Book Review-Nonfiction

Gary 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; 274 pp, index, endnotes, illustrations; ISBN-978-08078-3206-6; $

Gary Gallagher’s latest book treads into some new territory for the prolific University of Virginia John L. Nau Professor of History. Moving away from military and political musings, Gallagher looks at how the American Civil War has been portrayed in recent times in two genres of popular culture- film and art.

The focus of Gallagher’s analysis lies in the examination of four ways to look at the war. First is the “Lost Cause”, the idea of the noble South who represented the true ideals of America but was overwhelmed by the Yankee hordes. This, Gallagher shows, was the focus of much early Civil war depictions on the silver screen, most notably in “Gone with the Wind” but gradually diminishing until being resurrected fully in the wretched “Gods and Generals”.

The second way of looking at the War, and the least popular in modern times is the Union Cause. The idea that the conflict was one of the preservation of the nation and the democratic ideals of the Revolution- the arguments so nobly advanced by Lincoln and other prominent Unionists. This has seen virtually no screen time. More recently, there have been treatments devoted to the third idea- the Emancipation Cause. In this, the War is seen through the prism of the fight to free over four million held in bondage. This has seen its best treatment in the film “Glory”, which to me, despite some noticeable flaws in historical accuracy, is the best film out there on the Civil War.

The final viewpoint is the Reconciliation Cause. In this, both sides are seen as noble antagonists deserving of honor and praise. This motif is seen in a number of post-war set Westerns and at least one pre-war- the historically laughable “Santa Fe Trail”. Perhaps the moat prominent modern representation of this genre is the “Gods and Generals” prequel- “Gettysburg”, loosely based on the novel The Killer Angels. Reconciliation is seen even in the film’s tagline-“Same Land, Same God, Different Dreams”.

Gallagher also examines within each of these viewpoints the concept of “war is hell”, the cruelty and destruction- which he notes is much more likely to be portrayed as coming form the Union side with the exception of the one made- for-TV movie he examines- the Turner production “Andersonville”. He also spends time discussing, what I consider to be a much to little seen gem- “Pharaoh’s Army” which really captures the complexity of the times that were the 1860s.

The second part of Causes Won… looks at the world of Civil War art. Unlike the immediate post-war to the turn of the last century when the representation was fairly equally divided between North and South, modern art is overwhelmingly Southern in subject matter. Gallagher surveyed the various Civil War themed magazines advertising sections over the past few decades and shows that artwork featuring Lee, Jackson, Stuart and Forrest among others is vastly overrepresented versus Northern notables such as Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, even Lincoln. The only Yankee who has respectable numbers is that recent popular culture icon Joshua “don’t call me Lawrence” Chamberlain. Gallagher notes that in interviews with various artists it is a commonality that Southern sells!

I have always found Gary Gallagher’s books thought provoking, whether or not you totally agree with his premises. His foray outside traditional Civil War military/political history is, in my opinion, a great success. I would enjoy greatly, if along the lines of Jim Cullen’s earlier The Civil War in Popular Culture, Gallagher looks into more of the cultural phenomenon like re-enacting, the flag issue and the recent popularity of Lincoln bashing.

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One response to “Book Review-Nonfiction”

  1. Dave Avatar

    “Perhaps the moat prominent modern representation of this genre is the “Gods and Generals” prequel- “Gettysburg”, loosely based on the novel The Killer Angels. ”

    Loosely? I suggest you compare the novel to the film script– the movie is nearly verbatim, scene for scene. Which of course is possible when you make a four- hour movie.

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