Sunday, April 12, 2015

What’s So Great About the Confederacy?

My last blogpost marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865.  But today, Sunday, marks the 154th anniversary of the beginning of the war with the bombardment by Confederate forces on the U.S. army post of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861.  Yes, the U.S. Civil War was only three days shy of officially being exactly four years long. 

But in some ways, the Civil War has never really gone away.  Although the war and it’s aftermath enabled the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which recognized the rights of full citizenship for African Americans, it was quickly followed by Jim Crow laws in the South, which effectively denied those rights.  Concurrently, there also arose the idea of the idyllic antebellum South, a region of genteel (white) aristocracy and happy, dancing (black) slaves, a region that was ultimately a victim of Northern aggression but also a possessor of indomitable spirit and honor. 

It’s difficult not to see this idealized image of the antebellum South as racist.  The slave-owning South marked a way of life whose underpinnings were kept in place by a racially based, inhuman system of labor, without which that lifestyle would collapse.  Perhaps nowhere else was such a refined way of life directly traceable to such a miserable way of life, and this cried out for a demystification of the exploitative underpinnings of all seemingly polished hierarchical societies.  But this rosy image and myth of the antebellum American South mystified its inhuman economic basis all over again. 
Buster Keaton (left) in ‘The General’ (1926)

Along with this myth arose the image of the white Southerner as the scrappy underdog, as the little guy put upon by larger, more impersonal social forces.  In his book The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr describes the idealization of the Confederacy in reference to Buster Keaton’s Civil War-set comic film The General (1926):

[T]he Civil War, of course, had been traumatic for North and South alike: in the martyrdom of Lincoln on the one hand, in the loss of a way of life on the other.  The power of legend lay on the side of the South: almost all successful plays, novels, and films have cast their sympathies there, acting on an intuition Keaton shared.  “It’s awful hard,” he [once said], “to make heroes out of Northerners.”  It was not the dream that had survived but the dream that had vanished that lingered on as myth.  The old South was Troy. (p. 247)

For this reason, Keaton dramatized a historical incident of Union soldiers going behind enemy lines to steal a train as the fiction of a lone Southerner who goes across enemy lines to steal back his train.  Although the Northerners were the true heroes of history, their allegiances had to be transposed to the other side in order for the fiction to “work.” 

Perhaps the two most notable films to come out of Hollywood in the pre-World War Two years (and maybe beyond) were D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a paean to the old South and the Ku Klux Klan that basically defined the feature film, and Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939), arguably the first blockbuster and which portrayed the hardships suffered by the overpowered South as an allegory of the sufferings by Americans during the Great Depression.  (Significantly, the “nation” being “birthed” in Griffith’s film is the Jim Crow South, so the title questions the former Confederacy seeing itself as an integral part of the U.S.)  Both movies, of course, were enormously successful in their times, so one may reasonably assume that many of the inheritors of the undivided Union had no trouble seeing themselves in those who fought against it. 

But these two films were only the most conspicuous of a persistent trend in American cinema.  The General has already been introduced as an example.  Others (to mention only two) include Santa Fe Trail (1940 — “one of the top-grossing films of the year”), in which the abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey) is the bad guy, and more subtly, the western Shane (1953), in which characters use the word “Yankee” almost as invective.  More recently, successful films like Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and TV shows like The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85) have salt-of-the-earth protagonists who strongly identify as Southern — in the latter case, complete with a car nicknamed the “General Lee” with the Confederate battle flag painted on top. 

This brings up the subject of the Confederate battle flag itself and many people, especially in the South, continuing to fly it.  Some say that they fly it to honor their Confederate ancestors who died under it.  But this sounds slightly disingenuous: these ancestors died fighting for the cause of slavery.  Confederate apologists will dispute my last sentence, saying that the South’s cause was states’ rights.  But that also sounds disingenuous.  The Confederates were primarily fighting for the states’ “right” to continue the institution of slavery: no non-slave state seceded from the Union in the 1860s and the “right” for white Southerners to own black slaves was spelled out in the Confederate constitution.  

Time magazine quotes Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ so-called “Cornerstone” speech of 1861:

[Rather than “all men are created equal,” o]ur new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Can what the Confederate flag stands for get any clearer than that?  Knowing that the widespread use of the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of “Southern pride” came more recently in reaction to desegregation and equal-rights laws, continuing to fly it smacks of a thumb in the eye of racial equality. 

No, the real underdogs of the 19th-century South were the black slaves, whose unremunerated labor and wretched existence made the Southern way of life possible.  And the glorification — by the media or by anyone else — of the antebellum South, the Confederate States of America, or an abiding Southern identity that implicitly promises to “rise again” marks an effort to rewrite Civil War history as the victimization of the victimizers, as if to say that slavery in the pre-Civil War South wasn’t so bad after all. 

From Ken Burns’s PBS documentary mini-series ‘The Civil War’ (1990)

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