Students in my Civil War Memory course finally finished watching Gone With the Wind. With all of the discussion and analysis it took us two weeks to get through it. It was well worth it and for the most part they really enjoyed it. We are now transitioning to the Civil War Centennial and the movie, Shenandoah. As part of their preparation for this movie I had students research the centennial and analyze newspaper articles from the period. Today we discussed how both the civil rights movement and the Cold War influenced how Americans remembered and commemorated the war in the 1960s. Having been released in January 1965, just six months after Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Shenandoah clearly reflects this broader cultural and racial shift. In contrast with earlier films such as Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation this film does not glorify the plantation South. This strong anti-Lost Cause theme emerges early in the film. Consider the scene around the diner table. Charlie Anderson is challenged by one of his sons who argues that the family can no longer ignore the war. The father asks his sons if they desire to own slaves. He then goes on to ask: “Now suppose you had a friend that owned slaves and suppose somebody was going to come and them them away from him. Would you help him fight to keep them.” One son insists that he would not and notes that, “I don’t see any reason to fight for something that I don’t believe is right and don’t think that a real friend would ask me to.” The dinner table reflects the broader moral issues that Americans were struggling with at the time. But even apart from the issue of civil rights the movie fits neatly into the ongoing ideological war with the Soviet Union. There is a moral clarity that comes through in this scene that reinforced America’s sense of its own place as leader of the free world.
This anti-Lost Cause theme returns in the above scene when Charlie Anderson confronts a Confederate officer hoping to recruit the Anderson boys. Somehow we are supposed to imagine that six strapping young Virginians were able to avoid conscription for two years. Anderson defends the necessity of keeping his sons on the farm by insisting that his farm was built “without the sweat of one slave.” The shift from GWTW is striking in Anderson’s refusal to make any sacrifice to slaveholding Virginia or the Confederacy. This unwillingness to identify specifically with slavery removes it from the ongoing debate about civil rights. I am confident that my students will enjoy this movie and I am looking forward to the class discussions.