The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Filmby Bruce Chadwick
More movies have been produced about the Civil War than about any other aspect of American history. From 1903 (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) to the present, film studios have released more than eight hundred silent and sound pictures about the nation’s most cataclysmic event. In this wonderfully comprehensive study, Bruce Chadwick first shows us how historians, journalists, playwrights, poets and novelists of the late nineteenth century—partly as an effort to reconcile former antagonists—rewrote the war’s history to create enduring legends, most of which had no basis in reality.
Early silent films followed their example, presenting egregiously distorted—and anti-black—stories about the war, which viewers accepted as truth.
Dr. Chadwick gives us a clear (and sometimes humorous) recounting of those films’ plots and themes, including D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and goes on to describe dozens of movies from the twenties and thirties, among them the classic Gone With the Wind. In the forties and fifties many westerns were partly or chiefly based on the Civil War, presenting veterans of both armies gone West to make a new life in the territories, now united in their hatred of the Indians, another minority group.
Collectively, all these films created a deeply mythologized and racist version of the war, and of the antebellum period that preceded it and the Reconstruction era that followed. It was a war that, on film, no one actually started (unless they were radical abolitionists) and no one really lost. The movies gave us what the author calls a “moonlight-and-magnolias” view of the past, filled withgallant cavaliers, a saintly Abraham Lincoln, Scarlett and Rhett, brave Northern warriors and beautiful Southern belles. Slaves were portrayed as obedient servants pouring mint juleps, as happy “darkies” toiling long hours in the field for lovable and benevolent masters, or as mere background pieces, like furniture or bales of hay—and, once freed, as menacing and vicious. Thus, Dr. Chadwick tells us, Americans were given segregation and racism on screen in a way that not only validated the racism they saw in their everyday lives but also helped to maintain it. Even after the civil rights movement, which inspired powerful films like Glory that portrayed the courage of black soldiers, such prejudicial films did not entirely disappear.
The Reel Civil War is a book about the power and the perils of both movies and mythmaking, but more than that, it is a book about the American people and how for a very long period their false ideas about their country’s history—in this case a terrible war—were perpetuated by Hollywood.
“[A] fine book. . . . Sure to fascinate lovers of both the Civil War and the big screen.” The Washington Times
“Chadwick ...brings to this effort a comfortable knowledge of American history and extensive research on the many hundreds of Civil War films and their creation.”–Kirkus Reviews
- Knopf Publishing Group
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I Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton: America Rewrites Its History
Many historians, intellectuals and public figures campaigned to eradicate the idea that the war was fought over slavery, and to free the South of any blame for it. They worked hard, too, to underscore the idea that no one actually caused the war and no one actually lost it, permitting Southerners to feel that somehow as Americans they had won a war, not lost one. Most of all, these mythmakers’ work, whether in textbooks, poems or novels, tried to erase the pure horror of a war in which so many young men were killed. By framing it as a romantic conflict they somehow managed to turn the thousands of bodies lying on top of one another in Bloody Lane, at Antietam, into thousands of gallant young men riding horses or charging across fields in collective memory. Their efforts may have been contrived, but their goal, a reunified country, was not. The people of the United States needed to come together after the Civil War. These scholars and public figures helped to make that reunification possible.
The first steps towards reunifying the United States were taken even before the conflict ended. President Lincoln, delicately working to keep his numerous political coalitions in Congress together, engineered a mild reconstruction program in Louisiana after that state was occupied by Union troops in 1862. The president, while barring most former Confederate officeholders from political activity, did permit some state politicians to hold office in the “new” Louisiana. Lincoln later attempted to get Congress to approve a rather soft general reconstruction plan for all of the Southernstates; under the plan only 10 percent of the residents needed to “rejoin” the United States in order to create a new government and have their state readmitted to the Union. This attempt at creating a smooth transition failed when federal legislators refused to go along, but at the time of his murder Lincoln was actively trying to bring occupied Southern states back into the Union, using the Army instead of Congress through his powers as commander in chief.
