Elizabeth Young in Chicago Tribune Reviews Book

Sunday, February 13, 2005 - 12:00

This book review ran in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, February 13, 2005.

"The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg's Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War's Defining Battle" written by Margaret S. Creighton, reviewed by Elizabeth Young.

Now that Jon Stewart's hilarious mock textbook "America (The Book)" is a best seller, I eagerly await its sequels, including "Gettysburg (The Book)." Given Stewart's ability to skewer pomposity and excess, I can picture what he would do with a battle that continues to be enshrined in doorstop-size, detail-driven military histories of the three-day Union victory of July 1863. (Recent example: Stephen W. Sears' 2003 "Gettysburg," 623 pages.)

But seriously--as Stewart might say--books about Gettysburg are important. As Garry Wills showed in his remarkable 1992 "Lincoln at Gettysburg," Gettysburg remains the unforgettable home address of some of the nation's most meaningful figures, both rhetorical and presidential. The Battle of Gettysburg, the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln--like the American flag--are all governing symbols of the republic. And like the American flag--then and now, a fiercely disputed object--the history of these symbols needs to be investigated as vigorously as possible.

This investigation has been undertaken in many aspects of Civil War scholarship. For example, historians have written important accounts of the wartime participation of women as soldiers, spies, nurses, relief workers, writers and teachers. These accounts challenge the distinction between homefront and battlefront, as does scholarship on the wartime experience of enslaved African-Americans, for whom the homefront was always a battlefront. There have been valuable accounts of the texture of everyday life for the soldier, and of the complexities of the war's memorialization, including at Gettysburg itself.

And yet, histories of the Battle of Gettysburg--the best-selling door-stops--still tend to focus on the experiences of white male leaders and soldiers. Even when they take into account one aspect of the social history of the war, they do not yet bring together a variety of social groups. Nor have they used a synthesis of multiple forms of new social history to transform the view of Gettysburg as a whole.

Enter Margaret Creighton, a history professor at Bates College in Maine and the author of a scholarly study on American whaling and one on gender and seafaring. Creighton's project is a new popular history of Gettysburg, "The Colors of Courage," and her emphasis, as her subtitle outlines, is on immigrants, women and blacks in the battle. Although this is a huge task, Creighton's volume is half the size of the usual Gettysburg history. In 10 compact chapters she focuses on three groups: German-American soldiers in the Union Army's 11th Corps, white women living in Gettysburg, and Gettysburg's African-American community. Within these groups, Creighton highlights 15 people, including Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz, German-American advocate of abolition; Elizabeth Thorn, a German-American woman, pregnant at the time of the battle, whose husband was the caretaker of Gettysburg cemetery; and Mag Palm, a black woman working in white women's houses in Gettysburg.

So the approach is the close-up, but the goal is the big picture. Creighton wants to overturn "the compartmentalization of the past" in the study of Gettysburg, whereby "here is the story of white fighting; over there is the story of Lincoln and 'freedom': and downtown, if you look hard enough, you can find some women." In the introduction she outlines the results of her approach: Her focus on immigrant soldiers highlights the Union Army as "a socially divided set of men beset by internal battles"; her focus on women makes the battlefield's geography extend to ostensibly domestic, non-combat zones and lengthens the combat's duration to include the postwar recovery period to which women workers were central; and her focus on African-Americans foregrounds the larger project of the struggle for black freedom.

The results are exciting, intelligent and provocative. While preserving the specificity of military battle, Creighton also decisively erodes the line between homefront and battlefront for all three groups. The book wears its research, both primary and secondary, lightly, and its narrative is lively. Not surprisingly, given Creighton's expertise in women's history, the chapter on white women's responses to Confederate invasion is written with particular drama. She forcefully narrates, for example, the sexual danger in which the Confederate presence placed Gettysburg's white women, and the means of resistance--from physical confrontation to the possibility of poisoning Confederates with their cooking--that women exercised in response.

Creighton focuses on the centrality of racism to Gettysburg, evoking its violence in painful detail. For example, she describes a black man whom a Vermont soldier saw " 'grinding his teeth & foaming at the mouth' " after he had been stabbed and castrated by Confederate soldiers. This horrific image summarizes the horrors of slavery and forecasts the rise of lynching in the postwar period. The carnage of Gettysburg looks backward and forward at the nightmare of American racism as a whole.

Inevitably in a project like this, there is more to say about the groups being examined and their interactions with each other and with other groups. Attention to Southern women, for example, would complicate the story of white women's resistance by providing the slaveholding context of Confederate nationalism. Bringing together a new history of the Northern white women of Gettysburg with one of Southern white women is particularly important because popular images of the Civil War in the 20th Century have been so influenced by the image of the Confederate Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind."

And because popular understandings of the war are so inseparable from such novels and films, the new history of Gettysburg could also be enriched by attention to visual culture. Gettysburg generated the most famous authentic literary document of the Civil War, but it also produced the most famously inauthentic of visual documents: the photographs of dead soldiers by Timothy O'Sullivan and Alexander Gardner that repositioned figures or contrived compositions. Because military, literary and art historians seldom coordinate their efforts, a major goal for scholars of Gettysburg--and of 19th Century America--is the integration of these kinds of inquiry. How might one combine a focus on a diverse group of soldiers fighting a war for liberty, a president writing about a nation "conceived in liberty" and photographers making images that take liberties?

Again, these are questions offered as expansion, rather than criticism, of Creighton's excellent book. I hope "The Colors of Courage" will be welcomed as contributing not only to the histories of the three groups under discussion but also to the larger histories of Gettysburg and the Civil War.

Elizabeth Young, associate professor of English at Mt. Holyoke College and author of Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War.

Related Link:

Elizabeth Young - Faculty Profile