American Culture

Telling History vs. Making Art: The ways we remember the Civil War

Part two in a series

“We may say that only at the moment when Lee handed Grant his sword was the Confederacy born,” wrote Robert Penn Warren during the Civil War’s centennial; “or to state matters another way, in the moment of death the Confederacy entered upon its immortality.” Writer/activist Albion W. Tourgee, however, considered that moment in a different light just two decades after it happened. “The South surrendered at Appomattox,” he lamented, but “the North has been surrendering every since.”

Such has been the complicated memory of the Civil War. The North won the war but the South won the peace, ensuring a lasting immortality for the Confederacy that has long since been debunked by historians but has nonetheless been firmly ensconced in public memory. Ulysses S. Grant lamented that it should ever come to pass. “While I would do nothing to revive unhappy memories in the South, I do not like to see our soldiers apologize for the war,” he said.

In his book Causes Won, Lost, & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War, Civil War scholar Gary Gallagher articulates four interpretive traditions that arose in the postwar years that subsequently competed to impress themselves on public consciousness. These traditions suggest ways of trying to understand the war and its meanings:

(1) The Lost Cause tradition offered a loose group of arguments that cast the South’s experiment in nation-building as an admirable struggle against hopeless odds, played down the importance of slavery in bringing secession and war, and ascribed to Confederates constitutional high-mindedness and gallantry on the battlefield.

(2) The Union Cause tradition framed the war as preeminently an effort to maintain a viable republic in the face of secessionist actions that threatened both the work of the Founders and, by extension, the future of democracy in a world that had yet to embrace self-rule by a free people.

(3) The Emancipation Cause tradition interpreted the war as a struggle to liberate 4 million slaves and remove a cancerous influence on American society and politics.

(4) [T]he Reconciliation Cause tradition…represented an attempt by white people North and South to extol the American virtues both sides manifested during the war, to exalt the restored nation that emerged from the conflict, and to mute the role of African Americans.

“The Union, Emancipation, and Reconciliation traditions overlapped in some ways, as did the Lost Cause and Reconciliation traditions,” Gallagher notes.

Historian David Blight, who has focused much of his work on Civil War memory, argues that, in the half-century following the war, “the forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipationist vision in the national culture” and that “the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race.” As a result, national memory coalesced around the Reconciliation Cause, not just forcing blacks to take a back seat but ignoring their plight almost entirely in the name of healing and harmony for whites. “In many ways,” Blight says, “[it] is a story of how in American culture romance triumphed over reality, sentimental remembrance won over ideological memory.”

Thus, the Lost Cause tradition, which piggybacked off the Reconciliation tradition, became enshrined in public memory.  The Lost Cause, at its most extreme, sees its modern embodiment in “South with rise again” mentality. Historically, it emphasizes the valor of Southern troops, the prominence of the Army of Northern Virginia, the infallibility of General Robert E. Lee, the martyrdom of Stonewall Jackson, and the “truism” that the North won only by the brute force of superior numbers. The Confederate narrative in the Western Theatre usually gets conveniently overlooked because of the Confederacy’s string of losses there, which get framed in the context of the “Lost Opportunity”—the “what if” that sprung up after the death of General Albert Sydney Johnston in a freak accident at Shiloh: What if Johnston had lived? Slavery, as a cause of the war, is totally ignored in favor of a narrative that emphasizes “states’ rights.” “Black people would eventually have a place in the Confederate narrative, but only as time-warped, loyal antebellum slaves,” Blight points out.

Scholars have long established that slavery was the cause of the war, yet I still deal with visitors every day I am on the battlefield who believe that North and South fought over states rights. I talk with people—not many, but a few—who still refer to “the War of Northern Aggression.” On the flip side of that same coin, I’ve had one of my best friends, a black woman, tell me, “The Civil War is white folks’ history”—which, if the overwhelming percentage of white visitors to the battlefields is an indication, is true in fact if not in theory. The chasm between public memory and generally accepted scholarship remains wide.

Into that breach marches art. Film or book, fiction or creative nonfiction—it matters little. As a few examples will demonstrate, the territory is dangerous, and as historian Leon Litwack points out, the stakes are high:

Over the past century, the power of historians and filmmakers to influence the public, to reflect and shape attitudes and popular prejudices, has been amply demonstrated, often with tragic consequences. Rummaging through the past, filmmakers did not simply reinforce prevailing racial, ethnic, and patriotic biases; they helped to create and perpetuate them.

Robert Penn Warren, whose fiction and poetry frequently concerned itself with the war and its legacy, and who “continually struggled to find a proper balance between history as fact and fiction as art,” understood those dangers. “[I]f, without historical realism and self-criticism, we look back on the War,” he warned, “we are merely compounding the old inherited delusions which our weaknesses crave.”

Litwack was responding specifically to Ken Burns’ The Civil War, but no cinematic example demonstrates his point and Warren’s better than David O. Selznick’s Academy Award winning masterpiece, Gone With the Wind—Blight’s “sentimental remembrance” at its most extreme, the greatest paean to the Lost Cause ever.


Next: “Frankly, my dear….”

Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War

1 reply »

  1. Thanks Chris. “Gone with the Wind” makes my gorge rise. I can’t watch it any more. I was raised in the tradition of the gallant Confederacy and the Lost Cause. It took me many, many years of reading to understand that most of what I learned as a kid, and wanted VERY much to believe, was either entirely wrong or grossly distorted. I appreciate your taking the time to point this out, yet again. 😉