The Magazine

Lessons in Celluloid

Hollywood, history, and the War Between the Takes.

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By MICHAEL TAUBE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten

How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War

by Gary W. Gallagher

UNC Press, 288 pp., $28

Here's a sad but true fact: Popular culture and historical accuracy just don't mix. And one of the main culprits has been (brace yourself) the entertainment industry, which would revise everything from the Dawn of Man to the 2000 presidential election--if given half the chance and a few million bucks. As Michael Medved wrote in Hollywood vs. America, "The days when Hollywood captured the imagination of the entire world with stirring accounts of our heroic history have given way to an era of self-flagellation and irresponsible revisionism."

Sadder still, the Civil War almost always falls into this wayward category. If you think that an accurate reflection of this important historical period would be a routine procedure, think again. Movie studios and artists have taken it upon themselves to recreate this war in a manner that suits their needs. While it doesn't mean that an alternate reality has been devised in which the Confederate Army is victorious, it does mean that the true historical cause of the Civil War has been lost in the shuffle.

This leads us to Gary W. Gallagher, professor of history at the University of Virginia and a leading Civil War scholar and author. Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten sheds light on the common misrepresentations of the conflict between Blue (North) and Gray (South). While freely admitting that he's "trained as neither a film critic nor an art critic," Gallagher has nevertheless produced a superb analysis of a war that defined a nation--but that has lost its definition thanks to liberal amounts of creative license afforded to the celluloid and pen-and-ink crowds.

Gallagher classifies films under four traditions which have underscored Civil War-themed movies and art. There's the Lost Cause, which casts "the South's experiment in nation-building as an admirable struggle against hopeless odds." Next is the Union Cause, which frames "the war as preeminently an effort to maintain a viable republic in the face of secessionist actions." Then there's the Emancipation Cause, which depicts the war as "a struggle to liberate four million slaves and remove a cancerous influence on American society and politics." And last, the Reconciliation Cause, which represents "an attempt by white people North and South to extol the American virtues both sides manifested during the war."

In Hollywood's early years, the Lost Cause was dominant in films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939). Some people vividly remember the positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan in the former film and Rhett Butler not giving a damn about Scarlett O'Hara in the latter. But these cinematic masterpieces also "exposed generations of Americans to strongly positive depictions of the Confederacy and the slaveholding South." The Old South was viewed as being both heroic and romantic, passionate discussions of emancipation barely registered, and the Union was often viewed in a negative fashion.

According to Gallagher, Shenandoah (1965) represents a "watershed in Hollywood's relationship with the Lost Cause." This popular film is rife with historical inaccuracies. Even though 90 percent of Virginia's military-age white males were conscripted in the Civil War, the Anderson family's five sons somehow avoided it. Integrated U.S. military outfits also magically appeared, defying history and reams of literature. The author places this film squarely in the Emancipation Cause, and argues it "should be considered pre-eminently as an antiwar film."

Still, Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten notes that while "Shenandoah's emancipationist elements built on these insubstantial precedents ... it remained for Glory to thrust the Emancipation Cause into heroic cinematic relief." Glory (1989) is the epic story of a mighty struggle to form an all-black regiment--the 54th Massachusetts--in the Union army. The film tugged at heartstrings and introduced audiences to a very different side of the war they knew little about. Only the black soldiers are portrayed in a sympathetic light, along with the sole exception of their white colonel. The white soldiers are depicted in a racist manner which "certainly would have been repellent by modern standards."

Naturally, there are historical inaccuracies in Glory. Some examples include: The film portrayed the black soldiers as being former southern slaves, but in reality, most were born free men in the North; the 54th Massachusetts actually came together in 1863, not in 1862 as the film depicted; and Robert Gould Shaw didn't jump at the chance to become the outfit's commanding officer--he initially rejected the posting before eventually agreeing to assume the role. But when the film's producer, Freddie Fields, was asked about these inaccuracies, he brushed them aside:

You can get bogged down when dealing in history. Our objective was to make a highly entertaining and exciting war movie filled with action and character.

