Today we hear the word war and thoughts shift to the Middle East. In the 60’s we may have thought about Vietnam, in the 40’s perhaps Pearl Harbor or Hitler and in the 20’s maybe the U Boat or the Red Barron. The supposed winner and loser in each war may have crossed the mind as well but not much more. Why did these wars happen? What was being fought for and who was making the sacrifice? In David W. Blight’s article, “The meaning or the fight: Frederick Douglass and the memory of the fifty fourth Massachusetts,” he proves that in modern American society the memory of war is that of a fight and not of what was being fought for.
Media, the entertainment industry, and even our education systems paint quite a different picture for each of us. In the article, Blight argues that portrayal of historic events lack the actual tale of the very reason that so many passionately went to war. From the article you learn that film fails to draw from actual significance of war, monuments are erected to glorify the fight, and in the specific instance of blacks in the Civil War, Douglass is portrayed often times as a much smaller influence than he actually was.
Blight uses the movie “Glory” as a great example of the cinematic portrayal of the fight rather than portrayal of the real heart of the Fifty Fourth and their struggle. It seems Blight’s biggest reason for using this movie as a prime example for this is the miniscule role of Frederick Douglass. The movie uses Douglass’ “great face” in a quick, insignificant cinematic moment that one might miss if not paying attention. While Douglass was a grand influence not only on the members of the Fifty Fourth, he had a grand influence on the Civil War.
Although he did not don a uniform, he was the face and voice of a revolution. Through the cinematic eye, however, the hard campaigning, empowering, and recruiting that Douglass did just may have not seemed that appealing in comparison to a great marching scene or one that showed those brave uniformed men in battle. Douglass, in memory, was an escaped slave, an abolitionist, and a great speaker. My previous knowledge of Douglass ended there as I would expect most others’ to as well.
Using Douglass in this article was probably the strongest hitting point. Blight really opened a new window into the Civil War for me. Douglass helped the blacks to see that allegiance to the country was a big step in the right direction while at the same time enabling them to take pride in their race. Douglass was ahead of his time in his thinking. His urging to reflect upon the battles seemed to be lost on those of his time and remain lost to those of today.
Would the black Americans have been as involved in the war without the urging of Douglass? Would things have ended the same? Would my view of the Civil War be different had he not influenced the masses into rising up against the old order? I wonder why, as an American, that I did not know of this great contribution by Douglass before. I am guilty of remembering the contest of war and not even thinking of complicated challenges that were faced by those involved. The dramatics of it all seem a bit easier to swallow.
Blight says “…monuments are always about remembrance and forgetting…” and I now agree. A monument looks the same to everyone but its meaning lies within the perception of the viewer. For most, it is easier to see the brave face or the fight. Blight uses the example of the Civil War monument at St. Gaudens to explain this. The monument stands as a reminder of the brave black men that went to war for the Union but what was and is forgotten is the reason they fought and died for the Union, freedom.
Freedom sat at the heart of the fight for those in the Fifty Fourth but one would not know that from the monument they see today or would they? This is where Blight loses me. He speaks of monuments honoring the fight but not the meaning but also says that it shows how ideals and purposes were fought for. This leads him into nationalism and how it is “problematic” yet he urges the reader not to turn a blind eye to the monuments nationalism. We all see what we’re taught to see, we only get the message they want us to get.