Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Good question: Why don't we celebrate April 9?

On this day in 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered. The nightmare of the civil war was officially ended; the Union would be one again. Why, then, asks Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory, is this day not celebrated?

Kevin is being cagey here. As he knows better than most, whole books have been written to explain that after the war, what happened was a massive "reconciliation." The Confederacy was not treated like a defeated nation: President Andrew Johnson would not honor the promise of 40 acres and a mule to freed slaves. Eventually even ex-Confederate soldiers and their widows received pensions from the United States government. Our men died, your men died, it was awful: let's get over it and get on with things--so went the rhetoric of reconciliation as cities and towns on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line ushered in Jim Crow. It's kind of as if the war didn't happen, or at least that it was all a big mistake. President Wilson spoke at the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg--where Union and Confederate veterans gallantly shook hands--without once mentioning emancipation. So it's little wonder that this day of the great achievement of the Union victory goes unnoticed.

At a Civil War symposium on the UNC campus a couple of weeks ago, Gary Gallagher gave an interesting interpretation of the various ways in which the war was conceived and remembered. Talking from his new book, Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War (UNC Press), he outlined four dominant narrative traditions that have shaped our understanding of the war.

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.

A celebration of Grant's victory over Lee on April 9, 1865 would fit within the "Union Cause" narrative. And yet, as Gallagher persuasively argues at least as to the way the Civil War has been presented in movies since the movie "Glory" in 1989, the "Union Cause" narrative in our own time is supremely unpopular. In movie after movie--fourteen or so that he discussed--Union soldiers are depicted as ugly, violent, dishonest characters. There is no celebration of the United States as a great nation worthy of victory and respect. Yet as Gallagher further detailed, the goal of preserving the Union for the sake of its own preservation was a dominant narrative just before and during the Civil War itself. How would it look to European countries if this fragile experiment in democracy could not survive even 100 years?

What happened to the positive narrative of saving the Union for its own sake--the cause that Lincoln, among so many others, so fervently believed in? Even slaveholding southerners, at least those of a certain class, were reluctant to let the idea of one nation go for the sake of the rebel cause. Said North Carolina Judge Thomas Ruffin at a peace conference held in Washington in 1861, "I was born before the Constitution was adopted. May God grant that I not outlive it."

The more powerful narrative of reconciliation overcame it, in part; the narrative of the Lost Cause held on for a long time and survives in some quarters; the narrative of emancipation has reemerged since the civil rights movement, coming to fruition in movies like "Glory." But even when emancipation is celebrated, the Union soldiers come off as complete jerks. Why is that?

Gallagher's theory is that Hollywood is speaking to our time, as it always does speak to its own time, always in the interest of box office returns. And that in our time, whether you are on the left or the right, the federal government is not the good guy.

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