Portraying violence in public history (Part 1 of 2)

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?

The park staff on the front lawn of Sherwood Forest, 2008.

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.



Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield, 1864


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.

9 thoughts on “Portraying violence in public history (Part 1 of 2)

  1. I too have a civil war blog. I wrote a post on amputation, the finer points of it. I tried to stick to the medical terms and such. Keeping away from the graphic images and descriptions. I know how hard it can be to decide what is to much. Sometimes I think that the more graphic accounts are the best though because they come from those who were there and are filled with more emotion and knowledge of the situation.

  2. First, I would say as the parent of a young child there are certainly considerations regarding the age of the intended audience. While I do not think we should shield children from the realities of the world, I recognize that each parent is allowed to approach such subjects as they deem best. One of the many roles a parent plays is providing context to the less appealing parts of the world around us. (I call it the “I’m the one who will be awakened at 1 am by when he has a nightmare, so let me decide how best to explain it” rule.)

    That said, I do think these vivid and detailed accounts of violence should be part of the interpretation. I find it far too easy, particularly with the ACW, to simply state one side inflicted casualties on the faceless, nameless foe. When the gunners fired their 20-pdr Parrott at “the enemy,” the projectile and the story didn’t stop there. It hit something or someone. The consequences of the flight of that shot (or shell) are described in great detail from the quote you provide.

    And if that is *too* well described for the sensitive ears of my child, (assuming the child should be in the audience in the first place) then it is my role as the parent to explain the lesson. After all, I’m supposed to equip the child to deal with the rigors of life, not simply protect them from those rigors.

  3. Why pretend the war was something it wasn’t? While there is a “pornography of violence” war as exciting battle scenes, actual accounts and descriptions of horrific events are bound to be horrific.

  4. I definitely think there is value in these accounts – their main usefulness being in driving the point home that real men with real families fought the civil war on the vary ground you are standing on. I think these accounts humanize the landscape – and are essential to civil war interpretation. That’s not to say that we should like, enjoy or overuse them. I usually think one or two quotes per a program is enough. When the quotes are used at the right time – they illustrate the very idea why the ground your standing on was preserved. Too often though, quotes like this are used to illustrate theses and describe battle tactics – a misuse of such an emotionally charged quote.

  5. John, I’ve been thinking about this post all day and my own approach to interpretation. I believe the examples that you have given are appropriate. I find them to be much more moving than the generic “we lost a lot of men” quotes that are normally used. The graphic nature of the quotes remind us of two truths. One, that the peaceful parks of today were horrific landscapes 150 years ago where terrible events occurred. In my mind’s eye I can imagine what it looked like but those mental images never approach the level of detail nor gruesomeness that is brought to light by these quotes. Secondly, that the burden of war continues long after it is over. Col. Bliss was 27 at Fredericksburg, more than likely the appalling scenes witnessed on that field stayed with him until he breathed his last breath 38 years later. How does one continue to function in society after such an experience? It’s amazing that any combat veteran does.

  6. Where the sources exist to both share the historical experience and put it into proper context – explaining what was atypical v. expected – I think they should be shared. It can be a little hard with children, though my experience is that they don’t engage with the materials too deeply before their ready for them, and I’m not above using a little parental/editorial control over what we focus on with our son.

  7. My father fought in WWII, but like many, did not really share what he experienced. I have been fortunate not to have had to serve in combat, so I never could really appreciate his experience. Then I went to see “Saving Private Ryan” in the theater and that opening 30 minutes allowed me to have a glimpse at some of the things that my father would have experienced and that I, heretofore, could not have imagined. War is horrible, but to soften its impact cheapens the narrative and does a disservice to those who lived it and died in it. Graphic quotes and illustrations, used properly in enhancing the story, are a necessary interpretive tool.

  8. Many thanks to all of you for your very thoughtful comments. I’ll post the follow-up this afternoon, but did want to point out something that occurred to me yesterday. In this post, I somewhat dismissively referred to the role of morbid curiosity. While I do think tha motivates some people, I think far more are drawn not so much by curiosity about violence itself, but because we are constantly amazed and intrigued by how witnesses to violence and stress behave in its presence–how they react and cope. It may be a subtle distinction, but I think one worth noting. John H.

  9. Very interestIng. My books have dealt with the violence of America’s Civil War. Here is a taste. The piece here is taken from my forthcoming book, The Journals of Lt. Kendall Everly: a Story of the American Civil War

    Silken Filaments of Salvation

    August 4, 1861 – Entry IV

    His neck was thin. My fingers
    slid around it as they might caress
    your neck, Elizabeth. Yet, it was slicked
    with blood so it felt as if I tightened

    my grip around a fish. Hunched over
    like Notre Dame’s bell ringer, I pulled
    his head closer to mine. He might
    have thought I meant to kiss him.

    My heart, my mind, both bubbled
    with some foul Satanic froth,
    both marvelled at the deepening color
    of his face, a deep purple, a fine wine.

    I gulped the dying gasps of this boy
    as if his death would envelop me
    with the silken filaments of salvation.
    My fingers tightened. His neck grew

    thinner, a wet string. His mouth,
    like a gate, opened, dark and wide,
    attempting to conjure breath. His limbs
    flailed attempting to embrace the air.

    His eyes, opened wide like globes.
    Damn you, I screamed. DAMN YOU.
    And then, there was death. He was still
    And I was lost. Dear God, I am lost.

    S. Thomas Summers
    Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War

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