“Now It Concerns Us”: Shenandoah (Part 2)

Shenandoah is a watershed movie for a number of reasons in my view.  As I mentioned in my last post, the movie steers clear of many of the traditional Lost Cause themes that can be found in earlier movies.  What I continue to be struck by, however, is the avoidance of any reference to what the war is about.  It is true that Charlie Anderson emphasizes the importance of slavery in one of the earlier scenes, but that particular discussion is disconnected from what comes after.  In the wedding scene where Sam marries Jenny the young officer is forced to immediately depart for the war.  As he says goodbye to his new bride she asks if he understands what the war is about.  Sam’s inability to offer any sort of response gives the scene a tragic quality as the young couple is split along with their future in doubt.  Another scene set on the Anderson porch also offers an opportunity to discuss the war.  Charlie steps outside with the doctor who has just delivered a child and asks him how he feels about the fact that Virginia is losing the war.  The doctor shares that one son is buried in Pennsylvania, another is home with tuberculosis, and a third is off riding with General Forrest.  In this scene the war is reduced to the personal loss and sadness experienced by the doctor.  The attention to cause and justification that is present in earlier movies is replaced by innocent scenes such as this one where Charlie Anderson offers Sam advice on how interpret the behavior of women.  No one seems to know what the war is about.

Later in the movie Charlie Anderson visits the family grave site that at one time only included his wife, but now includes his own children who he so desperately tried to shield from the war.  He admits, “There is nothing much I can tell you about this war…”  The scene once again steers clear of anything divisive about the war by blaming the politicians and allows the audience to embrace the emotional loss that accompanies all wars.

There are two additional scenes that I want to mention.  The first is a wonderful scene that includes “Federal agents” who have come to the Anderson farm to confiscate their horses.  This scene follows the strong anti-state theme that was mentioned in yesterday’s post.  What I find interesting is that the individuals in question are never identified as representatives of the Confederate government, though the government did indeed follow a policy of confiscation throughout much of the war.  Was this a conscious effort not to alienate any particular segment of the viewing population and maintain the neutral stance of Charlie Anderson?  I don’t know.

The most interesting scene thus far is the emancipation moment involving the young slave boy.  The viewer is not exposed to any working slaves other than one moment early on outside of the church.  Slaves are seen as drivers, including the slave boy who is friends with the youngest Anderson boy.  In a remarkable scene that takes place following a brief skirmish the two boys are confronted by Union soldiers, two of whom are black.  [Note: Black Union soldiers did not serve in the Shenandoah Valley.]  The young Anderson boy is taken prisoner owing to his kepi which he discovered in a stream earlier in the movie.  He asks the young slave to run home to inform his father of what has happened.  In that moment one of the black soldiers informs him that he does not have to do so because he is now free.  It’s an incredibly brief moment, but crucial nevertheless.

Only after learning of his son’s capture does the war finally matter to Charlie Anderson: “Now it concerns us.”

3 comments

Shenandoah (1965)

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.

33 comments

Should Black Americans Celebrate Lee-Jackson Day?

After all, Stonewall Jackson was an active member in Lexington’s Presbyterian Church.  He even worked to teach enslaved and free blacks to read the Bible.  All of this should appeal to black Americans, who to this day and as a group closely identify with Christianity.  Robert E. Lee spent the last few years of his life in Lexington where he served as president of Washington College.  During Reconstruction and beyond black Americans identified the crucial role that education would play in their collective success.  Taken together both Lee and Jackson have been singled out as embodying Christian virtue and whose lives have been held up as worthy of emulation.

So, should black Americans celebrate Lee-Jackson Day?

2 comments

The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977)

Some of you may remember this classic docudrama, The Lincoln Conspiracy, which poses the theory that President Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was behind a plot to kill him at Ford’s Theater. His motive was his opposition to Lincoln’s adamant refusal to allow the North to punish the South for its actions. The “official” assassination goes awry when another would-be assassin, the second-rate actor John Wilkes Booth, learns of the plot and decides to beat the government to the punch, for reasons of his own. In the movie, it is Stanton’s assassin who is mistakenly captured and killed, rather than Booth.  Click through for all 9-part episodes.

5 comments

A Challenge To Mike Simons

In response to a recent post on the subject of black Confederates regular reader Mike Simons had this to say:

We see blacks mentions in all areas of the war but no defentive evidence has been found. I believe as I have read about the Confederate Marines the evidence was lost in the fog of war. I hope someone some where will find the smoking gun to prove these pictures and letters right.

Mike then went on to add the following after I asked why he had a need to see these stories vindicated:

Because I want all those old colored people who told me about their kin fighting for the South to be vindicated in the academic world that thus far had derailed and denyed the truth of their oral history.

Well, here is your chance Mike.  I would like you to cite at least one historian in the “academic world” who has, in your view, “derailed” and “denied” the truth of the stories that you believe prove the existence of black Confederate soldiers.  In addition to a name, I would also like a reference to the book or article as well as the page numbers.  Finally, I would appreciate an analysis of the text in question that demonstrates an attempt to deny the past.  Take your time and be careful because permission to participate in this community is at stake.  I am tired of these off the cuff comments that engage in sweeping generalizations and condemnations of historians without any attempt to support said charges.

16 comments