President Andrew Johnson, who agreed with Lincoln’s low-key approach to reconstruction, took another step towards conciliation when he refused to execute the former Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, despite virulent public outcries, and instead kept him in jail for two years and offered no protest when the Supreme Court dropped all charges against Davis.
Political efforts to bring about reunification between North and South ground to a halt, however, in 1867, when Radical Republicans forced passage of the Reconstruction Act. That legislation, in effect for ten years, divided the territory of the defunct Confederacy into five military districts, gave freedmen the vote and the right to hold public office and opened the door to “carpetbaggers,” Northerners who arrived at the end of the conflict, and “scalawags,” Southerners who became sudden Northern sympathizers and whose corrupt business practices offended many Southerners. There remained throughout the Southern states a deep despair over the loss of approximately 300,000 young men, nearly one quarter of the adult white male population, and the devastation of dozens of towns and cities in the war.The Union army had ripped up hundreds of miles of Southern railroad tracks, more than 50 percent of farm machinery in the South had been ruined, more than 40 percent of the South’s livestock killed or stolen. Southern wealth during the war decreased by 60 percent. Between 1860 and 1870, the South’s share of national wealth dropped from 30 percent to just 12 percent. In 1860, Southerners’ average income was 68 percent of Northerners’, but by 1870 it had dropped to 39 percent and stayed there for forty years.
Except for assaults on a few small cities in the North such as Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, there had been little destruction in the Union states. Although Reconstruction laws enabled freed slaves to take tremendous steps forward as citizens and laborers, Southern whites saw these same laws as unduly harsh. The bitter feelings made political progress towards reunification difficult until the mid-1870s.
Public figures on both sides realized that the end of Reconstruction, despite the tattered condition of the Southern states, was the time to begin the healing process with a view towards bringing about the consolidation of the United States so that the nation, whole again, could move forward.
Reconstruction was ended by politicians in order to guarantee the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, who was narrowly defeated by Samuel Tilden in the popular vote in the 1876 presidential election. Nevertheless, a congressional electoral commission decided that Hayes had been elected president. As recompense, Hayes then reputedly agreed to withdraw all U.S. troops from the Southern states, effectively ending Reconstruction. Then, in his first message to Congress, Hayes made a bold statement on behalf of reunion. He told the legislators, and the people, that “To complete and make permanent the pacification of the country continues to be . . . the most important of all our national interests.”
Throughout the 1870s reconciliation between North and South continued. The first official Memorial Day was established in 1868, and by 1891 most states celebrated the holiday, honoring the dead on both sides of the conflict. In 1872, President Grant and Congress offered amnesty to all former Confederate officeholders and military officers. In 1875, Southerners returned the captured regimental flag of the all-black Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers. The Centennial, held in Philadelphia in 1876, was a nonpartisan celebration for all Americans, North and South. Business journals, published in both Northern and Southern cities, promoted reunification. In 1878, dozens of highly regarded Southern orators made tours of Northern cities, preaching reconciliation. Also in 1878, Northern doctors and nurses rushed to the South, bringing with them hundreds of thousands of dollars in relief money, to fight the dreaded yellow fever that crippled Louisiana, taking the lives of thousands, including the son of Jefferson Davis. Southerners publicly and privately acknowledged the magnanimous gesture. Confederate veterans accepted an offer to march in a Boston commemorative parade in 1875, and Massachusetts veterans a similar offer to march in New Orleans in 1881.
The 1870s saw the glorification of Lee, who died in 1870 and whose passing was mourned throughout both North and South. Lee’s dignified surrender at the end of the war—and his quick ascension to the presidency of Washington College—elevated him from a mere general to a figure of heroic proportions. He was seen in the postwar North and South as a great man who happened to have lost the war, and who forgave the enemy and immediately went to work in higher education to help the South rebuild.
