Nina Silber. This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 248 pp. $32.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-4654-1.
Reviewed by Andrew Baker (Auburn University)
Published on H-CivWar (June, 2019)
Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)
Studies of Civil War memory often focus on the period from the war’s immediate aftermath through either the Spanish-American War or the First World War era. Gaines Foster, Charles Reagan Wilson, and David Blight all followed this course in their pathbreaking scholarship. Other scholars have stretched the boundaries of Civil War memory into the mid-to-late twentieth century to document subjects as varied as the evolution of the Confederate battle flag from a symbol of the Army of Northern Virginia to an object associated with Massive Resistance or changes in how Americans consider Abraham Lincoln. The New Deal era, however, remains a gap in the historiography despite its clear links to the great crisis of nineteenth-century America. During the 1930s, questions about the proper role of the federal government in the nation’s economy and everyday life abounded. The traumatic economic downturn that elevated Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency and gave birth to the New Deal also changed how Americans viewed the Civil War and the lingering issues from the conflict.
As Nina Silber demonstrates in This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, both ordinary Americans and policymakers used the lens of the Civil War to understand and interpret the twentieth-century crises of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Although Silber deftly explains how the conflict and its legacy were mobilized during the New Deal years, her central question is why rather than how. “Why did Americans return to the Civil War again and again for artistic inspiration, emotional solace, political understanding and moral counsel?” she asks (p. 4). In short, Americans believed that the experience of the Civil War and, in the case of the Confederacy, defeat, offered lessons applicable to the Great Depression and Second World War years.
Americans of various political persuasions—whether they were southern Democrats or members of the Popular Front—all mobilized memory of the Civil War for their own ends. The broad definition of Civil War memory employed in This War Ain’t Over encompasses issues ranging from the depiction of slavery or Civil War leaders in films and theatrical productions to the Daughters of the Confederacy’s strong anticommunist stance.
Of particular interest is the issue of slavery. Silber argues that the economic conditions of the Great Depression led whites to express their fears of falling into a state of slavery. Films such as I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), with its white protagonist, further exemplified the theme. Fears of “white slavery” informed New Deal programs, which disproportionately benefited white Americans. In the lead-up to the Second World War, slavery was also used to offer a contrast between the United States and Nazi Germany. Silber explores how the Roosevelt administration managed African Americans' discomfort with the rhetoric of American freedom given the persistence of discrimination within the United States.
Silber also offers insights into how Federal One programs tackled Civil War memory. Traditional interpretations of the New Deal stress the contributions of programs such as the Federal Writers Project to progressive art. This War Ain’t Over, however, discusses how Federal One programs also subsidized Lost Cause interpretations. As she explains, the New Deal also encouraged Lost Cause adherents to recenter their rhetoric around resistance to the federal government. With some frequency, white southerners who were critical of the New Deal compared the Roosevelt administration’s assertion of federal authority to federal policy during Reconstruction.
Although northerners and white southerners often disagreed on the role of government, the New Deal era increased the national stature of Abraham Lincoln. Americans marshalled Lincoln's memory in search of a solution to the crisis of the Great Depression. “The social and political developments of the 1930s expanded Lincoln’s reach, making him more available and accessible to a diverse range of Americans than ever before,” Silber argues (p. 110). In one of her strongest examples, Silber ably demonstrates how Roosevelt allies such as Carl Sandberg compared him favorably to Lincoln. Although Merrill D. Peterson and other scholars have provided an extensive overview of Lincoln memory, Silber’s contributions on Depression-era Lincoln memory are an interesting addition to the prevailing historiography.
This War Ain’t Over also wades into the portrayals of the Civil War era on the silver screen. Silber tackles the era’s most famous depiction of the war and its aftermath, Gone with the Wind (1939), with the necessary verve. Her inclusion of lesser known films into the discourse, however, is particularly useful. Films such as Judge Priest (1934), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), and Tennessee Johnson (1942), a World War II-era biopic of Andrew Johnson, demonstrate how the war’s onscreen legacy extended beyond the gates of Tara.
In This War Ain’t Over, Nina Silber provides an important contribution to historical understanding of the evolution of Civil War memory in the twentieth century. By filling in some of the gaps between the early twentieth century and the civil rights era, Silber offers insight into the present moment. In her conclusion, she briefly traces the evolution of memory to explain the New Deal era’s contribution to race as the now central component of Civil War memory. The political dimensions of race in the United States, Silber argues, will keep memory of the war alive and ensure its continued contestation. Historians of the Civil War era, the New Deal, or American politics will find This War Ain’t Over offers a stimulating look into Civil War memory’s evolution and insight into the reverberations that continue to present. In particular, Silber’s creative approach and thoughtful examination of race and the New Deal era should be commended.
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