Category Archives: Lost Cause

Bill Oberst Jr. on the Making of Sherman’s March

Sherman_marching_with_his_troopsThis is a guest post by Bill Oberst Jr. who played William T. Sherman in the History Channel’s movie, Sherman’s March.  The show will air tomorrow evening at 9pm.  I want to take this opportunity to thank Bill for agreeing to share his thoughts about the making of the movie along with his very poignant thoughts about memory and Sherman.  My review of the movie will follow later today or tomorrow morning. 

Playing William Tecumseh Sherman for The History
Channel’s Sherman’s March was an
exercise in dichotomy.  Often, no significant character development is required for
a documentary portrayal. The standard documentary format calls for more
re-enacting (i.e., characters performing motions that visually reinforce the
narration; their dialogue audible only in snippets) than acting. But writer and
director Rick King was
attempting a new hybrid of documentary and drama. Using words from the
historical record, he had created several bonafide dramatic scenes with real
interaction and dialogue.

Which brings me back to dichotomy. I was born and raised in South Carolina, and grew up hearing stories (many apocryphal) of the march. There was both sadness and glee in the telling
of these inherited tales, nearly all of which were told from a woman’s point of
view (rapes and near rapes; the ripping open of feather mattresses with sabers;
the disinterment of recently buried loved ones, etc.) The old women at church told us that our belly buttons were "where the Yankee shot you."

Year later, when I read Faces
of The Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination
by Sam Keen, I thought of Sherman and wondered
if he (or the idea of him) had served some unifying purpose in the Southern
reframing of the late conflict, fragments of which were still around when I was
a kid. So encountering him as an actor was ironic.

The promos for this project featured a simplified version of
the question regarding Sherman:
"Hero or Terrorist?" (there are other choices, of course, but too
many choices make for bad sound bites). I thought that Rick King’s script lent
itself to the notion that Sherman was a bit of both. Under Rick’s direction I played him as both.

And so, as Sherman and his officers watch the burning of Atlanta, I tried to flash
a haunted look across his eyes before he turns to his men and justifies the
destruction. As he speaks to the elder statesman of a slave community, I tried
to play his assertion that "We are your friends" with a hint of glib
transparency, given Sherma’s
well-known views on the inequality of the races. Rick had written a
conscientious and compassionate script; a sort of prequel to his 2005
documentary Voices
In Wartime
.
The victim’s point
of view was never far out of the frame.

Whether such nuances come across in the context of flipping
channels on a Sunday night in America is another question. I have made my living portraying historical figures in
their own words onstage (and teaching about them in schools) for a dozen years,
and have seen our collective capacity to accept ambiguity and duality decline
along with our attention span. I have read Twain’s acerbic War Prayer
to students and performed it for adults, only to be met with the same puzzled
expressions at the tale’s seemingly contradictory last line. I have stood
onstage as John F. Kennedy speaking of an America that is respected “as much
for its civilization as for its strength,” and have known instinctively that
they only heard the strength part. And that’s on a stage with real people no
more than twenty feet away. The difficulty of presenting a layered portrait of
a contradictory human being to 21st century Americans is infinitely
greater when historical figures are subjected to the standard documentary
treatment or worse, the one-note docudrama treatment.

At this writing, I haven’t seen the finished program. But I
love history, and for the sake of that love, I hope Sherman’s March
rises above the standard. I hope it represents an evolution in the form. I hope
it raises more questions than it answers. A war, even a long-ago one, is not a product. It is the collective story
of real people who could never forget the hell that they lived through. We owe
it to them to remember, and to try and get it right.

What Would An Obama Presidency Mean to Civil War Memory?

One of my readers responded to yesterday’s post on the forthcoming Civil War Centennial study by firing off a private email.  Though the email was relatively brief this reader gave me a great deal to think about in connection with how the Civil War will be remembered in a few short years during the sesquicentennial.  For this reader "the [centennial] observance was a celebration in plastic soldiers and cool pictorials in
Life Magazine, any political considerations were far above my buzz-cut
little head."  Indeed, little has changed  within the more popular audiences that attend reenactments, Civil War Roundtables, and read the popular magazines.  This stands in sharp contrast with the direction of recent scholarship of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and black history generally. 

What I failed to consider, which was pointed out in the email, is the possibility that the sesquicentennial observances may coincide with the election of our first black president.  How will that shape the national narrative that will arise out of political speeches, state sesquicentennial commission plans, and other observances?  My friendly emailer asks:

As the bellowing over the Confederate battle flag seems to be nearing
crescendo, how relevant will Confederate heritage appear four years from
now?  And with, perhaps, a black president, how empty will any Confederate
legacy be revealed to be?

