One of my main interests is how we know what we know about the Civil War. My fascination in the topic stems not only from my work doing public history on the front lines at the battlefields in Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville but also from a public relations perspective. “The Lost Cause,” as a concept, was a basically huge public relations campaign to influence the way Americans remembered the war—or, as Robert E. Lee said, “to transmit, if possible the truth to posterity, and do justice to our brave soldiers.”
In that context, Gary Gallagher’s Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood & Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War proved to be a fascinating and fun book to read.
Gallagher looks at four traditions of Civil War “memory”—in other words, the way we remember the war. The Lost Cause is one such tradition (the South fought valiantly against overwhelming numbers but couldn’t triumph over the invading hordes and their superior supplies of material; Lee and Stonewall are marbleized, God-like beings; James Longstreet is a boob because he single-handedly lost the battle of Gettysburg, etc.)
Another tradition is one Gallagher refers to at the Union Cause: The main reason for going to war in the first place was to preserve the Union. A third cause is called the Emancipation Cause: The war was really all about freeing the slaves, and the moral purpose that provided gave true meaning to the war. Finally, there’s the Reconciliation Cause: Basically, let’s forget all about all that fighting and concentrate on the mutual honor, bravery, and sacrifice that soldiers made on both sides.
Gallagher looks at the way movies and paintings have shaped—and been shaped by—public perception about the war.
The most dramatic example, perhaps, is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Chamberlain led the 20th Maine Infantry regiment in a desperate battle on Little Round Top on day two of the battle of Gettysburg, and episode given considerable attention in Gettysburg. Ken Burns also gave Chamberlain a lot of attention in his documentary. Prior to those media events, Chamberlain never appeared in any Civil War-related media, yet he has since become a cottage industry. Chamberlain appears in more modern paintings than Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Meade, and Reynolds combined (Reynolds gets a lot of attention because of his martyrdom in the movie).
Gallagher’s book, scholarly in nature but nonetheless quite readable, has fun offering critiques of various movies, from Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind that celebrate the Lost Cause to Glory, which promotes the Emancipation Cause. He pulls some great flicks out to critique, and even for people who’ve not seen them, Gallagher provides enough context to effectively make his point.
He also looks at the boom in Civil War art over the past two decades and compares the content of paintings to the art boom that happened after the war. The Lost Cause easily dominates the art world (Chamberlain and Gettysburg not withstanding), and Gallagher provides plenty of examples and explanations.
What’s especially interesting is the way the Union Cause has been forgotten. It is, Gallagher says the real lost cause. Preserving the Union was the single motivating force Lincoln expressed at the war’s beginning, and it was the overwhelming reason Northern soldiers joined up. In fact, when Emancipation became an issue, many Northern soldiers expressed open hostility to the idea. Lincoln, says Gallagher, would be befuddled that the notion of Union has completely fallen off the radar screen as far as modern audiences are concerned.
The Lost Cause, which probably has the single greatest impact on how American’s perceive the war, has fallen out of public favor in Hollywood, says Gallagher. Gettysburg and Gods and Generals were both Lost Cause slanted, but critics savaged the latter film (perhaps because it was just awful, though, not necessarily just because of the political slant it takes). Yet those movies also reflect pretty clearly the modern American view of the war, just as they’ve also had their own influence on that view of the war.
Is Gallagher’s book something the average Johnny Reb or Billy Yank off the street is going to want to pick up? Probably not. But anyone interested in how we know what we know—how society shapes our collective memory, heritage, and history—will certainly appreciate Gallagher’s critical view of the silver screen and canvas.