"The Civil War," Robert Penn Warren wrote, "is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history. Without too much wrenching, it may, in fact, be said to be American history." In his splendid Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War, Gary W. Gallagher, one of America's premier Civil War historians, analyzes how and why recent films and works of art have perpetuated four longstanding interpretive traditions of the war's meaning.
The Lost Cause school glorified antebellum Southern civilization, sugarcoated slavery, justified secession on constitutional grounds, and honored Confederate sacrifice. The Union Cause tradition considered suppression of the Confederacy essential for saving the republic established by the Founding Fathers. The Emancipation Cause interpretation defined the conflict as the freeing of four million slaves. The Reconciliation Cause tradition shunned sectional acrimony, marginalized African Americans, and celebrated the war as having spawned white American nationalism and economic progress. Gallagher identifies elements of these traditions during the last two decades, analyzing 14 movies and 2,750 advertisements for Civil War artwork.
Though the Lost Cause tradition dominated Civil War films in the first half of the 20th century, Shenandoah (1965), released months after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signaled its demise. With the notable exception of Gods and Generals (2003), the Emancipation Cause - most clearly identifiable with Glory (1989) - triumphed in Hollywood. Gallagher correctly identifies this trend with "the post-civil rights movement . . . away from public displays of the battle flag and other Confederate symbols."Purchasers of Civil War art, however, continue to favor Lost Cause, romanticized images of Robert E. Lee and other Confederates over Union icons. Today's admirers of the Confederacy display their art privately, Gallagher explains, "without fear of stirring up controversy." Gallagher laments the virtual absence of modern representations of the Union Cause tradition. His witty, handsomely illustrated book underscores "Hollywood's ability to shape perceptions of historical events."Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten is a major contribution to Civil War memory scholarship. It reminds us how past traditions and present concerns shape understandings of the conflict, perhaps as Warren mused, the very essence of American history.
John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.