That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any state, or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom. – Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation
[Image: President Obama views Emancipation Proclamation in Oval Office]
So it’s Home Coming week at my school and everyone is supposed to dress up according to the theme of the day. This is what the class of 2014 did on group day (the day that the students themselves dress in whatever theme they want to collectively.) I myself was invited to join in via Facebook, and the theme was chosen via a poll. I did NOT partake in this event but I did record it and I thought that the world should see this. I grew up around people like this doing these sorts of things, but does this seem weird to you? Some of my friends who just so happen to be black saw this and were very offended. You can debate wither or not the students had the right to run around the school gym with a larger than scale Confederate flag, but what I personally think it boils down to is that it should not have been done because it is offensive to people.
I certainly understand this student’s point-of-view, but if you watch the video closely it looks like the kids are poking fun at Southern heritage culture. They are wearing dress that exaggerates a kind of redneck/hick culture. In fact, if you look closely one student is carrying a black flag that says Redneck. I don’t see much reverence for the Confederate flag on display here. I can’t believe the administration allowed this. Oh, those silly kids.
A number of people have pointed out at various places that Death and the Civil War spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on northern soldiers and their communities. A few people have argued that this was done intentionally and to the detriment of the Confederacy and to those who are dedicated to keep its memory alive. It goes without saying that this was not their goal.
While I think it’s a fair observation I have to wonder whether it extends beyond the relatively small community of Civil War enthusiasts. In other words, I wonder whether the average viewer picked up on this. Here is a bit from Executive Producer Mark Samels on what this film is about:
Death and the Civil War is really about things that we take for granted and how they came to be. We take for granted that there are national cemeteries for our soldiers who have fallen in war; we take for granted that we’re going to honor those soldiers, and that we’re going to bring them back no matter how much effort has to go into bringing them back.
It’s a story about how individuals, from the bottom up, really addressed this cataclysmic event; how they struggled even just to name the soldiers who were being killed in the battlefields; how they struggled to get them back to their families, get them properly identified, get them buried. And underlying all of this is a conception of what death actually meant in the nineteenth century to Americans. And it’s different than today.
Ultimately, the film attempts to transcend Union and Confederate altogether to speak to an audience that self-identifies as citizens of the United States. The demographic that likely viewed this film has experienced WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the first and second Gulf Wars, and the war in Afghanistan. The sacrifice of so many brave men and women in the course of these wars and how we remember them fits into a broader history that extends back to a United States at war with itself in the 1860s. It’s Lincoln’s words that continue to give meaning to the sacrifice of the Civil War dead and every war since and it is in national cemeteries, established by the United States government, where we are expected to reflect on that sacrifice. From this perspective the whole question of balance between Union and Confederate or North and South misses the point entirely.
The gathering and memorialization of Confederate dead is acknowledged toward the end of the film as part of the historical narrative, but we are not being asked to reflect on their meaning as citizens of a Confederate States of America. Ultimately, this film is about the men who died in an attempt to preserve our United States as well as the obligations that this government and each of us incurred as a result.
In his interview with Harvard president and historian Drew G. Faust about American Experience‘s new documentary Death and the Civil War, Stephen Colbert laments, “You are beginning to make the Civil War sound like a downer.” While it garnered a good laugh from the audience, the comment betrays an important aspect of how Americans have remembered the Civil War and the kinds of narratives that are celebrated.
Ric Burns’s latest film is based largely on Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which addresses the vast landscape of death and suffering experienced during the war years and beyond. The airing of this important program comes not just on the same week as the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam — the single bloodiest day in American history — but at the end of two costly and controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to look at the way Americans confronted death 150 years ago without seeing just how far removed we’ve been from the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. We all remember the controversy surrounding whether photographs of flag-draped caskets at Dover Air Force Base in 2004 could be shown to the American public.