The more I think about it the more it seems obvious that an Obama presidency could radically reshape our understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rest of the American history right down to the Civil Rights Movement.  We’ve already seen – and I assume this will emerge in Cook’s study – how a push for black civil rights in the 1950s and 60s served to challenge the work of various centennial commissions.  This led to a noticeable waning in enthusiasm among white Americans for centennial celebrations by 1963.  The difference this time around could be that with Obama potentially elected in 2008 that this will leave plenty of time for the nation to begin to rethink its history and the place of slavery and emancipation within the overall narrative.  Think about it: We will hear about how far the nation has come since before the Civil War.  Part of that narrative will highlight the Civil War as leading to emancipation through the sacrifice and bravery of black soldiers themselves along with the actions of countless others.   It is reasonable to expect that the work of various organizations involved in setting up events for the sesquicentennial would be influenced to some extent by this natural curiosity as to how the nation has come to elect its first black president.  In short, the "emancipationist legacy" of the Civil War would return to center stage. It has the potential of becoming overly celebratory; however, my interest is in the way the nation’s focus would be shifted.

Returning to the passage quoted above it is necessary to point out that the "emptiness" referred to in connection with "Confederate heritage" is not meant to denigrate the very strong desire on the part of Southern whites to remember and acknowledge the service of ancestors.  I’ve said before that there is nothing necessarily wrong or even strange about this personal need to remember.  It is meant, however, to point out that this view reduces both the war years, Reconstruction, and the history of race and slavery in a way that fails to acknowledge salient factors and relevant perspectives as part of the overall historical narrative.  It tends to reduce Southern history and the Civil War to the perspective of white Southerners and equates the Confederacy with the South.  More importantly, Southern history is equated or understood along the overly narrow lines of the four years of the Confederacy.  In short, the narratives coming out of Confederate Heritage groups would be inadequate to explain a black president.

This post is not meant in any way as a justification for a vote for Barak Obama.  The election of a black president would be an important milestone for this country, but in our attempt to understand how we as a nation arrived at this point it also has the potential of radically shifting the way we think about our collective past.

Thanks reader.

New Study of the Civil War Centennial

This is a book that I’ve been looking forward to for some time.  Little has been published about the Civil War Centennial celebrations and even less on its continued influence on the way we remember.  Much of what has been published has in fact been written by Robert Cook who is the author of the present study.  Two essay come to mind, including a recent Journal of Southern History article and another which appeared in the edited collection, Legacy of Disunion by Susan Mary-Grant and Peter J. Parish.  Here is the description for Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (forthcoming June 2007):

In 1957, Congress voted to set up the United States Civil War Centennial Commission. A federally funded agency within the Department of the Interior, the commission’s charge was to oversee preparations to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the central event in the Republic’s history. Politicians hoped that a formal program of activities to mark the centennial of the Civil War would both bolster American patriotism at the height of the cold war and increase tourism in the South. Almost overnight, however, the patriotic pageant that organizers envisioned was transformed into a struggle over the Civil War’s historical memory and the injustices of Jim Crow. In Troubled Commemoration, Robert J. Cook recounts the planning, organization, and ultimate failure of this controversial event and reveals how the broad-based public history extravaganza was derailed by its appearance during the decisive phase of the civil rights movement.

Cook shows how the centennial provoked widespread alarm among many African Americans, white liberals, and cold warriors because the national commission failed to prevent southern whites from commemorating the Civil War in a racially exclusive fashion. The public outcry followed embarrassing attempts to mark secession, the attack on Fort Sumter, and the South’s victory at First Manassas, and prompted backlash against the celebration, causing the emotional scars left by the war to resurface. Cook convincingly demonstrates that both segregationists and their opponents used the controversy that surrounded the commemoration to their own advantage. Southern whites initially embraced the centennial as a weapon in their fight to save racial segregation, while African Americans and liberal whites tried to transform the event into a celebration of black emancipation.

Forced to quickly reorganize the commission, the Kennedy administration replaced the conservative leadership team with historians, including Allan Nevins and a young James I. Robertson, Jr., who labored to rescue the centennial by promoting a more soberly considered view of the nation’s past. Though the commemoration survived, Cook illustrates that white southerners quickly lost interest in the event as it began to coincide with the years of Confederate defeat, and the original vision of celebrating America’s triumph over division and strife was lost.

The first comprehensive analysis of the U.S. Civil War Centennial, Troubled Commemoration masterfully depicts the episode as an essential window into the political, social, and cultural conflicts of America in the 1960s and confirms that it has much to tell us about the development of the modern South.

It would have been nice to have this book as I finished up my project on memory and the Crater.  Click here for excerpts from pamphlets published by the Virginia Civil War Centennial Commission.  While there were plans at the beginning of the centennial to commemorate the battle of the Crater on July 30, 1964 enthusiasm clearly dropped off owing to the Civil Rights Movement and interpretive divisions within various centennial committees.

