From John Hennessy (for Part 2 of this discussion, click here):
It’s an issue all of us who do public history should struggle with: what should be the limits of portraying violence? Having worked on or with battle sites for much of my career (which seems impossibly long these days), there is no denying the temptation to use examples of violence in public programs. Nothing gets the attention of an audience faster than the description of a horrific death or a sanguine landscape in battle’s aftermath. But, do such things really help us get our listeners to a place of greater understanding? Or are we merely indulging our own and our visitors’ morbid curiosity?
Here’s a brutal account of a slave whipping, given to us in the testimony of former slave Randall Ward when he was brought as a witness by the government to disprove the loyalty of Henry Fitzhugh of Sherwood Forest, in Stafford County. The government seemed interested in using Fitzhugh’s treatment of slaves as evidence that, during the war, Fitzhugh had not been the loyal Unionist he claimed to be.
Randall Ward (Colored) Sworn: I live in Alexandria, Va. I belonged to Henry Fitzhugh of Sherwood Forest, Stafford County, Virginia.
He had an old Baptist colored woman there and he stripped her stark naked and tied her to a peach tree right in the front yard, at 12 o’clock in the day, and got a board and made holes in it and slapped her with that I reckon about fifty lashes, and then he got some pepper and salt and water, and made another woman wash it over the woman he had shipped, and then he whipped into her, and then made her after that stand up there and dance a jig for him, and made her curse and swear for him. He did that because this old woman had a daughter there and Mr. Fitzhugh wanted to have an intimacy with her, and the girl didn’t want him to, and he thought it was the old woman who kept him away.
Several years ago I did a tour that included a stop at Sherwood Forest, and I read this account in the front yard–on the presumed location of this event. It’s brutal, touching on almost every hot-button imaginable when it comes to the master-slave relationship. Is its use legitimate? (I note here that Fitzhugh’s son and at least one of his neighbors denied this event occurred; for our purposes at the moment, that’s a discussion for another day–though I will say that the vivid details included in Ward’s account tend to overawe the rather tepid, generalized denials of his Fitzhugh’s son and friend.)
There’s no question an account like this needs to be used carefully, if at all. Most slaves did NOT receive such brutal treatment; most slaveowners did not have the apparent sadistic streak that Ward claimed of Henry Fitzhugh. So, if the event wasn’t typical, why use it?
In this instance, I’d argue that the brutal nature of the punishment IS the point. An event like this, while uncommon, was rooted in the desire of Fitzhugh not just to modify the behavior of the woman, but also of witnesses and those who would hear of the beating. The major point to be made: the punishment of one was often sufficient to control the behavior of many.
A more common dilemma hereabouts is the question of portraying violence and carnage as it relates to the battles. The primary sources are replete with virtually every horror that can be inflicted on a human body; the gruesome descriptions of battle’s aftermath are, if understood and pondered, sickening. Take this description written by a soldier of his time in a field hospital at Manassas in early September 1862.
A minute description of the wounds observed while at this place would be horrible beyond the belief of the inexperienced in such matters. Bullet and shell had no regard to consequences or to appearances. Eyes were gouged out by them, the brain laid open, or hideous holes made in the neck or abdomen, with the same ease and celerity as legs or arms were torn off, or mangled into shapeless pulp. I stayed among these horrors for a week, and until the refuse pile of amputated limbs near the bank of the stream had grown to the height of my shoulders, and had become of such suffocating putridity as to permeate the whole vicinity with its odors.
There’s a description bound to make listener and reader alike squirm with discomfort.
Here’s another, from the pen of Colonel Zenas Bliss of the 7th Rhode Island, describing the early stages of his regiment’s advance at Fredericksburg.
Bullets were flying from the front very thickly. I saw a man clap his hand to his head, and saw the blood trickle through his fingers. He spoke to me and said he was shot; I told him to cover his head with the cape to his overcoat, and remain where he was, as I thought he was very badly wounded. I went to the rear of the line and laid down with the rest. I had been there but a few minutes when a shell passed over my head, pretty close, and struck to my left and ricochetted down the street, without hitting any one. Colonel Sayles was about twenty feet to the right of me; he was lying on his left side and resting on his left elbow, a little diagonally with the general line. Major Babbitt was to my left, near the left flank of the regiment. I was lying on my stomach resting on both elbows. I was looking at Colonel Sayles, when a twenty-pound Parrott shell or shot struck him in the breast and nearly cut him in two. It ricochetted and passed over my head, carrying with it a mass of blood and pieces of his lungs. One piece struck me on the cheek, another on the cap, and a third quite large piece fell between my arms as I laid on the ground, and I scooped up the mud and covered it as it was right under my face. I thought it was a part of his brain, it seemed soft and pulpy. I did not know where he was hit, but I saw the upper part of his body turn nearly completely around, so that his face was partially toward me, though he was lying with his back to me.
Is there value in using accounts like these? Do they tell us something essential to understanding these events or the sites we manage? Or, does their use offend to the point of discouraging some people from understanding larger issues of significance and meaning further? Is that trade-off worth it? Or should we care if they offend at all?
In our next, we’ll offer up some thoughts on these questions. In the meantime, I’d be curious about your perspective on them.