Another trimester of my Civil War Memory class has come to an end. This is my second go around with this particular elective and overall I am pleased with the results. This trimester I decided to focus the course on Civil War films. We viewed five full-length movies and numerous small videos that span the spectrum from NPS and American Experience documentaries to YouTube videos. I am confident that my students both enjoyed and profited from the course.
Yesterday we finished viewing the movie, Ride With the Devil, which attempts to capture the chaos of the “Border Wars” in Missouri and Kansas. The movie follows a small band of “Bushwhackers”, including Tobey Maguire (Jake Rodell or “Dutchy”), Skeet Ulrich (Jack Bull Chiles), and Simon Baker (George Clyde), along with Jewel (Sue Lee) who plays a young widower. The movie does a pretty good job of exploring the confusion of the guerilla war along with the intersection of ethnicity and shifting loyalties. One of the highlights of the movie is an excellent recreation of William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas.
My favorite character has got to be Daniel Holt, who is a former slave but remains loyal to his former master’s son, George Clyde. Holt’s character goes through the most dramatic transformation throughout the movie, but it is a subtle transformation. You hear very little from Holt at the beginning of the movie. His character sticks close to George and is routinely referred to as “George Clyde’s Nigger.” As the movie progresses Holt emerges from the shadows as a result of George’s leave from the group and his evolving relationship with Rodell. At one point Holt shares his full name with Rodell as well as his own personal story, including his mother’s sale to Texas. One of the most important scenes for this character comes during the Lawrence Raid where Holt confronts a large pile of free blacks who were murdered by the very men he was fighting with. On the trip back to Missouri from Kansas and the loss of George Clyde in battle Holt experiences his first real taste of freedom. A bit later, Holt shares with Rodell that he will never be known as “someone else’s Nigger.”
The changes in Holt’s character take place slowly, but gradually and sets up the viewer for the final scene in the movie. The final sequence follows Rodell, Jewel, and Holt west to start new lives. Rodell confronts Pitt Mathieson one final time in what many anticipate will be a shootout. After allowing Mathieson to take his leave on a suicide run into town Rodell sums up his war experience: “It ain’t right and it ain’t wrong. It just is.” In the final scene Holt take his leave from Rodell for one final time. After tipping his hat to a sleeping Sue Lee and baby the two men say goodbye with a poignant gesture. Holt rides off alone and free and in contrast with Rodell’s previous comment finally adds a morally redeeming quality to the movie. The movie ultimately becomes a story of freedom and emancipation.
The scene is punctuated by Holt taking control of his horse and doffing his hat. No doubt, I am making too much of it, but it reminds me of some of the most popular images of Civil War generals. At that moment Holt embodies the glory that has traditionally been attached to these men.
There is nothing too surprising about this short interview with Prof. David Blight, but I thought it would be a nice way to end the work week. Teachers may find this useful as a way of introducing basic questions of historical memory with students. Blight touches on how Americans remember the Civil War, race, the Civil War Centennial and Sesquicentennial, and Barack Obama’s place in this narrative.
My Civil War Memory class has finally finished watching Shenandoah and students are now working on comparative reviews that incorporate their understanding of Gone With the Wind. Shenandoah represents a sharp transition in popular memory of the war in the roughly twenty-five years since the premier of GWTW. I want to wrap up this series of posts [see here and here] with just a few more thoughts that connect to the movie’s conscious attempt to steer clear of as much regional controversy as possible. Apart from the battle scenes there is nothing that might alienate any one demographic. As I noted in the first post, the movie ignores the issue of slavery apart from an early scene where Charlie Anderson declares it to be immoral. The slave boy who befriends the youngest Anderson boy is freed by a black Union soldier, but he is encouraged to embrace his freedom by one of the Anderson daughters. Toward the end of the movie a black woman, who is never identified as a slave, cares for Charlie Anderson’s granddaughter.
Most interesting, however, is that the only threats and violence that visit the Anderson family come from fellow white Southerners. The Union army may have mistakenly taken the young boy prisoner, but there is a very understanding colonel who offers to help Anderson in his quest to find his son. Agents of the Confederate government in Richmond attempt to confiscate the family’s animals while a Confederate colonel pushes Charlie Anderson to acknowledge his responsibility in the war by giving up his children to the army. Late in the movie the eldest Anderson boy is accidentally shot by a 16-yr. old Confederate soldier.
But the most shocking scene is the murder of son Jacob and wife Ann who stayed on the family farm while the rest looked for the youngest Anderson boy. The scene takes the audience by surprise and while Jacob’s brutal murder is captured by the camera, the death of his wife is left to the imagination. Once the party returns to the home they are greeted by the doctor, who informs them of the murders. Interestingly, the doctor refers to these men as “scavengers” even though they are clearly Confederate deserters. Without intending to this scene, along with much of the rest of the movie challenges the Lost Cause assumption of a united Confederate populace. It also touches on an aspect of the Civil War that we rarely discuss and that is the violence that was perpetrated between white Virginians, especially in the Shenandoah Valley, which was used by large numbers of Confederate soldiers who had deserted from the army. It would be interesting to know whether moviegoers, especially in the Southern states, understood these men to be Confederate soldiers.
I know that my students thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I have to say that it has moved up in my list of favorite Civil War movies.
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.
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.”