Interpreting Civil War Art: The Case of John Rogers’ The Council of War

One of my favorite pieces of Civil War sculpture is John Rogers’s The Council of War. It presents the trio of Abraham Lincoln, Edwin M. Stanton, and Ulysses S. Grant discussing what to do next in 1864-65. Stanton suggested the scene, and in the process implied a harmony that was not always there. Nor, as one learns from this eBay listing, was the statue a simple product from beginning to end.

Rogers was a commercial artist looking to sell his work to broader public. As such, he made adjustments to the image, and the one that is most apparent is the shifting portrayal of Stanton. There are two poses of Stanton cleaning his glasses (see left and center) and one where he’s looking directly at Grant.

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Each image gives a slightly different view of the Grant-Stanton relationship, which was not always a pleasant one. Indeed, Grant and Stanton feuded early on during Grant’s time as general in chief, leaving Lincoln to side with Grant; the two men would also disagree when it came to how to handle William T. Sherman’s initial terms of surrender (Grant addressed the matter quietly, while Stanton’s anxiety got the better of him, something Sherman never forgave). The two men also enjoyed an uneven relationship during Reconstruction, even as they united in opposition to Andrew Johnson’s policies. In the end, Grant nominated Stanton to the Supreme Court, but Stanton died before the appointment became effective.

Stanton’s role in this statue … it was he who suggested the scene to Rogers … shows that with the fighting over the secretary of war wanted to put behind notions that there had ever been any difficulties among this particular Big Three. Moreover, with Grant always looking at Stanton (and not Lincoln), the chain of command that Stanton wanted remembered was preserved, although that message is muddled (and the underlying tension barely suggested) in the face-to-face image. Moreover, when Grant described his meetings with Lincoln, he did not mention Stanton as a major player in strategic planning.

However, as we see below, not everyone grasps the different levels of interpretation offered by this series of representations (perhaps the interpreter is not aware of them):

Note: Grant arrived in Washington to accept his commission on March 8 (the date of the famed White House reception), with the formal presentation taking place the next day.

The interpretation offered above is testimony to the ability of Rogers (and Stanton) to shape historical memory in a way that is not supported by a look at the documentary record. The story here is not the position of Lincoln, as admirable as that rendering might be, but of the Grant-Stanton dynamic, with three different renderings of Stanton offering different ideas as to what was going on. Moreover, the harmony implicit in the images featuring Stanton cleaning his glasses contrasts with the struggles Grant sometimes had with Stanton, Henry W. Halleck (note his complete absence), and even Lincoln … and Stanton’s suggestion neatly shelves Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who joins Halleck on the sidelines.

It’s almost as if T. Harry Williams, who pointed to the command arrangement of 1864 as the birth of the modern command system (although at least he did not forget Halleck) had input into the result.

Of course, Lincoln never actually posed for a picture with Grant … or any of the generals who commanded the Army of the Potomac, save one:

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I happen to love that photograph. Then again, Lincoln had no proble psing with John McClernand just before he sent McClernand off to do some mischief:

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By the way, why is Pinkerton striking the Napoleon pose, too?

We have so much to learn about Lincoln and his generals that might disrupt the old story.  But that’s a tale (or a book) left for another time.

5 thoughts on “Interpreting Civil War Art: The Case of John Rogers’ The Council of War

  1. Kristilyn BaldwinKristilyn August 2, 2013 / 6:18 am

    Great post. I honestly believe images shape the cultural interpretation of history and I think the point made here is a perfect example of such.

  2. Kristilyn BaldwinKristilyn August 2, 2013 / 6:19 am

    Oh, and I agree with you that this statue is much less about Lincoln than suggested by some historians.

  3. John Randolph August 2, 2013 / 6:20 pm

    Interesting post. I totally agree with Kristilyn’s point about the power of images to shape our thinking about history and other matters. Skilled manipulators of public perception have long understood that people are much more likely to be persuaded through cleverly designed appeals to their visceral emotions rather than to their intellect.

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