Gary W. Gallagher. Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. 288 pp. $28.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3206-6.
Reviewed by Debra R. Van Tuyll
Published on Jhistory (April, 2009)
Commissioned by Donna Harrington-Lueker
Hollywood and the Civil War
The problem with Gary W. Gallagher’s books is that they turn the readers green--green with envy. He is the consummate writer. His books are always packed with relevant information and are a joy to read. This work is no different, though its subject matter is something of a deviation for this noted Civil War historian.
Gallagher’s purpose in writing Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten is to examine how popular culture artifacts, specifically films and such items as commemorative prints and plates, affect public understanding of the Civil War. In this work, he is functioning as both a film critic and a knowledgeable historian.
The book focuses on fourteen movies made in the past two decades and on the proliferation of popular art that venerates Civil War topics, especially religious values and Confederate heroes, like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The movies include well-known titles, such as Glory (1989), Dances with Wolves (1990), Sommersby (1993), and Little Women (1994), and lesser-known ones, such as Seraphim Falls (2006) and Pharaoh’s Army (1995).
Gallagher has separated these films into four categories, each of which grows out of a nineteenth-century tradition of thought about the Civil War and its meaning to American history. Three of the categories hinge on questions of causes and of why men fought in this bloodiest of America’s wars. The fourth focuses on how the country repaired itself in the aftermath of four years of Civil War. The four classifications include the Lost Cause tradition, which romanticizes Confederates as having fought for lofty constitutional and political ideals against an overwhelming enemy; the Union Cause, which holds up preservation of the Union as the North’s main reason for fighting; the Emancipation Cause, which portrays the war as having been about the liberation of slaves; and the Reconciliation Cause, which portrays both North and South as equally devoted to “American” ideals and willing to overcome past differences at the end of the war.
Gallagher cautions his readers early on that he realizes Hollywood is less concerned about historical accuracy than it is about entertaining people. The result is that virtually none of these films get the story right, in Gallagher’s opinion. Ultimately, he postulates that these fourteen films are more about the Vietnam War and recent American history than about the Civil War.
The study indicates that the Lost Cause tradition was dominant in films much earlier in the twentieth century. Birth of a Nation (1915) was the first film in this tradition, and perhaps the best known is Gone with the Wind (1939). This category has fallen out of vogue in modern times, according to Gallagher, and may be gone forever in Hollywood. However, this theme dominates the popular art work he examines.
The emancipation theme has been Hollywood’s darling since the mid-1980s, as exemplified by Glory, the award-winning film about United States Colored Troops who fought on the Union side. One of the more interesting films he discusses is a little-viewed mock documentary, CSA: The Confederate States of America, made in 2004 by Kevin Willmott. Actually, this is more of a mockumentary, which pretends to be a British Broadcasting piece about how American history would have played out had the Confederacy won the Civil War. As other films in this genre, it correctly places slavery right at the heart of the Confederate cause, but it does so in a way that would be offensive to many, especially in the mock ads that run in between the film’s purported segments. These ads are for such products as the Slave Shopping Network and “Sambo X-15” engine additive.
Union was the true reason many Northerners gave for fighting against the seceded states and is the one category that has received shortest shrift from Hollywood. The thought behind this theme was that the viability of the American Republic was threatened by secessionists, and that the Union was worth preserving if only for its emphasis on self-rule. Gallagher’s implication is that the ideas underpinning Unionism are too complicated to be conveyed via cinematic treatment, though they made for rousing good speeches and impassioned newspaper editorials in the nineteenth century.
Most of Hollywood’s efforts have included at least a suggestion of reconciliation, the fourth theme. This has been true of even overtly racist films, like Birth of a Nation. The idea of reconciliation is portrayed in a variety of ways, such as friendships between Southerners and Northerners and even straightforward conversations between characters who encourage one another to patch up sectional differences.
