If there is a film genre that has been the source of more fiction and mythology than the western, that category would have to be the American Civil War. The difference seems to be that while some of the most persistent myths about the frontier West like the quick draw shoot-out are Hollywood fabrications that keep getting put into new movies, many of the contemporary beliefs about the Civil War are perpetuated because contrary facts get omitted from scripts.
So whereas the reputation of Tombstone’s Johnny Ringo as a gunfighter is maintained on the screen even though he was never in a gunfight (nor was he killed by Doc Holliday as the movies have it) according to those who knew him like my grandfather and great uncle, a US Deputy Marshal and business partner of Wyatt Earp’s, we never see that Union general Ulysses S. Grant, the man supposedly fighting a war to end slavery, used his wife’s slave during that entire war or that Confederate general Robert E. Lee, the man supposedly fighting to protect slavery, considered it an evil and didn’t own any slaves. That’s just one of the numerous contradictions of this conflict that we have not seen on the screen that have created so many false perceptions of it.
We never see that many blacks in the South were free men, that the Confederate government was not ant-Semitic (its Attorney General and acting Secretary of War was Jewish and many Jews fought for the South), that 3,000 blacks owned 20,000 slaves according to the 1860 census, that northerners (some abolitionists excepted) did not go to war to end slavery, that armed pro Union resistance to the Confederate government by southern whites was rampant in portions of the South, and we certainly never see Union General William Sherman emphatically state that “Slavery is not the Cause but the pretext” for the war before listing what he believed was in his letters.
How do we reconcile that with all the southern state secession declarations that name the retention of slavery as their reason for leaving the United States? Beats me. But if anyone at that time understood southern motivations, it was Sherman.
For years Sherman was superintendent of the school that became Louisiana State University and he understood the South and its people in a way virtually nobody in the the North did. Grant did say slavery was the cause of the war, but that was after years of Union floundering around for a cause to rally around. Before the war, Grant said “If I thought this war was to abolish slavery, I would resign my commission and offer my sword to the other side.” That quote is disputed, but having seen it in several books over the years, I believe it’s accurate and suspect it has been attacked because it does not fit the the currently favored political narrative.
The net result of those and many other omissions like the extreme importance of the Irish immigrant soldiers to both sides is that most Americans are largely ignorant of the complexities and contradictions and outright hypocrisies that school boys of my background generally knew about their ancestors, their war and its issues that still underlie much of our contemporary political contention. The reason we knew was that we got to talk to people who were raised by those who actually fought in the Civil War or lived through it. That was the case in my family.
My father’s parents were on opposite sides of the Civil War and they would re-fight it over dinner every day. My grandfather had several brothers who fought for the North, one of whom was a telegrapher in Sherman’s army and was privy to many candid staff conversations he passed along that have not made it into any history book I’ve seen.
Grandad was a strong Union Republican and to him, secession was treason. That was Sherman’s view and motivation for his vicious campaign against the Confederacy and its people as well. My grandmother didn’t agree. Her father, older brothers and cousins had fought with Texas and North Carolina cavalry units.
What I learned from them and others was that slavery was basically a non issue for most people then and that the likes of Sherman, Grant and even Abraham Lincoln felt that way too no matter what they said late in the war or after it that contradicted their earlier or privately expressed opinions. That “nuance” never makes it onto the screen just as other relevant facts have not in the most recent Civil War films.
The Conspirator shows the tooth and nail legal defense by Union Army hero Frederick Aiken of accused Lincoln assassination conspirator Mary Surratt before a US Army kangaroo court. So we have the drama of Surratt, a backer of the Confederacy, being defended by a former Yankee soldier of principle who’s upset that Surratt’s constitutional rights are being violated.
What’s missing? Setting Surratt’s obvious guilt aside, the fact that Lincoln had rescinded the very constitutional rights Aiken complains are being trashed by the military court, for one, and the fact that before joining the Union army, Aiken had written to Confederate president Jefferson Davis offering to serve with the South, for another.
Glory shows us the first all black regiment formed by the Union — the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — and seems to imply that only the North was evolved enough to allow blacks into its army. In reality, they were cannon fodder for suicidal attacks like the 54th’s on Confederate Fort Wagner , key parts of which the film got wrong.
But have you ever seen a film portraying this eyewitness account of the Confederate army as it marched through Frederick, Maryland (the town where 96 year old Barbara Fritchie taunted the southerners with her American flag) on its way to Gettysburg? “Over 3,000 Negroes must be included in the number … They had arms, rifles, muskets, sabers, bowie-knives, dirks, etc. They were supplied, in many instances, with knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, etc., and they were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederacy army.”
CBS 60 Minutes curmudgeon Andy Rooney fumed that textbooks saying blacks fought for the South were a spreading a lie during a recent rant. Sorry Andy. Era newspapers contain accounts of captured fully armed black soldiers, black snipers and a History Channel piece correctly recounts how soldiers at Camp Douglas, the Union’s hellish POW prison near Chicago — immediately killed black confederate soldiers.
Cold Mountain shows us a sadistic western North Carolina Confederate home guard that murders a harmless retarded boy and a musician in addition to terrorizing the civilians it’s supposed to be protecting. This story I know well. I heard it along with most everyone else while a child living in the mountains and have been to the grave that holds both victims several times. The film has the reason for the killings wrong (the two were Union sympathizers not Confederate army deserters), but maybe that’s because Cold Mountain is really an anti-war, women’s empowerment film. Far as it went, the film still does not show what a bunch of murdering bastards this home guard actually was in addition to the other murdering bastard raider gangs that robbed, raped and pillaged area towns in North Carolina’s “valley of humility between two mountains of conceit.”Those mountains were the plantation aristocrats of Virginia and South Carolina, a class the average man tended to dislike for its arrogance. That’s why the Appalachians on through northern South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia were part of that other South that was ambivalent or outright hostile to the Confederacy and the war years there were not unlike the Missouri border war Bushwaker – Jayhawker bloodlettings shown in The Outlaw Jose Wales and Ride with the Devil.
Gods and Generals presents another issue of authenticity that I have not seen on the screen. Take a look at this movie scene photo of actors portraying Confederate soldiers and compare it with the eye witness description of southern troops below it.
“I have never seen a mass of such filthy strong-smelling men. Three in a room would make it unbearable, and when marching in column along the street the smell from them was most offensive… The filth that pervades them is most remarkable… They have no uniforms, but are all well armed and equipped … They are the roughest looking set of creatures I ever saw.” Another observer described the Confederates as “a lean and hungry set of wolves.”
Do you see “lean and hungry wolves” in that scene? Neither do I. But maybe I expect too much.
The Civil War or any other historical period can be interpreted any way a director wants, but that interpretation tends to reflect current sensibilities.Past interpretations like those in Gone With The Wind presented a ridiculous southern fiction of chivalry, whimsical lost cause and the off-putting sight of “darkies” singin’ ‘n dancin’ in da cotton fields.
We’re now at the opposite end of that spectrum within a framework of what Indiana University history professor David Thelen defined as a “story of bitter irreconcilable conflict between two societies and between two sets of values” — some of which we are still arguing about with no resolution in sight.