In the 1870s and 1880s Lee and other Confederate generals, plus some slain generals such as Stonewall Jackson and J. E. B. Stuart, were the subjects of best-selling lithographs. These were produced in the North by printers who realized they could make huge profits in the new, nostalgic Southern market. Surprisingly, the prints sold well in the North, too, and helped position the Southern generals in the minds of Americans as good men who fought bravely but lost. Many of the lithographs and paintings had religious overtones, such as a lithograph in Tennessee that showed Lee, ready for battle, standing next to a crucified Christ.They also projected the great courage and dignity of the vanquished, an important step towards reconciliation and the idea that no one truly lost the war. Currier & Ives had so much business in Southern prints that by the mid-1880s the firm was selling more Confederate prints than Northern ones. Lithographer John Buttre of New York had so much Southern business that by 1884 he was selling eight different Lee lithographs.
Southerners were building their own myths throughout this period, such as the Lost Cause and the image of the gallant boys who fought for four long years. Several groups of Confederate Veterans were formed, along with the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to commemorate the war and the fallen soldiers. Confederate publications, such as Confederate Veteran magazine, were started. Virginians built monuments to Lee and to Stonewall Jackson (an entire street in Richmond would eventually be graced by Confederate monuments).
Southern remembrance of the war began to change as veterans and residents began to equate lithographs, anniversaries and nostalgic newspaper and magazine stories of the war with a kind of victory. They slowly came to believe that while they had not won technically, they might have won emotionally, and that at least the Southern boys were just as brave and heroic as the Northern boys. This belief became so popular that by the 1880s Georgia’s U.S. Senator John Gordon, a former Confederate general, was often introduced at political rallies as “the hero of Appomattox” to sustained applause, as if the Confederates had won a battle at the town where they surrendered.
The 1880s saw steps towards political consolidation through the economy. Large Northern corporations began to invest heavily in new Southern textile mills, and these gave desperately needed jobs to Southern men and women. Northern railroad leaders spent millions building new railroad lines throughout the South, dramatically aiding its commerce. In an internationally publicized event in 1882, the Grand Army of the Republic, the largest group of Union army veterans, marched together with thousands of Confederate veterans in a commemorative parade. The twenty-fifth anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg was similarly celebrated in 1888 with a gathering of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers.
The assassination of President James A. Garfield (a Union army veteran) in 1881 brought Northerners and Southerners together in grief, just as had the death of Robert E. Lee, to a smaller degree, in 1870. Then the death of Ulysses S. Grant in 1885 did even more. Thousands of Confederate veterans attended various memorial services for Grant, and his widow infused real emotion into the reconciliation movement when she asked several Confederate generals to serve as pallbearers. Mrs. Jefferson Davis, who had by that time become a friend of Julia Grant’s, wrote a touching eulogy to Grant that was reprinted in many Northern papers.
By the early 1890s, all of the major Southern political leaders in the war, including Jefferson Davis, were dead. This enabled many Southerners to move towards reconciliation unimpeded by their feelings for the leaders of the Lost Cause. New political leaders, intent on reconciliation, took office. These new leaders certainly did not represent all of the people; many Southerners continued to care little about a united America, and remained bitter and uninterested in reunions of any kind, despite the best efforts of public officials to woo them. Moreover, movement toward the restoration of national unity came all too often at the expense, and to the detriment, of African Americans. Thus, in 1891 Congress defeated a bill that was designed to curb efforts by the strong Democratic Party in the South to prevent African Americans from voting. Southern Democratic Party leaders, who were now, thanks to all-white elections, assuming important congressional committee roles, began to return the favor by working with Northern politicians on a variety of those committees.
The final stage in the consolidation of North and South was reached in 1898 with the Spanish-American War. In Cuba, Southern and Northern soldiers fought on the same side, for the United States. Most of the soldiers who went to Cuba were mobilized and trained in Florida and other Southern states. Northern soldiers were treated with great friendliness and respect, which helped cement North-South relations, and President William McKinley shrewdly named former Confederate army generals Joe Wheeler and Fitzhugh Lee, the nephew of Robert E. Lee, as two of the four generals leading American forces in the war.
