Our species has an ancient tradition of attributing human qualities to animals and making associations between animal traits and human characteristics. Totemic spirits, witch's familiars, trickster myths and the greenman who personifies Nature and presides over this blog all illustrate how deeply ingrained animal signs and signifiers remain in human consciousness.
Animals have been metaphors for human experience since the earliest days of storytelling when the first human ancestors gathered around the evening flame while watchful eyes glowed beyond the firelight. Aesop's fables proceed in a direct line of association to Animal Farm. Americans are accustomed to animal symbolism, from our national bird to Thomas Nast cartoons of Republican Elephants and Democratic Donkeys.
Disney has made an empire out of translating myth and fable into stories depicted by animal characters, as this image from 1973's Robin Hood demonstrates. Consider the casting choices in this cartoon. Robin, naturally, is the sly fox: sleek and cunning, manifestly the trickster of myth and legend. Little John the brawny bear, loyal and earthy. The minstral Alan-a-Dale is the crowing cock: the sheriff the wolf of fearful memory. The pretender to the royal throne is a mangy lion, and his poisonous counselor a snake out of Eden.
As recent posts here have illustrated, being fairly well versed in the history of the American Civil War, and in a droll and whimsical frame of mind this weekend, it occurred to me to wonder what a Disneyesque treatment of that tempestuous period in our nation's history might produce? What anthropomorphic avatars would stand in for those famous personalities? There is historic precedent for such anamistic analogies - consider Francis Marion "the Swamp Fox" of Revolutionary fame - and recall that "peace Democrats" in the North during the Civil War were scornfully known as "copperheads." Nineteenth-century Americans were used to thinking and speaking in metaphors from the natural world as well as the Bible.
In some cases, the comparison stands ready made; Lee affectionately called James Longstreet "my old warhorse." In others, the comparison had associations then, or does today, that stray into dangerous shoals, such as derisive contemporary likenings of Lincoln and baboons. We'll return to "the Railsplitter" and consider whether there is an appropriate creature to represent his qualities.
So herewith, my casting choices for Animals in Arms; A 'Tail' of the Civil War, soon to be a major figment of my imagination:
Lee and Grant are easy. Who but a gray fox to play the gray leader who time and again "outfoxed" his adversaries? Grant's animal, on the other hand, is suggested by Lincoln himself, who exhorted his "fightingest" general to "Hold on with a bulldog grip and chew and choke as much as possible."
Thomas Francis Meagher, the flamboyant and pugnacious commander of the Irish Brigade, is a fighting gamecock. Meagher was famous for his custom designed uniforms - in the Peninsula fighting he appeared in a coat of emerald green with a wide-brimmed straw hat.
While Ambrose Burnside had some of the most distinctive, jowly facial features of any of his contemporaries, we cannot have two bulldogs in this narrative. Furthermore, he lacked the tenacity of Grant and is criticized for his unimaginative and disastrous frontal assaults at Fredericksburg and for the infamous and equally futile "mud march" on which he lead the Army of the Potomac on the following January. A swine, perhaps, but I think a better choice is a walrus; bristly and with noble tusks instead of sideburns that it uses to dig mollusks from the mud of the sea floor. Lewis Carroll provides an appropriate anthropomorphic illustration, in period dress, to aid in comparison.
And what of the dashing cavalier, the leader of Lee's cavalry and in the first years of the war the undisputed master of mounted tactics in the Eastern theater? J.E.B. Stuart's bushy red beard, the antics of his "ride around McClellan" and his aggressive dashes at the enemy call to mind a red squirrel, its luxuriant tail like the plume of a hat - or a red bushy beard. Red squirrels will attack and even maim grey squirrels in defending their territory.
In keeping with the canime theme, "Little Phil" Sheridan could be a Jack Russell Terrier: intelligent, determined, wilful and completely fearless.
William Tecumseh Sherman is harder to cast. His scruffiness exceeds that of Grant, as does his pride. His ruthlessness in battle- Sherman fully understood and endorsed the concept of total war - is balanced by the expectionally favorable terms he offered Joe Johnson's army in defeat. He was rumered by his detractors to be insane, although depression and combat fatigue are more likely explanations, and a rabid dog does not suit him. Although it was the mascot of the Michigan cavalry lead by Custer, a wolverine shares many of the qualities associated with General Sherman and unless someone can suggest a better alternative, a wolverine he shall be.
Nathan Bedford Forrest is a wolf in the old, deep woods terror sense of the animal. Stonewall Jackson a solitary hunter, nimble and ferocious. A leopard, a tiger, a mountain lion: something feline certainly. "Fighting Joe" Hooker, that utterly misnamed commander who lost his nerve and imagined himself overwhelmed when facing a smaller, disorganized foe, could be played by an ostrich, head in the sand. Cantankerous Jubal Early has rhinoceros written all over him. McClellan, the sluggish engineer who built massive fortifications but pulled his head in when danger threatened, is a tortoise. The Creole aristocrat Beauregard would make a fine mink. Burly "General Thomas", the Rock of Chickamauga, is a classic bear. Jefferson Davis, the arrogant and proud, is a stag, perhaps an elk.
And what of Lincoln, rawboned and lanky with melancholy features that seem to reflect the cares of the nation? A Marabou stork in its black morning coat? A wizened chimpanzee? I think, in the end, it should be a moose, ruminating and bearded on its impossibly long legs, slow to rise but awesome and powerful with the velvet off the horns. I like the juxtaposition with an antlered Jeff Davis, too.
One could imagine the epic first battle of the ironclads with an alligator standing in for the "Virginia, nee Merrimack" and some nautical mice aboard the "cheesebox on a raft" that would serve as the Monitor. The moles of the 48th PA would undermine the Confederate trenches before the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg. The armies themselves would be as varied as the nation and nationalities that produced them, "all creatures great and small."
Those with better animal suggestions than those I have posed here are most welcome to suggest them. Anyone whose favorite Civil War personality has been omitted should feel free to offer casting ideas. Any animators or major motion picture studios who envision bringing this concept to the big screen may speak with my agent.