Monday, June 13, 2011

National Geographic Civil War Centennial Coverage: Part 4

A few weeks ago, I received an email about National Geographic's online coverage of the Civil War Sesquicentennial

This reminded me that I owned some bound volumes of this magazine from the early 1960s and I decided to compare and contrast how this publication covered the current observance and the 100th anniversary of the war. Below are links to the three previous entries I made on this subject.

part 1
part 2
Part 3

For today's entry, presumable the final one on this topic, I turn to the National Geographic from April 1965, volume 127, number 4.

The coverage in this edition is very similar to its initial coverage, in "part 1" linked above. Once again, it features an article written by Ulysses S Grant 3rd, the grandson of the famous Union General and President.

The article discusses the last few days of the Civil War, as Union troops tried to trap the forces commanded by Robert E Lee and force them to surrender. The article includes photographs, from the war period and from the magazine's own era, as well as maps and illustrations of people, places and events during those chaotic few days.

Deciding to focus the coverage on that part of the war was a natural choice and one I can support, but what bothered me about this article was how frequently the author used it to praise his grandfather, either from his own thoughts and memories (though the general died when this grandson was only 4 years old) or from quotes by others. I do not dislike praise for the original U.S. Grant, and much, if not all, of it, was well-deserved, but I did find it difficult to take it as seriously, coming from his own descendant. It struck me almost as being hagiography at times, and certainly not as an objective discussion of the general and his performance. The author's using various terms like "my grandfather," "General Grant" and "the general" throughout the article did not help either.

The author's telling of a story told by his grandmother of a discussion with President Lincoln was quite interesting and something I had not seen before, but, again, I'm not sure an article commemorating the end of the war was the right place for a piece of family history.

I understand why Grant III wrote as he did, and think it's great he felt so proud of his ancestor, but it was not a good idea to have him write this article due to the obvious lack of objectivity.

Besides the frequent praise for General Grant, this article did at times fall back on the 1961's reliance on a theme of "reunification" and how the war brought "a Nation united for all time."  This theme was not as constant as in the 1961 article, but did appear at times throughout it.

A large portion of this theme of reconciliation is in the ending pages of the article, where the author makes frequent mention of and reference to his ancestor's generosity in the terms offered to Lee, even including quotes from an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson and from a 1912 speech by Lee staff member Colonel Charles Marshall, showing how "magnanimous" and "gentlemanly" Grant the elder was

It is a good article and worth reading, but while I understand the magazine's decision to have the grandson of what many consider to be an American hero write for it, I wish they had let him do an article to serve as a brief biography of the general and had another author discuss the  race to Appomattox.

Currier and Ives' image of the surrender, courtesy of Library of Congress

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