At the same time that political figures in Northern and Southern states were taking steps towards consolidation, a similar movement was going on in American culture. In the late 1870s and 1880s, national magazines and newspapers, their staffs swollen by hundreds of well-educated young Southern writers eager to live in New York, Boston, Chicago and other Northern cities with publishing houses, began to take a more lenient view towards the South. Unity was also a major theme in both theater and literature.
After twenty years, many former soldiers, North and South, published their memoirs in an avalanche of books. Some were good and most were awful, but they sold hundreds of thousands of copies. These books, written by men now in their forties, were often forgiving accounts of the war which recast soldiers on both sides more as actors in some four-year-long play than as men trying to kill each other. Most stressed reconciliation.
In 1890, the ten-volume life of Lincoln by John Nicolay and John Hay was published. A decidedly pro-Union book, it was accepted as a pro-Southern book, too, as critics observed how mighty Lincoln must have been to defeat the Southerners. It also reflected the growing view that Reconstruction in the South would not have been as bad if the forgiving Lincoln had lived and the power of the Radical Republican congressional leaders had been curbed.
Right after the last shot of the war was fired, novelists began to see endless possibilities in nostalgic works about the South, works in which the facts were altered slightly to avoid any controversy. The long line of plantation romances that followed was accurately foreseen by a man who would himself write some of the most popular novels, Civil War officer and writer John Esten Cooke, who had served on the staff of the flamboyant cavalry leader and Southern hero J. E. B. Stuart. (Cooke was such a romantic that he buried his silver spurs in the ground at Appomattox on the day of the South’s surrender.) “Ah! Those romantics of the war!” Cooke wrote. “The trifling species will come first, in which the southern leaders will be made to talk an incredible gibberish and figure in the most tremendous adventures . . . but then will come the better order of things, when writers like Walter Scott will conscientiously collect the real facts, and make some new ‘Waverly.’ ”8 What Cooke was predicting was not only romantic novels about the Southern army and its heroes, but a Sir Walter Scott type of legend in which the characters become not just heroes of the war but romantic heroes of eternal fame. He was right.
The turn of the century also saw a new movement by American historians, journalists and novelists to portray the South of the mid-nineteenth century as a harmonious world that revolved around agriculture and the plantation system, a world organized and run efficiently by white aristocrats. These were the same men who controlled county and state governments. These leaders used that control to enhance their own lot, but at the same time sought to make life better for others. The theme of these books was that the aristocrats, the beneficiaries of the slavery system, not only provided decent lives for the slaves but also organized trade in such a way that the small farmers who did not have slaves could profit, too. The books also emphasized that the Southern attitude towards blacks was different from the Northern one. They argued that slavery was therefore acceptable in the Southern states prior to the war, even if Northerners thought it was wrong. Postwar writers labored to create a view of the South as a separate country that should have been permitted to live by separate rules. Journalist-historian Edward Pollard defined that view when he wrote that the Constitution’s true value was to serve as “a treaty between two nations of opposite civilizations.” Two nations, of course, could have two sets of rules.
Novels by Cooke, John Pendleton Kennedy, William Alexander Carruthers, Thomas Nelson Page, Mary Johnston and others painted a bright picture of plantation life that recent historians have savaged as wholly inaccurate, but it was a picture readers of the era wanted to accept. Southern writers and editors began to emerge as forces in the New York literary world.
One of the most successful plantation novels was Four Oaks, a traditional romance about a set of families who lived on large plantations and were benevolent to their hundreds of slaves. The farm in Four Oaks was designed by writer Elizabeth Bellamy to be a prewar plantation world unto itself. Such novels—of which there were many—not only validated the Plantation Myth for Southerners but pretended in effect that the war had never happened, keeping the old lore alive amid the rubble.
