Sharon's Reviews > Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood & Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War

Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten by Gary W. Gallagher
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Jan 04, 09

bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in December, 2008

I heard Dr. Gallagher speak at a symposium on "New Perspectives on the American Civil War" (http://inauguration.richmond.edu/symp...). His summary of this book made me eager to read it.

Full disclosure: although I went to school in California and Ohio, I was raised with a distinctly Southern take on what I was taught to call the War between the States. I was a teenager before I learned that one could say "Yankee" without a preceding "damn"--and we weren't talking about the baseball team. Maintaining that the War was about "states' rights" was very difficult in my US history classes, and somehow all of the in-class debates were about slavery, which I certainly couldn't defend. I only knew that my mother's family couldn't have been fighting to keep slaves; they were far too poor to have any. That this book explains some of what I experienced made it all the more interesting.

A major theme of this well-documented (about a third of the book is footnotes) but readable book is that the most important aspect of the War when it happened--the preservation of the Union--has been lost in popular representations of the War. This is the 'forgotten' cause of the title. As an historian, Gallagher draws on the letters and memoirs of the combatants themselves to show that the majority of the Union participants fought not for emancipation but to keep the country together. In other words, the political differences between North and South--between indivisible union and the right of states who had voluntarily joined that union to leave it--are very clear in history but ill-served in popular culture, particularly in the movies. He also reminds us that the "Lost Cause" was seen by many Southerners as a continuation of the Revolution, a second war of independence. (That's what my mother was taught in school.)

Gallagher traces how four themes are represented in film and graphics: the 'Lost Cause' of the South, the preservation of the Union, abolition and emancipation, and reconciliation. (The last refers to the idea that the War's participants were honorable people defending differing ideals and picks up Lincoln's "with malice towards none and charity for all.") A fascinating thread traces the impact of the Vietnam War on the representation of soldiers, particularly on the representation of the Union troops. The author is interested as well in how political correctness affects the portrayal of characters in these films, e.g., Nicole Kidman's character in "Cold Mountain."

For most readers, the section on film will be the most interesting. Certainly, Hollywood has had a significant impact on how Americans view the War; "Gone with the Wind," the classic "Lost Cause" movie, is still shown regularly on TV. Most of us are unfamiliar with popular art about the War, and we have probably never even thought about how U.S. postage stamps are marketed. Gallagher's discussion, however, points out how these images represent the four themes and contribute to the popular mythology of the War. He wonders how Lee would react to seeing himself at the center of this mythology.

Gallagher ends by recounting the dispute over the placing of a statue of Lincoln at the Civil War Center in Richmond, Virginia. That this dispute took place in 2003 illustrates the symbolic importance of art in representing the war. (The book was published before the latest episode in the dispute: the proposal to place a statue of Jefferson Davis at the Center, too.) I once heard Ken Burns say that he made his Civil War miniseries because "the War seemed so long ago." Clearly, Burns wasn't brought up in the South.
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