Karen Cox on the United Daughters of the Confederacy

Karen Cox, William Blair and others recently spoke at the “The Legacy of Stones River: Remembering the Civil War" which was held in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Cox is the author of the excellent book, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation
of Confederate Culture
(University of Florida Press, 2003).  The book offers the most comprehensive analysis of the social make-up of the organization over time and its agenda.  This article provides an overview of her talk and a preview of the book:

The United Daughters of the Confederacy was an outgrowth of the various
benevolent aid societies and ladies memorial groups that developed during and
after the war, Cox said.  Initially these groups had worked to aid the war
effort and to help the widows and children of Confederate soldiers who died in
battle.
The ladies memorial groups were centered on bereavement and to
returning the bodies of the war dead from far-flung battlefields. It wasn’t
until the South had been returned to home rule that the real vindication efforts
began.  Vindication was an important goal of the UDC, which was founded
just up the road in Nashville, Cox said.  The National Association of the
Daughters of the Confederacy was organized in Nashville on Sept.10, 1894, by
founders Caroline Meriwether Goodlett of Nashville and Anna Davenport Raines of
Georgia. At its second meeting in Atlanta, in 1895, the organization changed its
name to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  “The two founders …
their career was the Lost Cause,” Cox said. “From the beginning this would be a
very elite organization.”

The general goals of the group were:


To memorialize those who fought for and fell in battle for the Confederate
cause.

• To preserve the history of the “War Between States.”

• To
educate future generations about the Confederacy from a pro-Southern
viewpoint.

• Social in nature. The group even had blackball provisions to
keep out women who weren’t from the top social strata.

We’ve only recently begun to look at the role that elite white Southern women took in shaping the contours of the Lost Cause and in turn shaping the way we think about the Civil War.  A closer look at these organizations also provides insight into the extent and limits of political action among Southern white women.  I am looking forward to the publication of Caroline Janney’s study of the Ladies Memorial Associations which were active in the years following the end of the war. 

The Tough Questions

At the end of What This Cruel War Was About Chandra Manning offers some final thoughts about the challenges that the war presented to Americans in 1865 and by extension to the way we remember.

First, Confederate soldiers’ admirable devotion to their families and abhorrent attachment to the enslavement of other human beings sound a cautionary note because those impulses were so closely related.  There is little doubt that most white southern men cared first and foremost about the well-being and material advancement of their loved ones, and the steadfast love so many displayed for their families surely stands among the noblest of human emotions.  Yet that love led otherwise good and ordinary men to embrace and fight for an institution that stole the lives and bodies and families of other human beings.  Clearly, the connection between soldiers’ attachment to their families and the institution of slavery does not suggest that love of family is to be disparaged, or that it inevitably leads to an atrocity like slavery, but it does raise sobering questions about the ills that human beings will justify when they convince themselves that they owe no obligation to anyone beyond those to whom they are related or who are like themselves.

Second, astonishing changes took place in many white Union men’s ideas about slavery and eventually, if more fragilely, about racial equality.  When ordinary men, many of whom began the war without a single black acquaintance but with plenty of prejudice toward African Americans, actually met black people face to face and often came to rely on the aid, comfort, and military intelligence that former slaves offered to the Union Army, they found reason to discard old views.  Those changes remind historians of the power of events to rearrange even the most seemingly immovable cultural ideas and attitudes among people in the past, and they alert all of us to the dramatic changes in attitude and achievement that can take place when people who think they have nothing in common find themselves thrust into interaction and interdependence.

Finally, the vision of a very different United States could be seen clearly by men like David Williamson in the spring of 1865 but had faded tragically by the turn of the twentieth century.  Taken together, the vividness of the vision and its eventual fading challenge historians to investigate more rigorously exactly how the United States could in the crucible of war create such vast potential for change and then, in the end, fail to fulfill it. (pp. 220-21)

I can remember reading one of Manning’s North and South articles last year with my Civil War class and wondering how she would end this study.  After reading this book I am more convinced the Manning is going to divide Civil War enthusiasts right down the middle.   That divide will be drawn between people who are comfortable discussing the way in which Union and Confederate soldiers thought about race and slavery over the course of the war and those who will interpret Manning’s conclusions as an indictment of the Confederacy or perhaps “Pro-Union.”  Another way of framing this is that Manning risks having the contours of her preferred debate relegated to Robert Penn Warren’s wonderful distinction between “the great alibi” and the “treasury of virtue.” That would be unfortunate as Manning has given us a very thoughtful and analytical study with a great deal of wartime sources to think about.  It is one of the most complete accounts of what soldiers thought about race and slavery published to date.  In some ways I can’t help but think of this book as a challenge to our Civil War community – broadly understood.

It seems clear to me that we can have this discussion without it being reduced to a childish debate about which region of the country can claim moral superiority.  And the reason is because the nation as a whole moved in a direction that did not include reinforcing or protecting the Reconstruction amendments.  The national agenda changed owing to the reconstruction agendas of white southerners, the Republican Party (by 1877), and the federal government.  By 1900 GAR camps in the North were largely segregated.  That said, I find that Manning’s emphasis on contingency in 1865, or the claim that the future could have been different, is enough to force readers to move away from a more defensive posture that involves interpreting the past in ways that reinforce contemporary political, cultural, and racial assumptions.  In other words, there was a salient distinction between the way that Union and Confederate soldiers understood race and slavery and it is our job as serious students of history to deal with it regardless of how uncomfortable it may make us.