Northern magazines began to publish literature embracing this point of view in 1873, when Scribner’s Monthly Magazine published a short story by James McKay called “Captain Luce’s Enemy.” That story opened the literary door to a spate of stories favorable to the South. Northern publishers found their readers eager to heal the wounds of the war and eager to read these stories about the antebellum South, unrealistic as they were. McKay’s story was about a Union officer who falls in love with a Southern girl and comes to admire the South and the Confederacy despite the war, and decides that many Northerners are mistakenly scornful of the South. A few months later, Scribner’s published a series of stories by George Washington Cable set in New Orleans during the 1850s and ’60s that buttressed that view. A series of travel articles called “The Great South” followed. A year later, editors heralded the Centennial of 1876 with a plea for North-South reunification: “We long for a complete restoration of the national feeling that existed when Northern and Southern blood mingled in common sacrifice on Mexican soil. This national feeling, this brotherly sympathy, must be restored . . . Men of the South, we want you. Men of the South, we long for the restoration of your peace and your prosperity . . . To bring about the reunion of the country in the old fellowship should be the leading object of the approaching centennial.”
In 1881, Scribner’s was renamed the Century Illustrated Magazine and it ran nostalgic articles, fiction and nonfiction, with titles such as “An Old Virginian” and “A Boy in Gray” and graceful stories about the South in the 1770s by John Williamson Palmer. Throughout the 1880s, Century ran its long “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War” series, which later became a book, giving both Northern and Southern generals and colonels a chance to tell their stories (rather chivalrous ones) and giving American readers, North and South, a heroic view of the Southern military.
Fiction carried the moonlight-and-magnolias theme to even greater heights, whether in novels by Ellen Glasgow and others, short stories, poems or the humorous Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris. (Uncle Remus was a former slave who spun nostalgia-soaked tales of happy days on the prewar plantation.)
Thomas Nelson Page’s series of magazine stories, beginning with “Marse Chan,” became the prototype for many stories and novels in the 1880s and 1890s and the basis for over a dozen silent films about the Civil War. “Marse” (Master) Channing is a gallant Southern planter who goes off to war. He is killed leading a successful charge, carrying the Stars and Bars flag of the South. His faithful slave, who had accompanied him in the war, brings his body back to Virginia and helps bury him on the grounds of his plantation after a teary farewell eulogy by his fiancée, Miss Anne, who lives on the plantation next door. The crestfallen Anne then leaves the plantation and spends the rest of the war caring for the Confederate wounded wherever she finds them. The backbreaking work finally kills her and she is buried next to Marse Chan under the wide oaks. The theme of the stories is summed up in a line from the black narrator: “de good ole days before de war . . . dem was good ole times, marster, de best Sam ever see.”
In magazines or books, Page became one of the great writers of Southern nostalgia. His novel Red Rock, about the battle of two wealthy postwar Southern families against ruthless carpetbaggers and scalawags (it included a fight against a black man trying to rape a white woman), was published in 1898 and climbed to number five on the best-seller list in 1899. Later he published The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem, an unflattering book about postwar blacks, and Mam Lyddy’s Recognition, a story of a prototypical Mammy who after the war scorns freed blacks—correctly, the author suggests.
Joseph Hergesheimer’s Swords and Roses was typical of the genre. Hergesheimer called the war “the last romantic war, when army corps fought as individuals,” and wrote: “The war created a heroism . . . that clad fact in the splendor of battle flags.” He went on to describe warm breezes, fine houses, bay blossoms, moonflowers and honeysuckle. In the foreword he announced, “here is a book of swords . . . of old-fashioned dark roses . . . of the simpler loveliness of the past.”19 His description of Confederate cavalry leader J. E. B. Stuart reads: “He was different . . . he wore a brown felt hat . . . with . . . sweeping black plume . . . his boots in action were heavy . . . he changed them for immaculate boots of patent leather worked with gold thread; but he danced as well as he fought in his spurs.”
