The lives and legacies of four of the Civil War’s most iconic names—Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, Gen. George E. Pickett, and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant–are the focus of McCormick Civil War Institute at Shenandoah University’s annual spring seminar, “Heroes, Scapegoats, & Villains: Creating the Legacy of Civil War Generals.” These men are ones known to people with even the most casual interest in the Civil War, but while the men are famous, room still exists for better understanding of each man’s legacy.
2016 State Council for Higher Education in Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award winner; McCormick Visiting Chair in Civil War History and Adjunct Assistant Professor of History Jonathan Noyalas ’01, M.A., explains why it’s important to study this quartet and how Shenandoah, which stewards land on a Civil War battlefield site, is well-positioned explore the legacy of a conflict with repercussions that continue to reverberate in the contemporary United States.
The Importance of Historical Legacy
Why is it important to study the Civil War from the perspective of generals and why in particular from the perspective of these four?
Noyalas: Scottish philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle observed that “history is the essence of innumerable biographies.” Too often history is perceived as the mere recitation of mundane facts and dates, when in actuality it is the story of people—players in an epic drama. Since I believe that biography is central to historical understanding there is no better way to gain a sharper perspective on the past than to do so through the eyes of the participants.
Studying the conflict from the perspectives of these four individuals allows for deeper insight not only into their personalities and military decisions, but studying the conflict from the perspectives of these four iconic figures affords an opportunity to help people understand that historical legacy is not merely defined by what one did on a battlefield, but by how people around these figures shaped their legacies.
What unique approaches will be used to help attendees better understand the complexities of historical legacy?
Noyalas: This year’s Civil War Institute spring seminar will study the establishment of the legacies of these generals from a variety of perspectives. For example, one of the frameworks that will be utilized to examine the legacy of Gen. Philip H. Sheridan is poetry and art. While some might initially discount the value of using such tools of historical inquiry they are quite valuable in assessing historical legacy as it is important to remember that far more individuals throughout the course of time formulate their understanding of historical figures from elements of popular culture (such as poetry and art) than reading traditional biography. Arguably nothing helped to elevate someone like Sheridan in the popular consciousness of the North more than the art, poetry, and music associated with his famed ride from Winchester to Cedar Creek.
Why does the memory of each of these commanders still stir tremendous sentiment today?
Noyalas: The Civil War in general still stirs deep emotions among people because as Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Bruce Catton so keenly observed decades ago, the conflict “means so many different things. It emphasizes the point that any great historic truth has many facets.”
Each of the generals that will be explored during this Civil War Institute can be, dependent upon one’s perspective, regarded as heroic or easily vilified. The legacies of each of these generals offer superb case studies of the importance of historical objectivity and divorcing oneself from personal passions or remembered history (that is, regarding oral traditions as almost holy relics that have not been put under intense historical scrutiny) when assessing historical legacy.
What are some of the other interesting features of this year’s McCormick Civil War Institute seminar?
Noyalas: In addition to four presentations by Lesley Gordon (University of Akron), James Broomall (Shepherd University), Keith Gibson (Virginia Military Institute), and myself, the day will include a panel discussion about the Civil War’s enduring legacy, an approximately fifty-minute walking tour of Shenandoah University’s River Campus at Cool Spring, focusing on the aftermath of the battle and the battlefield’s legacy. This year’s seminar will also include the first-ever student panel. The panel will consist of approximately six students who will speak about their role as contributors to “The Shenandoah Valley During the Civil War Era: An Online Exhibition” which is a collection of student-authored essays, primary documents, and artifacts related to some aspect of the region’s Civil War story.
Where can interested people find more information and register?
Noyalas: All information about the day’s activities on Saturday, April 23, and how to register can be found on the McCormick Civil War Institute’s website at https://www.su.edu/arts/special-programs/mccormick-civil-war-institute-2. Of course anyone with particular questions about the day can contact Noyalas at email@example.com.