Civil War Talk Radio: June 6, 2008

by Brett Schulte on June 6, 2008 · 1 comment

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Air Date: 060608
Subject: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War
Books: Causes Won, Lost and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War
Guest: Gary Gallagher

Summary: Gary Gallagher discusses his new book Causes Won, Lost and Forgotten and how Hollywood and popular art influences the way we view the Civil War today.

Brett’s Summary: Professor Gary Gallagher discusses his new book on remembrance of the Civil War through movies and popular art. Gallagher does not believe Hollywood films can be presented in a way that makes scholar happy, but he also believes this is beyond the point. Movies reach a far broader audience than books or scholars could ever reach. Gallagher believes more people have learned about the Civil War through watching Gone With the Wind than those who have read any of the thousands of books written on the Civil War since 1939.

Gallagher sees four great “traditions” produced by the Civil War:

  1. Union Cause
  2. Lost Cause
  3. Emancipation Cause
  4. Reconciliation Cause

He believes the Emancipation Cause is the current default view in movies, though from 1915-1965 “the Lost Cause clearly reigned supreme.” Reconciliation is always present in movies, but Galagher believes the Union Cause has fared poorly in Hollywood, though more people would have belonged to this cause immediately after the war. Union soldiers and civilians fought to save the Union so that the great democratic experiment that was the United States would not fail. Both professors state that students today have trouble understanding why Northerners fought for the concept of “Union”. Gallagher points out that the negative portrayals of Union soldiers involving rape and pillage are severely overstated. Gallagher says it is a shame that the United States Army is not shown as a force dedicated to preserving the Union and eradicating slavery.

Gallagher says most people involved in historical films are most worried about simply making money with little regard to historical accuracy. He believes the Union cause suffers due to the need for a lot of dialogue to make moviegoers understand. He also sees a lack of “romanticism” in the Union cause. Lastly, this cause gets linked to modern America and the problems inherent in our country today.

Union soldiers get depicted in a manner similar to the way U.S. soldiers of the Vietnam era get depicted in movies, committing atrocities and being viewed as invaders. In Cold Mountain, Union soldiers are shown as invaders of a home who take a baby and lay it on the ground in winter, and then attempt to rape the baby’s mother. Dances with Wolves shows a completely disenchanted Civil War veteran in Kevin Costner who lives among the Sioux.

The Emancipation cause shows up quite frequently in movies today. Members of the Union cause after the war would have seen emancipation as a great tool to save the Union, but it would not have been their main cause. Gallagher points to Glory as the best example of this in movies today. He does mention that White Union soldiers are depicted very negatively in Glory. Gods and Generals and Gettysburg use the Chamberlain brothers to tell viewers that the Civil War was about slavery. Nicole Kidman’s character in Cold Mountain even mentions she is happy to be away from the slavery in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Lost Cause, a former mainstay of Civil War movies, says Gallagher, is now in retreat. He sees some of the Lost Cause in movies today, but only hints. Gods and Generals, however, is a major exception, being almost entirely a Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. This tradition was dominant from The Birth of a Nation in 1915 right up until the Civil Rights movement around 1965.

The Reconciliation Cause happens throughout movies. Gallagher points to the fraternization scenes in Gods and Generals. Gallagher points out that many more negative than positive encounters happened and that it took a long time for these men to forgive.

Gallagher believes many of these movies reflect the time in which it was made more than the 1860’s. A notable exception is Gods and Generals with its heavily Lost Cause message. Shenandoah is another example.

Gallagher believes Glory and Pharaoh’s Army are two of the very best Civil War movies made. He says Glory is a great example of the way a movie can shape perceptions today. The dedication of a monument to the United States Colored Troops in Washington, D.C. probably wouldn’t have been happened without the movie, according to Gallagher.

Santa Fe Trail earns the dubious distinction of being the worst Civil War movie in terms of factual errors. Aesthetically, he finds Gods and Generals to be a difficult film to watch and calls it “tedious” and “incomprehensible” to those who aren’t too familiar with the Civil War. Lastly, he found the television miniseries “North and South” to be filled with “howlers”, especially with regards to Wayne Newton as a prison commandant.

The last 20 minutes of the interview deals with the Civil War and popular art. Gallagher looked at art in the popular Civil War magazines such as Civil War Times Illustrated, America’s Civil War, North & South, and Blue & Gray. The leading artists are Mort Kunstler, Don Troiani, Dale Gallon, and John Paul Strain, those who are most prominent and sell the most pieces. In art, the Lost Cause is “ascendant in the world of Civil War art.” Confederates are much more frequently portrayed than their Confederate counterparts, with the notable exception of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Gallagher is quick to point out that he isn’t saying these artists necessarily believe in the Lost Cause themselves, but rather that Lost Cause subjects for whatever reason tend to sell the most prints, with some gallerys saying Confederate prints outsell Union prints “10 or 15 to 1”! The best sellers are Lee, Jackson, and the Army of Northern Virginia, with Nathan Bedford Forrest making a lot of appearances as well.The hard thing to explain for Gallagher is, “why would you rather purchase a piece of Confederate art rather than a piece of Union art?”

Civil War Talk Radio airs most Fridays at 12 PM Pacific on World Talk Radio Studio A. Host Gerry Prokopowicz, the History Chair at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, interviews a guest each week and discusses their interest in the Civil War. Most interviews center around a book or books if the guest is an author. Other guests over the years have included public Historians such as park rangers and museum curators, wargamers, bloggers, and even a member of an American Civil War Round Table located in London, England.

In this series of blog entries, I will be posting air dates, subjects, and guests, and if I have time, I’ll provide a brief summary of the program. You can find all of the past episodes I’ve entered into the blog by clicking on the Civil War Talk Radio category. Each program should appear either on or near the date it was first broadcast.

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