of it are available for free but if you want to pitch in and reduce the impact of cuts announced by Republican candidate Mitt Romney, maybe you want to go to iTunes and check it out whenever it becomes available.

Watch Death and the Civil War, Chapter 1 on PBS.

The aim of this post is to give you some (interesting, hopefully) insights about the roughly 2-hour well-crafted thought-provoking film. Ric Burns (younger brother of the super-famous Ken Burns), presents elements to understand how the Civil War changed forever the American idea of a “good death,” how it was necessary to construct new categories of meaning to justify the atrocious volume of deaths, and how official support responded to the needs of its soldiers, federal or confederate.

I admit it. I have used and abused of the “Ken Burns effect” in my own work about the Spanish Civil War, and I respect Ric overdosing in his brother’s techniques. Wikipedia defines them as the use of “simple musical leitmotifs or melodies” and  “[giving] ‘life’ to still photographs by slowly zooming in […] and panning from one subject to another.” Besides all that captivating zooming and panning, Ric chose the right actors that read letters, journal entries, or official documents from the war. This feature powerfully engages the audience as if we were watching a more sophisticated version of the seven o’clock news. Short testimonies of historians accompanies each section, offering a cohesive interpretation throughout the film.

Now, how does Michael Moore fit in this context? Well, while he is well-known in Europe, and respected as a filmmaker, Michael Wilson unveils a different perspective of his work. In Wilson’s film,  Moore appears as the embodiment of evil because of his twisted ways of presenting “the truth”. In other words, Wilson exposes how Moore manipulates the footage to make the audience believe falsehoods presented as facts. Interestingly enough, while interviewing Penn Jillette, Wilson includes a piece of meta-narrative that questions the ethical approach of his own film as if falling in the same stratagems used by Moore. Then, Wilson empowers the audience with the opportunity to question the ethical validity of his own narrative. It would have been interesting if Ric Burns would do the same in his movie. But he doesn’t. That reality leaves me with a restless feeling of “what could we do?” as historians/public historians to expose the guts of our own historical products. Why are we so afraid to give in “a little”? Wouldn’t it make it a more fair relationship to allow our audiences to make their own decisions about whether the product is good or just a bunch of bologna?

It’s Lurking in the Cemetery

In a recent post, contributor Gregory Ruth discussed how for him “autumn has meant archive time.” I wish I could say the same, as I’m sure my scholarship would markedly improve with more time spent with the “yellowing records.”  For me, however, the magic of autumn lies in beautiful displays of brightly colored leaves, in apple cider straight from the mill, and in the quiet stillness of cemeteries.  That’s right, cemeteries.  What better time of the year to explore the history and memory ensconced in Chicago’s cemeteries than in October?  So, forget about your Halloween costume,  that paper due in November, and that mountain of laundry — tour a cemetery instead!  Although the haunts may not be as terrifying, I promise you history is alive, and it’s lurking in the cemetery.

Boyington Gate at Rosehill Cemetery

Rosehill Cemetery at 5800 North Ravenswood Ave, Chicago

Located on Chicago’s North Side, Rosehill Cemetery is the oldest and largest non-sectarian cemetery in the city.  Chartered in 1859, Rosehill was still in its formative years when the American Civil War broke out.  In an effort to advance its reputation within the community, the cemetery actively pursued the families of prominent war dead in hopes of having them interred at Rosehill.  In part because of these efforts, the focal point of the east side of the cemetery is a Civil War section featuring the Our Heroes: Civil War Monument designed by Leonard Wells Volk, the Major General Thomas Edwin Greenfield Ransom Monument, and several prominent battery monuments.  The Civil War section lies just inside Rosehill’s castellated gothic gate designed by William W. Boyington (the architect of the Chicago Water Tower).

On the west side of Rosehill is Chicago’s largest public mausoleum.  Designed by Sidney Lovell and dedicated in 1914, the mausoleum features Italian Carrera marble, Doric columns, and Louis Tiffany stained glass.  Notables interred in the Rosehill Mausoleum include Aaron Montgomery Ward, Richard Warren Sears, and John G. Shedd.

The Chicago History Museum offers guided walking tours of Rosehill East and Rosehill West, but unfortunately, their fall tour dates have already passed.  The cemetery is open daily, however, so stop by for a walk anyway.  Interspersed with the cemetery’s more famous occupants – twelve mayors of Chicago, four governors of Illinois, several former Congressmen, a Vice President of the United States, twelve Civil War Generals, and countless architectural, commercial and social notables – are the graves of the veritable unknowns.  Their history beckons.

Graves of Union Soldiers at Rosehill Cemetery

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“I Don’t Know What I Stand For Anymore”: Fun., Postmodern Angst, and Civil War Memory

The casual radio listener cannot avoid the chart topping hit “Some Nights” by the band Fun.  As with their other recent hit, “We Are Young,” Fun. produces upbeat tempos and soaring harmonies that belie darker lyrics about the emptiness and purposelessness of life.  By applying the postmodern undertones of “Some Nights” to a music video dominated by Civil War imagery, Fun. meaningfully reflects and contributes to popular memory of the Civil War.

Continue reading ““I Don’t Know What I Stand For Anymore”: Fun., Postmodern Angst, and Civil War Memory”