Most Civil War films that have followed Glory have been part of either the Emancipation or Reconciliation Cause--even if they had elements of Lost Cause. Two examples of this shift in thinking are Gettysburg (1993) and Gods and Generals (2003). The former has several Lost Cause themes, including "the idea that Gettysburg represented a dramatic moment when the Confederacy could have established its independence." But Gallagher notes that Gettysburg repudiates the Lost Cause in one important respect: "There are innumerable Confederate flags in evidence but no sense of Confederate nationalism animating soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia--many of whom in 1863 would have described the army as the embodiment of their nation."

Meanwhile, its prequel, Gods and Generals, displays many Lost Cause traits but also "allocates a few minutes to Union motivation," leading to discussions of emancipation. As well, the movie is not a balanced presentation, missing themes like "the thousands of slaves who ran to Union lines," the use of slavery "as a precipitant of secession and war," and "white citizens unhappy with the Confederacy."

Overall, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals "unfurl a far more conventional reconciliation banner in scenes involving both officers and common soldiers," and the absence of speaking roles for black characters in Gettysburg also "sets a reconciliationist tone." Both films may deal with the Lost Cause, yet they aren't Lost Cause films.

But therein lies a major problem: Gallagher asserts that the Union Cause, which carried the most weight during the Civil War era, has become "Hollywood's real lost cause." Today's entertainment industry has, for the most part, ignored the growth of the Union army and "Lincoln's vision of a democratic nation devoted to economic opportunity." There really haven't been vivid accounts of what it meant for a northern soldier to join the Union army and fight for the American dream.

Even worse, Hollywood has been serving up "a post-Vietnam vision of the Union army as a cruel, racist juggernaut that wreaks havoc and stands for nothing admirable." From Dances with Wolves to Cold Mountain to Pharaoh's Army, the Union is seen as a vicious, bloodthirsty outfit that is hell-bent on destruction rather than its true goal of nation-building. In fact, Gallagher points out the lack of a strong Union theme "must be read on one level as a triumph for the Lost Cause" and a victory for old-style anti-Yankee sentiment.

The art world has also decided against paying homage to the Union Cause. According to Gallagher, the last quarter-century of Civil War art "would warm the hearts of former Confederates who laid the groundwork for the Lost Cause tradition." Civil War artists like Mort Künstler and John Paul Strain have overwhelmingly depicted beautiful portraits and military scenes of famous Confederate military figures like Robert E. Lee, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart.

Even examples of 19th- and early 20th-century Civil War art show a remarkable dominance of the Lost Cause tradition. Artists such as Everett B.D. Julio and William DeHartburn Washington painted majestic scenes of Lee and Jackson leading the rag-tag Confederate army in battle after battle. They are seen as heroic and pious figures, and typically painted with strong, dominant features and an air of confidence, such as George Bagby Matthews's 1907 masterpiece, Lee and His Generals.

Why is there a preference for Confederate art? Gallagher acknowledges that hard data do not exist. But his unscientific study of more than 2,750 advertisements for prints and artwork during 1962-2006 in three magazines (Civil War Times Illustrated, Blue & Gray Magazine, and North & South) suggests that the art-buying public "overwhelmingly prefer Confederate leaders and themes." Reasons for this could range from a broader appeal and admiration for Confederate figures, or even possibly "the romantic underdog aura of the Confederate war that transcends geography."

Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten gives credence to the cruel reality that Hollywood and popular art are not portraying the Civil War from a valid historical perspective. True, the goal of film studios and artists is to create subject matter that will appeal to their specific audiences and reap massive profits. They are not historians, and a history lesson is likely the furthest thing from their minds. But if we want history to "come alive," and if we want to learn about the past, the only way to properly do it is to accurately depict individuals as they were and events as they happened.

If the current trend in popular culture continues, fewer and fewer people will understand what the Union and Confederate causes were about, and why the Civil War was fought in the first place.

Michael Taube is a public affairs analyst and commentator, and former speechwriter for Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.