Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War

Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War

Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War

Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War


More than 60,000 books have been published on the Civil War. Most Americans, though, get their ideas about the war why it was fought, what was won, what was lost not from books but from movies, television, and other popular media. In an engaging and accessible survey, renowned Civil War historian Gary Gallagher guides readers through the stories told in recent film and art, showing how they have both reflected and influenced the political, social, and racial currents of their times. Too often these popular portrayals overlook many of the very ideas that motivated the generation that fought the war. The most influential perspective for the Civil War generation, says Gallagher, is almost entirely absent from the Civil War stories being told today.

Gallagher argues that popular understandings of the war have been shaped by four traditions that arose in the nineteenth century and continue to the present: the Lost Cause, in which Confederates are seen as having waged an admirable struggle against hopeless odds; the Union Cause, which frames the war as an effort to maintain a viable republic in the face of secessionist actions; the Emancipation Cause, in which the war is viewed as a struggle to liberate 4 million slaves and eliminate a cancerous influence on American society; and the Reconciliation Cause, which represents attempts by northern and southern whites to extol "American" virtues and mute the role of African Americans.

Gallagher traces an arc of cinematic interpretation from one once dominated by the Lost Cause to one now celebrating Emancipation and, to a lesser degree, Reconciliation. In contrast, the market for art among contemporary Civil War enthusiasts reflects an overwhelming Lost Cause bent. Neither film nor art provides sympathetic representations of the Union Cause, which, Gallagher argues, carried the most weight in the Civil War era.

This lively investigation into what popular entertainment teaches us and what it reflects about us will prompt readers to consider how we form opinions on current matters of debate, such as the use of the military, the freedom of dissent, and the flying of the Confederate flag.


On October 4, 1993, a full house at Washington's National Theatre watched the world premiere of Gettysburg, a Turner Pictures film based on Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels. Because the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites had been given a few choice seats, I found myself, as president ofthat organization, in the row occupied by Ted Turner and a number of his employees. Jeff Daniels, Sam Elliott, and other actors who appeared in the movie sat in the next row back. During the four-hour epic, I was intrigued by reactions among what was predominantly an insiders' crowd of Civil War enthusiasts and people associated with Gettysburg's production. My favorite moment came during the sequence devoted to Pickett's Charge, near the climax of which Mr. Turner appeared briefly as Confederate colonel Waller Tazewell Patton. As Patton's infantrymen reached the Emmitsburg Road just below the main Union defensive line, the camera focused on Turner, who waved his saber and shouted, “Let's go boys!” Several individuals to my right sprang up and clapped loudly upon hearing their boss utter his line—then lapsed into awkward silence when Union minié balls cut Patton down two or three seconds later. Hearty applause swept the house at the end of the film, and during the postscreening “ gala” I heard innumerable comments about how director Ron Maxwell brought the battle and its leading characters to life—how the movie conveyed an immediacy and sense of action impossible to capture in prose.

As one who had read and thought a good deal about Gettysburg, I found much to consider in both the film and the audience's response. Scenes such as the Confederate artillery bombardment preceding Pickett's Charge impressed me, as did Stephen Lang's performance as General George E. Pickett. Other elements of the film proved less satisfying. For example, many of the 5,000 reenactors, whose involvement helped make the production possible, brought too many years and too much excess flesh to the task of portraying Civil War soldiers (one of the first Confederates with a speaking part bears a remarkable resemblance to Santa Claus). Whatever quibbles I had with Gettysburg, remarks from members of the audience reminded me that films strongly influence perceptions of historical events, and I wondered what larger understanding of the war viewers might take away from the movie. A

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