As many of you know I have been thinking about what it means to bear witness… to see closely, to remember, and to testify. Sally Mann’s landscape photographs of Civil War battle fields lead us to ponder what happened there. She has described landscapes as vessels of memory and trees as silent witnesses to another age. The National Parks Service has recognized this as well, referring to older trees on these battlefields as witness trees.
In Mann’s recent retrospective at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, I was particularly taken by Mann’s images of the battlefields. I found myself considering the death that permeated those places and revisiting my ancestors’ involvement in those battles. Historians say that one in five soldiers didn’t survive the war and that, after some battles, it was impossible to walk away without stepping on corpses. Now, only the trees that stood then remain as witnesses, and the ground holds the memory of this carnage. I visited Gettysburg as a child, reading the park signage, an imperfect witness, as we all are. We look in retrospect, through the lenses of our upbringing and our sensibility of the current time. Sometimes, in people, this can lead to wrongheaded racist responses. Trees, on the other hand, stand impartial; their roots have absorbed the blood; their bodies are scarred by battle.
Objects have attached memories, and thus also may bear witness. The photograph of my great great-grandfather’s signed allegiance to the US government (see above) recalls, through my ancestral memory, that time period. My family stories have been an imperfect and unknowable testament of earlier witnesses. My father’s grandfather served in the 13th Mississippi Volunteers and lost an arm at age 21 at Gettysburg in 1863. Rehabilitated in a federal hospital, he returned to go to medical school in Louisiana. Riding to see his patients on horseback, he had left-handed forceps made so he could deliver babies. He was the first of three generations of physicians. And my maternal grandmother’s uncle from Dudleyville, Alabama, aged 26, lost an arm at the Battle of the Wilderness, subsequently dying of sepsis in a hospital in Lynchberg in 1864. He was the grandson of a member of the Creek Nation and a trader coming to the Creek Nation from Pennsylvania, whose family owned no cotton and no slaves. The physician was a man of legend; the young soldier who lost his life was remembered as a name passed down for two generations. We honored them as our family’s fallen heroes. And we never discussed the immorality of our cause. Looking back now, I realize that we, lost in our family histories, missed the opportunity to engage with the larger history of that pivotal period in the U.S.
More than twice as many Northerners as Southerners fought in the war, but three times as many Southerners as Northerners died. This toll on the much smaller Southern population left a lasting mark on the region. Among my childhood friends, the Civil War felt more immediate than World War II or the Korean War. Perhaps this was because the war was fought on our land and the battlefields we knew held the memory of our fallen. Perhaps it was a reflection of the loss by white Southerners of wealth and a romanticized way of life. Perhaps it was simply justification of Jim Crow laws and rejection of federal intervention. “Save your Confederate money boys, the South will rise again.”
For whatever reason, my friends and I did not question our position on the war. We saw the union soldiers as an invading and then occupying force. We were taught by our families and our politicians to celebrate the end of reconstruction when the “carpet baggers” went back north. We never considered that federal troops were also, at the same time, a liberation army for enslaved people; that reconstruction when African American men voted and held office was filled with hope; and that our side was morally wrong. My being led into the Civil War battlefields by Sally Mann caused me to revisit my ancestral experiences and family stories and to think about these landscapes as continuing to bear witness. I was struck by this comparison of human witness and ancestral transmission of this long-ago trauma with witness by the landscape. We humans approach witness through our political, religious, economic, and social justifications of the rightness of our causes. Seeing Mann’s battlefield photographs and revisiting my own slanted education about those battles, I sensed that the land—the sites that absorb the traumas and mark them—is what is most able to understand the consequences of man’s inhumanity. I am led to stand there, to observe the land closely, and to testify about what I have seen.
Sally Mann: a thousand crossings can viewed at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA from October 19, 2019 through January 12, 2020.Read More