Gallagher is not the first to turn to the question of how material culture has shaped knowledge of the Civil War. For the last several years, the annual Symposium on the 19th Century Press, Civil War, and Free Expression has solicited papers on how the Civil War is remembered in print culture and popular media. Several of those papers were published in 2007 as a collection with a similar aim to Gallagher’s. This work, Memory and Myth: The Civil War in Fiction and Film from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Cold Mountain, was most likely published too late for Gallagher to have used as a resource, but it would have been useful to him, for it covers some of the same ground, and even answers a question or two that he raises. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am on the steering committee for the symposium and am coauthor of a chapter in Memory and Myth.) For example, Gallagher rightly points out that someone needs to do a study of the 1960s Civil War television program, The Gray Ghost (1957-58). Memory and Myth presents just such a study by Paul Ashdown of the University of Tennessee school of journalism.
That two such works have been published in back-to-back years is evidence of growing scholarly interest in this question of how popular culture remembers important historical events. The question of memory and the Civil War has been a burgeoning theme among historians for a decade or more with books exploring just about every way possible to remember as sweeping a historical event as the Civil War. Since the mid-1990s, books have examined a wide variety of how different aspects of the war are remembered, ranging from how particular battles to how artifacts, like the Confederate battle flag, have been remembered. The focus on popular culture memories is somewhat more recent, though not brand new. For example, in 2004, Thomas J. Brown of the University of South Carolina’s Center for the Southern Studies published a reader on the topic, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History with Documents. Brown’s study focuses more on commemorations via statuary, monuments, oratory, and other forms that straddle popular and high culture, but it is nevertheless representative of this newish field of inquiry.
This emphasis on memory, rather than the history itself, is, to a degree, worrying, though probably necessary. It could be argued that a scholar would not know what his or her audience needs to know if he or she does not know what the audience already knows, or thinks it knows. Also, if the purpose of history is to recreate the past as it was, rather than how it is imagined, then understanding memory becomes essential to keep historians producing relevant and important work rather than heading down individualized rabbit holes that produce nice, but questionably necessary, work.
The only bothersome aspect of this book is that Gallagher has missed an opportunity to undertake a truly interdisciplinary study. He is tilling in the garden of mass communications, but he has not engaged the methods and perspectives of that field. A mass communications researcher who wanted to know what messages were embedded in a film might do a qualitative, or quantitative, content analysis. Gallagher, however, has fallen back onto the historian’s methodology with which he is so expertly acquainted. He has examined all the available evidence and offers his interpretation. This method is perfectly acceptable for historians, but perhaps a bit squishy for a mass communications scholar.
Further, while Gallagher says he is analyzing commemorative art work, what he is really examining is how the artwork is portrayed in advertising in three different magazines devoted to Civil War topics. Well-established methods exist for analysis of advertising content, but it is not clear from Gallagher’s description whether he used these methods. Perhaps this is a nitpicky point. It probably would be if Gallagher was only addressing the artistic merits of film and art. His purpose, however, is to study the messages embedded within these works; he could have produced a truly interdisciplinary study had he embraced methods devised specifically for this sort of research.
Regardless of the classification, he found these films to be more concerned with entertainment than with historical accuracy. While that is not surprising, it is disturbing for anyone who thinks historical knowledge matters. Those of us, including Gallagher no doubt, who have made the rounds as speakers at gatherings of the Civil War Round Tables and Sons of Confederate Veterans (and the equivalent northern organizations) are fully aware that many people, even those who consider themselves well-educated amateur historians, actually often have a very skewed understanding of the war and are more likely to view the participants as Hollywood caricatures rather than real flesh-and-blood people who are not so easily divided into “hero” and “villain” categories. The effect is to rob them of the richness of history, and to condemn them to a two-dimensional rendition of the Civil War rather than the Technicolor-high-definition-Dolby-sound depiction of what really happened.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Debra R. Van Tuyll. Review of Gallagher, Gary W., Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
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