Tag Archives: Lost Cause

Plantation Stereotypes in The Birth of a Nation

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.52.37 AMScreen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.52.57 AMIn a section of my current book project on the D. W. Griffith film, The Birth of a Nation, I will be interrogating the notion of the plantation trope, if you will, as it appears in the first scenes of the film. Many early-twentieth century musings on this subject are clear reflections of a romanticized “Old South” plantation life that conjured up images of the benevolent white patriarch and the happy but simple-minded darky.

Griffith enlisted the film medium to  enshrine this mythos as visual…or if you like, living history. And he is in near perfect step with a prevailing white sentiment concerning the antebellum South that took root with the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War and spread to a national audience by the end of the nineteenth century. While there are a number of notable exceptions – groups and individuals who rejected the film’s interpretive bent, I question how such a sectional narrative took hold and captured the imaginations of (and “historically” educated) a national audience.

In an effort to move beyond insular academic circles and engage the general public on the idea of visual representations of history, I ask: what cultural, ideological, and intellectual tendencies informed the “making” of The Birth of a Nation?

Of course, such a question can get tricky – so I welcome all comments and suggestions in the comment section below. This week, I will be working on so-called scientific studies that supported the racist sensibilities running throughout the film.

With compliments,

Keith

Ken Burns’s The Civil War Twenty-Five Years Later

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 11.48.40 AMAll is a-buzz on the Interwebs this week as PBS re-airs Ken Burns’s epic documentary The Civil War in celebration of its 25th anniversary. Many people are discussing what this program meant to them the first time around – how it inspired them individually and how Burns’s riveting narrative reached people in unprecedented ways. I do not think I need to go out on a limb here by saying that Burns sparked the interest of millions and helped make the past seem…well…interesting to those who might have slept through their high school history classes. Let me just go on record by saying that this is among the most important things ever to be on television.

For those of you re-watching this week or perhaps checking it out for the first time, here are a couple of thoughts to ponder…

Shelby Foote is at once the program’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. Foote, the master novelist, brings more charm to this show than one might believe possible. His soothing drawl and folksy wisdom only add to his unsurpassed storytelling expertise. You really want to like this man…and believe him. But his analysis is often questionable. For example, he notes:

1. The Confederacy never had a chance to win the war (yes, it did).

2. The Union fought the war with one hand tied behind its back (no, it didn’t).

3. Nathan Bedford Forrest was – with Lincoln – one of the war’s two original geniuses (no, he wasn’t).

Apart from these quibbles with Foote I found the final episode overwhelmingly reconciliationist in its sensibilities. While this analytical bent is right in step with the scholarship of the 1990s, it is pretty clear now (as it really was then if you thought about it long enough and actually looked at the historical record…) that veterans of that war were not so keen on letting bygones be bygones and reaching Across the Bloody Chasm in friendship (see what I did there?). I will be happy to elaborate on any nits that I picked in the comments below (note: I have been ripped a new one for critiquing Shelby Foote before, so have at it).

So do I think that you should take a pass on The Civil War? Of course not – and here’s why. The documentary still – 25 years later – inspires conversation and debate, which is what a great documentary is supposed to do. And now an entirely new generation can get acquainted with their past. Watch it with them…and get them talking. Furthermore, a TON of Civil War scholarship has hit the shelves since the show’s first airing. It would certainly be interesting to see how the history in The Civil War stands the test of time. And one more thing…congratulations to Ken Burns for 25 years of keeping Civil War history on people’s minds.

With compliments,

Keith

Gary W. Gallagher – Remembering Robert E. Lee

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 10.49.25 AMThese days it seems I am spending more and more time on Youtube. Lots of my old professors from UVA and a host of other historians that I admire find their way there – either on their own accord or through the publication mechanisms of the various groups who invite them to speak. In this case, I have Washington and Lee University’s post of Gary W. Gallagher’s talk on Robert E. Lee from October, 2009.

Those of you familiar with the (short lived) post-war career of the former Confederate general know that he spent his remaining days as president of the old Washington University in Lexington Virginia. He taught there until his death in 1870 – and there he rests – beneath the Lee Chapel. If you are ever in Lexington, I strongly encourage you to check it out. It has been recently restored to its former glory and is quite the place for a Civil War enthusiast to visit.

Anyway…the video below (which is a tad long..but worth the time spent watching) deals with Lee in the wake of defeat. The focus…how Lee dealt with the profound degree of uncertainty in the aftermath of war. We have to keep in mind just how altered the southern states were in 1865. The physical landscape was of course shattered – but their social and economic systems were upended as well. The former Confederate chieftain played a central role in the South’s coming to terms with these chilling facts.

