When Art and History Collide: Surrender, Civil War Memory, and Public Engagement

When Art and History Collide: Surrender, Civil War Memory, and Public Engagement

Sonya Clark’s exhibit at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. Courtesy of Jonathan VanDyke.

From late March to August 2019, the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia showcased the innovative work of Sonya Y. Clark. Known for “Unraveling,” an art piece consisting of a deconstructed Confederate battle flag, the Amherst College professor’s recent works have explored race, symbols and Confederacy, and the nation’s struggle with its legacy of slavery. In the “The Monumental Cloth, the Flag We Should Know” exhibit, Clark reintroduced contemporary museum attendees to another symbol of the Confederacy. The massive truce flag constructed from a humble, waffle-weaved tea cloth measuring 15 feet by 30 feet, and dyed with tea and other natural dyes, forced viewers to contend with one poignant question on the concluding panel: “What if this was the symbol that endured?”[1]

This is a great question that can reframe our understanding of the war’s legacy and illustrate the intersection between academic scholarship and public art. Scholars of Civil War memory have challenged us to reconsider many aspects of the Civil War and its legacy.  For instance, David Silkenat’s Raising the White Flag adds to the conversation.[2] He explores the role of surrender in the Civil War and how its legacy has contributed to the contentious ways Americans have to come to understand this flag and the act of surrender. As a defining feature of the Civil War, he reminds readers how the “American Civil War began with a surrender and ended with a series of surrenders.”[3] By the war’s conclusion, he contends that popular understandings had evolved and challenged “southerners and northerners alike” in how to “best remember and commemorate surrenders.”[4] This struggle has subsequently “demonstrated the difficulties Americans have had in making sense of surrender.”[5]

As “the prototype of the honorable surrender,” Robert Anderson and his surrender at Fort Sumter revealed a shared understanding of acceptable terms of surrender and the marks of cowardice and excessive violence as unacceptable behavior by Federal and Confederate forces.[6] The surrenders of Forts Henry and Donelson, however, shifted attitudes among the common soldiers, military leadership, and civilians in their respective homefronts, according to Silkenat. For the Confederacy, surrender became increasingly viewed as a referendum on the national project. For the United States, it became viewed as the only true pathway toward peace. As argued by Silkenat and others, these nuanced understandings have been lost in the contemporary public debates over the Confederate monuments, in a post-Charleston Massacre and Charlottesville 2017 climate.[7]

How does one engage in these conversations where the works of historians does not always reach general audiences? Or, when public historical projects such as the 1619 Project try to, how do non-academics, especially persons of color, attempt to participate when scholars openly challenge the creators’ authority for intervening in public debates?[8] [Image 2] Here, Clark’s public art offers another pathway for reconciling the lingering Civil War era legacy in the present. At the end of the Monumental Cloth exhibit, a table displayed works by James Baldwin, David Brion Davis, Andrew Delbanco, Carol Anderson and others and encouraged further contemplation, perusal, and conversation. In other words, engagement meant to continue after the viewing in the attendee’s respective homes and communities.

New audiences became aware of this rich scholarship as well as the role of race in shaping contemporary understandings. During the Civil War, race contributed to the uneven application and utter disregard of military understandings of surrender for African American soldiers. By comparing Ulysses S. Grant and Nathan Bedford Forrest, Silkenat reveals the shifting understandings and its limits with racial violence.  For Forrest, his brutal use of surrender and refusal to accept black soldiers as legitimate combatants resulted in not only the Fort Pillow massacre but also African American soldiers’ preference of fighting until death instead of surrendering at Brice’s Crossroads and other later engagements. By 1864, such racial animosity contributed to a “nadir of surrender’s acceptability” by both warring sides.[9] The legacy of this nadir has not diminished.

Smaller flag of surrender, also from the Sonya Clark exhibit. Courtesy of Carlos Avendaño.

In a war filled with surrenders, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House has eclipsed all other surrenders. Silkenat and other scholars have shown that generous terms of surrender neither appease all participants nor served as an ultimate truce. Early Confederate soldiers who rejected the Appomattox Court House surrender were amongst the first to engage in terrorism and a perilous peace during Reconstruction.[10] Appomattox Court House initiated a series of surrenders concluding with the final domestic surrender of Stand Watie in Oklahoma and James Iredell Waddell’s international surrender of the CSS Shenandoah in Liverpool, England.[11] Yet, the power of the April 9, 1865, surrender contributed to the erasure of post-Appomattox Court House surrenders, the whitewashing of the diverse participants’ racial backgrounds, and even captured Clark’s imagination.

Since the Civil War’s end, Americans have struggled to remember and commemorate Civil War surrender sites.  While African Americans celebrated “Surrender Day” as early as 1866, African American commemorative traditions have remained outside of the national popular consciousness.[12] Lost Cause and Reconciliationist traditions encouraged selective remembrance, from Julian Carr’s dedication speech for the Silent Sam unveiling at UNC-Chapel Hill, to the transformation of Bennett Place and Appomattox Court House into tourist attractions. As a result, the Civil War memory wars and understanding of surrender continues into the present.

Ultimately, scholars like Silkenat reach a similar conclusion as Clark on the role of Confederate flag of surrender and its complicated legacy for present generations. “Yet if we are able to learn anything from the Civil War generation,” he concludes that “we might come to see surrender not as a sign of weakness but as a hallmark of humanity.”[13] It is fitting that museum administrators agreed. On July 13, 2019, the internationally renowned artist and the historian shared a Philadelphia stage and connected museum goers, academics, and non-academics in a productive conversation about the role of surrender, the Confederate flag of truce, the Civil War and memory.[14] Maybe this will be a model for future collaborations between artists and historians as the questions from the Civil War and its legacy remain pertinent in the current political moment. Artistic expression, scholarly insights and engaged diverse publics might be the only pathway forward.



[1] Sarah Cascone, “‘This Flag Brought Our Nation Back Together’: Artist Sonya Clark Explains Why She Is Recreating the Little-Known Flag That Ended the Civil War,” Artnet News, April 1, 2019,  https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/sonya-clark-fabric-workshop-confederate-flag-1502869.

[2] David Silkenat, Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[3] Silkenat, 2.

[4] Silkenat, 3-4.

[5] Silkenat, 4.

[6] Silkenat, 41; See Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

[7] See Catherine Clinton, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Karen L. Cox, Gary W. Gallagher, and Nell Irvin Painter, Confederate Statues and Memorialization (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019).

[8] Jake Silverstein, “We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project,” New York Times Magazine, Updated January 4, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/20/magazine/we-respond-to-the-historians-who-critiqued-the-1619-project.html.

[9] Silkenat, 168.

[10] See Caroline E. Janney, “Free to Go Where We Liked: The Army of Northern Virginia After Appomattox,” Journal of Civil War Era 9, no. 1 (March 2019): 4-28, and Carole Emberton, Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence and the American South after the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[11] Silkenat, 267.

[12] Silkenat, 278; See Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy (New York: The New Press, 2018).

[13] Silkenat, 297.

[14] Olivia Errico, “Raising the White Flag: Sonya Clark and Dr. David Silkenat in Conversation,” Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, Rutgers University-Camden, June 6, 2019, https://march.rutgers.edu/event/raising-the-white-flag-sonya-clark-and-dr-david-silkenat-in-conversation/.

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She previously worked in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama where she developed the Hallowed Grounds Project. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

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