Shelby Foote on Civil War Entertainment

Here is Shelby Foote’s short comment at the end of The Civil War by Ken Burns on what I call Civil War Entertainment:

We think that we are a wholly superior people – if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war.  But since we did fight it, we have to make it the greatest war of all times. And our generals were the greatest generals of all time. It’s very American to do that.

It’s not clear to me whether Foote intends this as a criticism of our popular perceptions of the war.  If so, than I assume he means this as a self-criticism since Foote engages in just this type of speech throughout the series.  I made a similar point in a previous post:

I dare say that Americans love to remember their past when they can set the terms of the inquiry. We prefer a heroic past that is continually progressive and exceptional compared to the rest of the world. Just reflect for a moment on the way we think about our Civil War compared with news of civil wars from around the world. For most people the news of foreign civil wars conjures up images of confusion, sadness, corruption, uncertainty, and violence. Individuals and causes are rarely viewed as heroic or the product of benevolent design. No, foreign civil wars are reflective of the failure of governments and of the individuals who occupy high positions of power. We may see these nations and societies as the victims of a corrupt past void of democratic tendencies. For many it no doubt confirms American Exceptionalism. Whatever the case, civil wars are events that happen elsewhere and to others. I point this out to draw a sharp contrast with the way many Americans interpret our own Civil War. If you peel away the celebratory layers you will see that it has a great deal in common with the way we view civil wars elsewhere. It is the celebration of the war which troubles me because it seems to me that our gut reaction to foreign civil wars is a much more appropriate stance. Where is the confusion, uncertainty, violence, and sadness in our Civil War? I see the Civil War as a humbling event that serves as a reminder of the fragility of governments and the depths of violence that we all too often reach. I agree with the late historian William Gienapp that the “outbreak of war in April 1861 represented the complete breakdown of the American political system. As such the Civil War constituted the greatest failure of American democracy.” I wish more people would approach the study of the Civil War from this perspective.

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You can take two things from Foote’s remark, I think.

1. The outbreak of the civil war marks a failure of American politics and society. The US was unable to find a peaceful solution to slavery and the ways it was warping the American project. Instead we achieved a pile of corpses and 90 years of Jim Crow. In any other nation would the Civil War be seen as a heroic triumph, or as a bloody failure?

2. Americans are the friendliest, nicest and most generous people on earth. But we are also, as every foreign observer from Dickens on notes, the proudest braggarts. Understatement is not for us. Foote, who could be a cold and dry commentator on the human condition, was accurately noting, that every American effort is always the most amazing thing the world has ever seen. We are the city on a hill, the last, best hope of mankind, and we can’t shut up about it.

I think, if nothing else, the quote from Foote shows the difficulty in trying to sum up four years of war, one-hundred-and-thirty-some-odd years of interpretation and 11 hours of prime time television into 70 words or less.

I doubt Foote was speaking critically. As a novelist, he was always more concerned with the motivation and self-definition of his characters (in this case, the American people).

I’m not sure America is unique in its approach towards its Civil War past. Many nations or cultures have these touchstone moments in their history when they have to mutually agree upon an interpretation of events that allows them to go forward together. For example, the French had to develop a shared interpretation of the Revolution that minimized the horrors and magnitude of the bloodshed by elevating the ideals put forth by revolutionary leaders. Were the fishwives of Paris thinking about “liberté, egalité, fraternaté” as they marched on Versailles in October 1789, or were they thinking they were fed up and wanted to see Marie-Antoinette’s head on a pike? Is it still a violent mob action if the underlaying goals are pure?

The same thing comes in to play with the Civil War: if there hadn’t been some sort of tacit agreement in the American psyche that the actors on both sides of the conflict were honest, decent men, how would they have rebuilt the country, much less gone on to become a world power? I think that’s why you see the confusion, uncertainty, violence and sadness voiced during and immediately the War, but not later on. Consider, too, that the aging of Civil War veterans occurred in step with the growth of American power AND at a time where there was a huge influx of immigrants, which had to add impetus to the growth of an image of a shared and homogeneous national past.

More than anything, I think our lack of attention and/or tongue-clucking at other nation’s civil wars illustrates our cultural disinterest in world affairs in general. American Isolationism is, if anything, an older and more enduring attitude than American Exceptionalism.

More interesting to me is the fact that we don’t even count the other civil wars within our own history. We’ve developed a compelling narrative for the Civil War, but not for the border wars in Kansas and Missouri in the 1850s, nor for the Indian wars on either side of the antebellum period, or dozens of other little rebellions and internecine feuds across the centuries.

Heather, — Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree with much of what you stated, especially in reference to the “reconciliationist” theme that took hold by the early twentieth century. I would like to know, however, if there are any other examples of a people celebrating their civil war in the way we do ours. And here I am thinking of reenactments, flags, paintings, figurines of various sorts, etc. It’s as if our civil war has been Disneyfied. The closest contender, perhaps, is the postbellum Indian Wars.

“I would like to know, however, if there are any other examples of a people celebrating their civil war in the way we do ours. And here I am thinking of reenactments, flags, paintings, figurines of various sorts, etc. It’s as if our civil war has been Disneyfied. The closest contender, perhaps, is the postbellum Indian Wars.”

I believe the answer may be that we are not so exceptional in this regard either.

Successful revolutions or suppressions of same tend to get celebrated and mythologized as part of the nationalist identity. Failed revolts produce martyrs and myths of their own. So Bonnie Prince Charlie is lamented by the Scots and also commemorated as part of British nationalism. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSzxjEDedZE

As for examples of celebrating civil wars elsewhere in ways similar to this country’s Civil Wargasms, our British friends light fireworks and bonfires to celebrate a failed terrorist plot to blow up Parliament, and if that is not “Civil War as Entertainment” I’m not sure what is. Then there are reenactments of the English Civil War, or “Revolution” as some historians prefer, an example of which you can watch here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFhHsez0CR8.

And these Swedish Viking reenactors appear pretty hardcore http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7EqQyGiXPg&NR=1

Collectors of high end toy soldiers (and I confess to be one such) know that the American Civil War is extremely popular in the eastern half of the United states and eclipsed elsewhere by WWII and other historical periods.

My great great grandfather died in the Civil War and his wife’s brother took a slug in the upper left arm at the Battle of Atlanta, but that news was never part of passed down family lore. I pieced it together from databases I found on the internet. After three years I’m still trying to convince the rest of my family that it really happened.

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