The cavalier movement in Southern literature began long before the Civil War. Author Richard Harwell traces it back to the 1830s. In 1836, he writes, a somewhat prophetic novel called The Partisan Leader, by Judge Beverly Tucker, of Virginia, was published. It chronicled the fictional story of a group of Southern states that secedes from the United States.20 Russell Merritt, writing in the Cinema Journal, says the birth of the magazine the Southern Literary Messenger, with its romantic stories about the South, in 1832 began the moonlight-and-magnolias school.21 From 1832 until the shelling of Fort Sumter, romantic short stories and novels had a tremendous effect on how Southerners viewed themselves. Ritchie Devon Watson Jr. explains: “The old Southwest’s writers [that is, writers of the Deep South states] helped to convince southerners that they were a gallant and genteel race that lived according to a Cavalier code of conduct, a code that made it impossible to abide in unity with the rapacious and ill bred Yankees living north of the Mason-Dixon Line and north of the Ohio River. The Southwest’s road to rebellion would be a fictional as well as a political journey.”22
Post–Civil War literature included poems as well as fiction and they, like the short stories and novels, supported the legend. Poems with titles such as “The Cavalier’s Glee,” “A Ballad for the Young South” and “You Can Never Win Them Back,” published during and after the war, made the Southerners the winners, regardless of the actual outcome.
In “You Can Never Win Them Back,” an anonymous poet wrote:
You have no such blood as theirs
For the shedding!
In the veins of Cavalier
Was its heading:
You have no such noble men
In your abolition den,
To march through foe and fen—
Poet Frank Ticknor neatly tied the Knights of the Round Table to the “new” knights of the Old South in one of his poems:
The Knightliest of the Knightly race
That, since the days of old,
Have kept the lamp of chivalry
Alight in hearts of gold!
Ticknor seemed to see great similarities between Confederate president Jefferson Davis and King Arthur:
Lit moonlit mist on midnight snow,
The sun of battle smoulders low!
Alas! The King at Camelot!
At the turn of the century, the book business suddenly boomed. The first best-seller lists came out in the 1890s and by 1900 record numbers of books were being published. More books were published in 1914 than in any other year until 1953. It was another window for Southern revisionists to use fiction to tell and retell the story of the Southern soldiers and their ladies, and they leaped at the chance.
Many of the novels were written by unknowns who disappeared after one book, or by good soldiers who were bad novelists. Some of the authors were accomplished, however, and some of the country’s very best authors wrote Civil War novels, including Louisa May Alcott, Horatio Alger Jr. and Henry Ward Beecher. Even the French novelist Jules Verne wrote about the war, in The Mysterious Island.
All of these novelists and poets, writing from the 1830s to 1915, presented the slavery system as acceptable for its time and believed that Southerners had to defend it then and did not have to be ashamed of it later. These stories were written for Northerners, to legitimize the slavery system and its cultural roots. If nice people perpetuated the slavery system, it couldn’t be all bad, and if it was, well, these were well-intentioned people who didn’t know any better.
Public figures and historians also believed that the South was the victim of Northern aggression, whether it was through cannons or legislation. They complained bitterly that Congress was controlled by the North, and discriminated against the South. Southern writers viewed various prewar tariffs as bullets aimed at them. Edward A. Pollard, the editor of a Richmond newspaper during the war, argued that the unfair tariffs of 1820, 1824 and 1828 were pro-Northern and led to the war. He wrote: “Whenever on sectional questions the North chose to act in a mass, its power would be irresistible and . . . no resource would be left for the South than to remain helpless and at mercy in the Union or to essay a new political destiny.”
Even former president James Buchanan painted the North as the aggressor and blamed John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry for the start of the war.29 In a book published the year after the war ended Buchanan wrote: “But even admitting slavery to be a sin, have the adherents of John Brown never reflected that the attempt by one people to pass beyond their own jurisdiction, and to extirpate by force of arms whatever they may deem sinful among another people would involve the nations of the earth in perpetual hostilities?”
