Lincoln in the Soviet Union

The other day my students brought in newspaper articles about the Civil War that were published in the New York Times between 1961 and 1965.  They were allowed to search any topic and then had to write up a brief analysis of what they discovered.  I asked them to staple the articles to their analysis so I could spend some time with their sources.  In our discussion about Lincoln this interesting little article came up which reports on a Moscow radio broadcast that references the president. The article was published on February 14, 1961:

Tribute Paid to Lincoln in Moscow Broadcast

Abraham Lincoln, the Moscow radio said today, is a name “dear to the heart of the Soviet people.”  A broadcast beamed at North America and heard here declared that the Soviet people “can sympathize with and understand Lincoln’s democratic views and his sincere and deep sympathy for the working people.”  “Today, when the peoples of all countries see as the main task the struggle to preserve peace,” the broadcast went on, “we return to the words of Lincoln.  Let us strive to do all that will achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”  “We honor the great President and United States citizen because he represented the revolutionary and democratic traditions of the American people, traditions which found expression during difficult years of the struggle against fascism.”

What followed was a nice discussion about why our supposed ideological enemy, during the Cold War, would honor one of our presidents.  One student suggested it was a clever piece of propaganda designed to undercut the American peoples’ self confidence.  In other words, if the Soviet people revere one of our own than than Americans may doubt that there is such a wide gulf between the two nations.  Another student argued that it was an attempt on the part of the Soviet Union to reach out in hopes of cooling tensions during the height of the Cold War.  Finally, another student hesitantly made the point that perhaps the Soviets really do revere Lincoln.  What followed was some very awkward silence, but I decided to ride it out in hopes that the conversation would continue.  The problem, it turned out, was that some of the students had difficulty considering such a possibility.  Even though they were born after the end of the Cold War they’ve been trained to remember this period by those who did experience it for different lengths of time.  We talked a bit about the connection between the plight of the slaves and how the working class fits into communist ideology.  I also reminded them that a large contingent of African Americans traveled and even settled in the Soviet Union as an alternative to the experience of living in a Jim Crow society.  It seems safe to suggest that hey would have brought strong views of Lincoln with them, but I am going to have to go back and check out Glenda Gilmore’s recent study to see if she has anything to say.

One of the more interesting points of discussion that came up was why Americans have such difficulty acknowledging that other nations are interested in our Civil War.  It’s true.  We see nothing unusual about history courses devoted to the study of another country, but we rarely imagine students in other countries studying our own history.  For those of you in the classroom who are interested in exploring this theme I highly recommend Dana Lindman and Kyle Ward’s History Lessons: How Textbooks From Around the World Portray U.S. History (The New Press, 2004).  The book is broken down by events and each section includes short excerpts from various history textbooks from around the world.  They make for some wonderful classroom discussions as students try to understand the reasons behind the various interpretations.

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“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.”

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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.

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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?

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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.

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