Michelle Obama caused a minor uproar among the Civil War myth-mongers when she noted that slaves built the White House. She, of course, was stating a horrible fact that even I was never taught as a school kid. As a Kentuckian, Charles Traub, chairperson of SVA NYC’s MFA Photography, Video and Related Media, grew up like many of his generation and even those from the Northern states, believing somehow that despite the despicable issue of slavery, there was something noble in the Southern Cause. “This was largely due to great omissions of the teachings of Civil War history that failed to properly ascribe to the Southern gentry their real character that was venal, cruel and arrogant.” Traub and I spoke on the occasion of the release of his current iBook, No Perfect Heroes: Photographing Grant (Interlocutor Press), a contemporary photographic tribute to Ulysses S. Grant’s legacy and his immeasurable role in saving the Union. The issues confronted by Grant, in his deeds and writings, offer fresh insight for a country still divided politically. This is not the typical history through photos or reprise of landmarks though. Traub’s photos follow the tracks of Grant and the Union Army as the war transpired. The interactive experience is especially compelling through the marriage of black-and-white photos with the voice of the actor and director Edoardo Ballerini. I was touched both by the way Traub handled the content and its dramatic presentation. One big question for me is why the Civil War was considered such a heroic conflict. I asked Traub to discuss his reasons for paying tribute to Grant. His views reveal a deep divide between Civil War myth-makers and realists.
I am so very impressed by your employ of digital tools to bring this book alive in ways that even documentary film cannot. First, though, let me ask you: Why this interest in Grant?
The Lost Cause movement basically fabricated by Southern writers and the likes of Gone With the Wind, Birth of a Nation and Confederate nostalgia brought forth a misconstrued romanticism. It made Robert E. Lee into an Arthurian character. When in reality, he was a traitor and a self-serving slave owner. This same history demeaned U.S. Grant, unfairly ascribed to him drunkenness and ineptness as a general. In truth, Grant was probably the greatest general this country ever had and without him, the results of the Civil War may have been quite different. It turns out he was a very remarkable man. A great writer and indeed a visionary president.
I was reading William S. McFeely’s biography of Grant back in 2002 when I first started my project Still Life in America. I was taking road trips here, there and everywhere looking at what remains in our urban and rural landscape. In doing such, one comes upon a multitude of Civil War sites. As I experienced those mostly in the Western sector of the South, Grant seemed to always be the central figure. After finishing the previous project, I realized I needed to find out more about this man who has been so misplaced in the American hierarchy of greatness. Thus, I set out again in 2009 to look for this remarkable hero. The more I looked, the more photographs I took, and the more I read, the more I realized that we need more of his likes in today’s culture. A man of principle, determination, decisiveness, humble and meaningful. The issues that Grant articulated as to the causes and conflicts of the nation during his life are very much alive today. In fact, gun violence, state’s rights, the ranting against big government, etc., really are still rooted in the demagoguery of the Southern Civil War cause.
I can relate to some of these images in a visceral way. I recall going to Gettysburg and feeling tingles as I set foot on the battlefield. Tell me how you selected the places to photograph and what to keep?
In the last 40 years or so, numerous books have been written about Grant. He has risen from the very bottom of our presidential ratings to number 10. The likes of Sean Wilentz, William Brand, Joan Waugh, and now Ron Chernow who wrote Hamilton, are celebrating his remarkable contribution to our history. My photographs were made simply to memorialize and to eulogize in a visual way this almost perfect hero.
The sites photographed are basically those in which Grant lived, habituated or fought. I covered all the battle sites of his campaigns, his homes, and a number of the many monuments to him. It is telling that his tomb in New York is hardly visited and was deteriorating rapidly until recently, and at one time it was the most visited site in America. A great monument, the largest of its kind, stands in front of the U.S. capital and was built to honor U.S. Grant. While we see it every day in photographs of the capital, most do not know what it’s about.
Experiencing the battlefields, the towns, the buildings where our Civil War was fought must have had an impact on your emotions. What changed or added to your feelings about the man and the conflict?
Yes, every time I visited one of these sites, I was awestruck by the greatness of this hero who subsequently was so neglected. I was moved as you were at Gettysburg that each of these battle sites is hallowed ground, that the toll taken upon American youth was so great. My generation and I believe and subsequent ones could rarely tell you what really happened at these national battlefield parks.
You were born in the South, but Grant was the victor for the North. What of your own heritage (baggage or interest) did you bring to this project?
We cannot forget that the real cause was slavery and that there was nothing honorable in the Southern Cause. As many as 25,000 men died in single one-day conflicts. Unnecessary slaughter to rectify evil. If we are really to address the issues of our current political conflicts today, we better look more closely at the Civil War period. The root of much of what we are dealing with in our political divide lies in the past.
What’s next for the project?
Having finished this historically rooted project, I find myself once again looking back, but this time at a group of unpublished and hardly seen photographs I made in uptown Chicago and the Bowery of New York. I’m using the title The Bowery as a kind of generic signifier for all such places where once those on the skids gathered. The book, still in its infancy, contains portraits that hopefully are not exploited but reveal the nobleness of neglected hopeless people.
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