By now many of you have heard that an elite school in New York City has apologized for showing Kevin Wilmott’s satirical movie, “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” which imagines what the United States would be like had the Confederacy won the Civil War. It’s still unclear what specifically led to the apology by the Dalton School beyond some of the students expressing concern about the film.
Let’s be clear, however, this is a case of Dalton’s administration and History Department dropping the ball and not a matter of the inappropriateness of the film itself. First, the film was shown to sophomores, who are likely not mature enough and there is no evidence that the students were given sufficient historical context to understand both the content and goals of Kevin Willmott’s film. Continue reading
Ani DiFranco’s recent cancellation of a workshop/performance at Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana has raised the question of whether it is appropriate to hold certain types of events at these sites. [Click here for a thoughtful response from Nicholas Redding.] Continue reading
I am putting the finishing touches on my presentation for tomorrow evening at the Western Virginia Historical Society in Roanoke. One of the points that I want to stress is that the black Confederate reference is relatively new to our cultural lexicon. As I’ve suggested before, references to hundreds or even thousands of loyal slaves serving as soldiers in the Confederate army can be traced to the period following the movie, Glory in 1989. Despite the insistence on the part of a small, but vocal group black Confederate soldiers simply did not exist in our collective memory until recently. We have already discussed the case of the Confederate monument at Arlington, which was dedicated in 1914 [and here]. Primary source material related to the dedication ceremony as well as early histories of the site clearly references the image of the black man following soldiers into battle as a body servant (slave). To insist otherwise is to engage in presentism.
It may be helpful to consider a scene in Gone With the Wind that features just the kind of image that is so often misrepresented today. During the evacuation of Atlanta and amidst all of the confusion of Federal shells and runaway carriages Scarlett happens upon former slaves from Tara, including “Big Sam”. He reassures Scarlett: “[T]he Confederacy needs it, so we is going to dig for the South…. [D]on’t worry we’ll stop them Yankees.”
Let’s put aside for now the overt imagery to loyal slaves that is pervasive throughout the movie. What is worth pointing out is that no one describes these men as soldiers and it is unlikely that moviegoers would have made this assumption as well. They would have viewed these men simply as loyal slaves to the South. More specifically, it looks like these men functioned as slaves impressed by the Confederate government.
In the hands of the careless they are whatever you want them to be.
In our discussion the other about mobilization following the incident at Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln's call for 75,000 troops, and the loss of the Upper South, my students repeated the common assumption that white Southerners were more closely united at the beginning of the war compared with their northern neighbors. A couple of students argued the point that white Southerners were at an advantage owing to the fact that they were motivated to defend their homes and land rather than an abstract idea such as Union. The assumption at work here is that northerners would not have been as excited over an abstract idea as compared with something tangible and more immediate, such as the defense of hearth and home. There does seem to be something to the distinction, but I wonder to what extent such a distinction reflects how far removed we are from the tens of thousands of northerners who rallied to the flag during these early months. Our discussion touched on ways that northerners would have understood their cause. I suggested that identification with the Founding generation, along with their own ancestors who fought in the Revolution, would have been very much in their thoughts. We sometimes lose sight of how close the Revolution was to the Civil War generation.
I had my students read a short section of Lincoln's July 4 speech in which he placed the war in a broader ideological perspective and explains what was at stake for the United States in this struggle:
It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace, teaching men that what they can not take by an election neither can they take it by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war…
Northerners would not have interpreted their cause as a vague abstraction in the spring of 1861. The act of going to the voting station was a physical act, which was now being challenged along with the possibility of representative government itself. No laws were broken in the election; in short their act of voting would have been deemed meaningless and constitutes one way in which the call for the "presevation of the Union" would have been understood. It wasn't easy for my students to fully grasp the significance of the "ballot", but I suspect that this has more to do with our cynical attitude toward politics in our post- Vietnam/Watergate culture. In short, if Americans don't place a high value on the communal nature of voting (as evidenced by the percentage that turn out on election day) and its connection to the maintenance of civic institutions than it is no surprise that we would impose such a view on the past.
We are going to spend much of next week examining the letters of soldiers at the beginning of the war and will probably read an article by Chandra Manning. I am going to make it a point to look for letters from Union soldiers that will help us fill in some of these gaps.