Historian James Rhodes, a Northerner with Southern sympathies, published many of his books and articles during the years in which silent movies about the Civil War were being produced. In a series of lectures published in 1913, Rhodes argued that slaveholders were attacked by the Union for defending “property” that was rightfully theirs. Planters believed that their “property,” slaves, was “sacred as the ownership of horses and mules.” Rhodes then tied that to “lost cause” chivalry. “As slavery was out of tune with the nineteenth century, the States that held fast to it played a losing game.” Rhodes was telling audiences almost fifty years later that slavery was not wrong, merely out of favor in the North. This meant the Southerners, in any dispute about it, would be fighting for an honorable cause, even though they were bound to lose. Rhodes felt that the South was not responsible for the slave system. He argued that the highly profitable cotton and tobacco industries could succeed only with slaves. Rhodes put the blame for the war on Stephen Douglas, who he said stirred up antislavery feelings in the North when he introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in the U.S. Senate. Rhodes’s interpretation was seconded by another historian, James Burgess, who also saw the South as victim. He viewed John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid, in 1859, as the first “battle” of the war, instead of the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861.
Perhaps the staunchest defender of slavery and the plantations at the beginning of the twentieth century was William Dunning, a professor of history at Columbia University, and a Southerner, who wrote Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865–1877. Dunning was eager to reunite North and South, but only in terms of a Southern, white-supremacist point of view, and at the expense of African Americans. In the 1907–1940 period, this historian’s views influenced most Americans, including filmmakers and their audiences. According to his critics, Dunning had a single view that governed his entire Civil War–era thinking: black incapacity was responsible for the failure of Reconstruction. He also argued that blacks’ irresponsible behavior, urged on by unscrupulous abolitionists, poisoned the life of the entire South, black and white, creating a need for the Jim Crow laws and segregation that came later. He wrote that “the root of the trouble in the South had been not the institution of slavery but the co-existence in one society of two races so distinct in characteristics as to render coalescence impossible.”
He defended Jim Crow laws and the Black Codes on the grounds that “the freedmen were not on the same social, moral and intellectual plane with the whites,” and that Jim Crow laws “recognized . . . them as a separate class in the civil order.”
Dunning argued that there could be no comingling of the races and that blacks could never live within white society. In fact, he considered the dominant white society to be imperiled by blacks. He wrote of the effort at integration that “it played a part in the demand for mixed schools, in the legislative prohibition of discrimination between the races in hotels and theaters and even in the hideous crime against white womanhood which now assumed new meaning in the annals of outrage.” He insinuated that rape by a white man was not as savage as that by a black man.
Dunning taught hundreds of the country’s top history students. To a large extent, his views became their views. His students, many from the South, had those views constantly reinforced by visits home, where they discussed the war and politics with family friends who were veterans of the Confederate army. Dunning’s opinions appeared again and again in history books and textbooks his students authored through the 1940s, and effected a racist interpretation of the Civil War. It was not difficult for filmmakers, who had themselves read the books of Dunning and his students in school, to make audiences accept on the screen what filmmakers and audiences alike had been taught to accept in the classroom for years.
There came to be a battalion of revisionist historians intent on absolving the Confederacy of all blame for the Civil War, a group of educators, lecturers and writers determined to somehow paint the Big Lie of slavery invisible. If enough people said slavery did not cause the war, then it did not.
Later, other historians debunked these views and lamented that theater and film extended them to mass audiences. Writing in 1923, historian Charles Beard argued that many nineteenth-century historians, North and South, distorted the reasons for the war and helped create the myths developed in silent films. (Beard also believed that economics, not slavery, had brought on the war.) “The tragedy and heroism of the contest furnished inspiration to patriots and romance to the maker of epics,” he wrote, referring to silent movies.
Historian Warren Susman, writing of his own search for the true past, said that from 1900 to 1920 historians paid more attention to myth than to fact. Intellectual historian Van Wyck Brooks added that Americans sought the “usable past” to help solve problems of the present—yet did not want the truth when it came to the Civil War...
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
Bruce Chadwick, Ph.D., lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. Previously, he had a long career in journalism, writing on arts and entertainment, a column on trends in American culture–including literature, film, dance, theatre and opera–and features and many columns on sports. Eventually he became an editor at the New York Daily News. He lives in New Jersey with his wife.
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