What I find most interesting is the audience reaction to Gallagher’s talk. The group gathered at the Lee Chapel are – shall we say – supporters of the Lee legend. What Gallagher has to say surprises more than a few of those in attendance.  I have to hand it to them though. They take the good and the bad about Marse Robert in stride. So good for them 🙂

 

With compliments,
Keith

Bitter Fruits of Bondage by Armstead Robinson

Screen Shot 2014-05-04 at 6.05.10 PMThere is an interesting story behind the book, Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861-1865 . Civil War scholar Armstead Robinson passed away in 1995. He had been working on this book for years but never completed it. Since his death, a number of scholars pieced together the manuscript and selected evidence and arguments (from diverse and often conflicting segments) to make this book the best representation of Robinson’s voice as possible.

By the time it was finally published in 2005, Robinson’s book was far out of date, even though Edward L. Ayers’s jacket blurb says otherwise. This book is a child of the 1980s – when social historians were searching for the internal divisions that destroyed the Confederate States of America. Their efforts sought to disprove Lost Cause arguments suggesting northern superiority in men and material did the Confederacy in. Had Robinson published his book back then, it would have been a monument in the historiography. As it is now, it is a window into the past, but not useful to advance the understanding or challenge more recent scholarship on why the Confederates lost.

The point of this book is simple enough: The southern way of life was unable to provide the support necessary to sustain a war effort – specifically, slavery sapped nationalism from the very beginning.

Robinson highlights the class tensions between slaveholders and increasingly bitter yeomen and other nonslaveholders. This is a familiar tale (see also William Freehling’s The South V. The South on internal dissension) of a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. Slaveholders duped everyone else into waging war, and it then became apparent (because of substitutes and 20 slave laws) that the nonslaveholders were fighting to maintain a system that only benefited rich whites – all the while the very same rich whites were weaseling their way out of the army.

Meanwhile, slaves were fleeing to Union lines in great numbers, denying the CSA their labor and handing it over to the US war effort. This served to exacerbate growing tensions between the white classes. Bread riots at home and huge desertion rates suggested that Confederate soldiers and civilians were not behind the war effort – particularly an effort conceived on the premises of a “slaveholders republic.”

Arguing that an internal class conflict eroded the white southern will to sustain a bid for independence is to confront directly the heritage of the Lost Cause. Many things: the peculiar configuration of Confederate mobilization, the genesis of popular discontent with the war effort, the failure of agricultural adjustment, the birth of state rights ideology, the halting attempts by Jefferson Davis to cope with rampant internal dissension, the disintegration of Confederate society – all of these stemmed from the Confederacy’s failure to preserve stability on the home front. The Civil War South discovered that it could not sustain wartime slavery and simultaneously retain the allegiance of the nonslaveholding majority – and thus…the Confederacy was destroyed from within.

Now I disagree with this argument entirely – I believe that the overwhelming majority of white southerners supported the cause – despite the grumblings that take place when a society goes to war. They supported independence and slavery – even the nonslaveholders had a stake in the system. But I suggest reading this book – it is a great time capsule of sorts. And although published early in the 21st century…it is a nice window into the historiography of the 1980s.

With compliments,

Keith

Shelby Foote and the North’s Other Arm

Screen shot 2014-02-21 at 9.38.11 AMOne of my favorite quotes from Ken Burns’s epic documentary The Civil War comes from none other that Shelby Foote himself. Yes indeed…America’s most well-known and much revered Civil War… ummmm….. interpreter.

Mr. Foote, like many who take a romanticized view of the gallant Confederates fighting hopelessly against long odds, cast the Confederate bid for independence as doomed from the start. “I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back,” said  Foote. If the Confederacy ever had come close to winning on the battlefield, “the North simply would have brought that other arm out from behind its back. I don’t think the South ever had a chance to win that war.”

This is my favorite quote precisely because it opens the door to so much discussion. Many – both scholars and popular writers alike, seem to think that a great deal of the citizens of the Confederacy were not really all that committed to winning the war. Not committed to establishing an independent slave-holding republic.

But the idea that white southerners were nothing more than a collection of individuals whose allegiance lay with their states and who, by the mid point of the war, were wallowing in defeatism and despair and more than ready to jump ship, obscures the profound connection that most had to the Confederate national state. Independence was foremost on their minds – and a great deal of the citizens of the CSA were willing to endure the greatest hardships to make sure the Rebs won.

So – I am sure you will find Mr. Foote charming, as he sits comfortably is his wrinkled blue shirt before an impressively dusty collection of old books. But he missed his mark by a Confederate mile. Suggesting that the Confederacy never had a chance and everybody knew it is just not correct. Who would fight a war they knew they had no chance of winning? They even had a good example to follow – remember, a loose confederation of colonies once defeated the British Empire to secure their independence. I am pretty sure the Rebs made note of that one.

And trust me…the Union used both hands – they had read some history too.