Neo-Confederates attempt to Whitewash Southern History
By George Ewert
The effort to revise the history of the Civil War to favor the South in popular memory began the moment that America's bloodiest war had come to an end. Former Confederate leaders, preachers and ideologues, determined to shake off the notion that they had fought to defend a society based on human servitude, launched a campaign to bury the real cause of the war that has not ended to this day.
The purpose of this myth of the Lost Cause, in the words of scholar Alan T. Nolan, was to rewrite history "to hide the Southerners' tragic and self-destructive mistake" by fostering "a heroic image of secession and the war so that Confederates would have salvaged at least their honor from the all-encompassing defeat."
Men such as Alexander Stephens, the rebel vice president who once famously described white supremacy as the "cornerstone" of the Confederacy, rushed out popular histories that claimed that the war had not been about slavery at all.
Now comes the latest effort in that tradition, a $56-million, 216-minute blockbuster film called "Gods and Generals." Funded by Ted Turner Pictures and directed, written and produced by Ronald Maxwell, who made the successful Civil War film "Gettysburg," this 2003 "prequel" has neo-Confederates salivating.
The movie is "an American cultural event of major significance," "an arresting example of how a people's history should be told," writes Clyde Wilson, a neo-Confederate intellectual and founding member of the League of the South hate group.
It is a work "that presents truthful history rather than fiction or politically correct revisionism," says Phyllis Schlafly of the far-right Eagle Forum, adding that Southerners "certainly did not die to defend slavery."
The acting in this "deeply honest piece of film-making" is "uniformly superb" and emphasizes how "few men thought they were fighting about slavery," writes FrontPageMagazine.com reviewer John Zmirak (see also Center for the Study of Popular Culture).
The film, in sum, "is not only the finest movie ever made about the Civil War, it is also the best American historical film," American Enterprise Magazine enthused (see group description of American Enterprise Institute). "Period."
These thrilled reviewers and their ilk go on to elaborate reasons for their excitement. "Gods and Generals" is "more or less explicitly Christian, Southern and even libertarian," writes Daniel McCarthy of LewRockwell.com (see description of Ludwig von Mises Institute). It is "real history" that shows that "Lincoln didn't start the War Between the States to save black people," says a writer on The Sierra Times, a far-right Web site run by former Ohio militia leader J.J. Johnson.
"You have got to see this movie," concludes Claude Sinclair, a member of a South Carolina chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans heritage group. "It is very pro-Confederate. The movie even goes on to state that slavery didn't become an issue until after the North found themselves losing and as a political ploy."
The problem? These notions of the war are false.
"God and Generals," which focuses on the first two years of the Civil War, doesn't totally deny the role of slavery, but it minimizes it. It offers completely one-sided pictures of generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson as noble and impossibly pious characters whose conduct puts them in "the army of the Lord."
The entire film, save a couple of scenes, is told from the Confederate perspective. It has two black characters, but they are wildly unrepresentative of blacks in the South of that period. One, Martha, is a slave who remains in her master's house after his family flees so that she can protect it from the ravages of Union troops. The other, a freedman named Jim who volunteers to be Gen. Jackson's camp cook and mumbles in clichéd black dialect, is similarly depicted as a loyal Southerner. In one scene, the camera lingers on a free black man cheering the rebels as they march off to war.
As any serious historian knows, the impressions such scenes give us are hogwash. Very few blacks willingly aided the Southern cause, and in fact Southern leaders carried out at least one massacre of black Union troops.
Most important, the war was clearly, at base, about slavery. While mountains of scholarship support this conclusion, the case may be most eloquently made in a short and scholarly 2001 book, Charles Dew's Apostles of Disunion. The book describes how "secession commissioners" from the first states to secede appealed to other states to join them — in virtually all cases, by an explicit appeal to maintain white supremacy.
Luckily, quite apart from its political message, "Gods and Generals" is an extremely bad film. It is cloying and melodramatic, and its stiff characters give an endless series of ponderous, stilted speeches about God, man and war.
This didactic sermonizing is accompanied by a plethora of staged battle scenes, many of which are highly unrealistic to anybody familiar with real war. These scenes are leavened with even more preposterous pictures of officers singing "Silent Night" around a piano and cheering the bonnie blue flag at a singalong that includes Ted Turner.
The film is so flawed, in fact, that Rotten Tomatoes, a Web site that collects reviews from around the country and rates films accordingly, found that only 9% of the reviews were positive. "A lumpy three-and-a-half-hour glob," said The New York Times. "A stiff and stilted historical pageant," the San Francisco Examiner added. "Countless ringing speeches, endless stretches of flowery dialogue," the Los Angeles Times complained. Others used words like "repulsive," "numbing," "an unqualified disaster" and "monstrosity" to describe it.
"It's a plodding, episodic film, reverent and sanctimonious, and its pro-Southern viewpoint ... makes 'Gone With the Wind' look like a Northern polemic," concluded the San Francisco Chronicle.
"Gods and Generals" is part of a growing movement that seeks to rewrite the history of the American South, downplaying slavery and the economic system that it sustained. In museums, schools and city council chambers, white neo-Confederates are hard at work in an effort to have popular memory trump historical accuracy.
The silver lining in this cloud, however, is that the film is so technically and dramatically bad that it will convert no one, other than those who already want to believe.
George Ewert is a historian and the director of the Museum of Mobile.