I am not a big fan of historical impersonators. More often than not their interpretations reflect a consensus view that simply reinforces deeply held beliefs. The goal seems to be more entertainment than education. Such is the case with Tom Dugan, who pulls off a pretty good Lost Cause-inspired interpretation of Lee. Here is Lee the beleaguered slavemaster who wants nothing more than to see slavery end. Even a cursory perusal of Lee’s letters or the recent biography by Elizabeth Brown Pryor reveals a very different attitude regarding slavery and race. A bit more disturbing is the Lee who never quite gets over the “high watermark of the rebellion” – even before it had become the high watermark. Funny, that I am here reminded of Michael Fellman’s overly-psychological interpretation of Lee. I would love to bring Dugan in to perform for my Civil War Memory class. It would make for a wonderful discussion.
I don’t know much about the few white Southerners who left the country following the war owing to the widespread physical destruction, military occupation as well as the consequences of emancipation. Here is at least one title that looks worthwhile. Actually, the more I watched the more I thought of this story as a reflection of Brazilian memory rather than what we would assume to be a Civil War/Confederate memory. These scenes seem to have all of the trappings of our popular memory of the war as seen in Gone With the Wind and your standard reenactment rather than anything having to do specifically with the men and women who chose to leave the United States. At one point one of the interviewees suggests that his ancestors would be pleased to learn that they continue to keep the memory of the Confederacy alive. Perhaps, but the fact that they chose to leave suggests that they were trying not only to distance themselves physically from their homes, buy psychologically as well. I get the sense that remembrance of their Confederate past is a once a year event. Just a thought.
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.”
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.
A number of readers took issue with last week’s post in which I reduced the celebration of Lee-Jackson Day, here in Virginia, to free parking. I guess I could have provided some thoughtful analysis about the almost complete lack of interest in this particular day as a result of changing demographics as well as other factors.
So, since I didn’t make my own personal view sufficiently clear, let me do so now. The reason I don’t celebrate Lee-Jackson Day is because I don’t celebrate the cause for which Lee and Jackson are remembered. They are remembered for their service in an army that functioned as the military extension of a government that was committed to perpetuating slavery and white supremacy. I find it simply impossible to distinguish between the individuals in question, including their many virtues, and the cause for which they attached themselves to. Because I abhor slavery I am glad that the Confederate government, along with Lee and Jackson, failed and that our national sin of slavery was abolished.
I don’t think I’ve stated anything controversial here. I do hope, however, that it clarifies things.