From the earliest feature film – D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” – through “Gone with the Wind,” “Glory,” and even Ken Burns’s groundbreaking documentary, the Civil War has been, and remains a potent theme in mainstream popular culture.
Filmmakers and novelists, poets and TV mini-series have tackled this most divisive time in US history as a means to explore both historical and modern notions of American identity. Indeed, as Tuesday marks the 150th anniversary of the war’s first shots, Friday will see the release of the new Civil War film, “The Conspirator," directed by Robert Redford.
“The general public's perception of the American Civil War is significantly shaped by popular culture on the subject, largely because it is virtually the only exposure they have to the subject matter,” writes Richard Goedkoop, a professor of communication at La Salle University, in an e-mail. “Gone with the Wind,” along with other films, “are the Civil War,” he says.
Mr. Goedkoop, who is also a licensed battlefield guide at the Gettysburg National Military Park, says he sees this when tourists come to the historic site.
“Those who have seen 'Gettysburg' come to the battlefield with a great deal of interest in the battle but very limited knowledge of what really happened,” he says.
He points out that the film was based upon "The Killer Angels," a novel written by Michael Shaara in the 1970s, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Virtually no mass media depictions get the history just right, he says, adding, that even Mr. Burns's masterful PBS documentary, "Civil War," buys into many of Mr. Shaara's concepts.
Of course, mass culture does not have the same obligations of a history class, says Thomas Flagel, author of "The History Buff's Guide to the Civil War." Nonetheless, popular storytelling becomes a window into the nation’s mind at that moment, he points out. Depending on the era, the twin major themes of the war – emancipation of slaves versus a battle over states’ rights – take turns as the dominant theme of the narrative.
The overtly racist storyline of the 1915 feature film, “Birth of a Nation,” for example, contrasts with 1989's “Glory,” which focused on a black regiment from the North. “The emancipationist memory allows us to see the ugliness of racism and to remember slavery as a cause,” says Judith Giesberg, a historian at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. It replaces the “nobleness” of the Confederate cause, "or what is usually referred to as the lost cause,” she says.
The “lost cause” view – one "largely sympathetic to the trials and tribulations of white Southerners” – has won out for most of the past 150 years of pop culture, says Nina Silber, member of the Council of Scholars for the Coalition for the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Films such as “Gone with the Wind” and “Birth of a Nation” made Southern whites the main characters in the story, and in this way they helped make the white Southern experience part of the American experience, she says.
No longer were Southern whites, even slaveholders, seen as wicked – as they were often portrayed in abolitionist literature. Nor were they treasonous, as they would have been seen at the time of the Civil War. “Popular culture has obscured the problem of slavery and – at least until fairly recent times – ignored what may have been the most important human drama from the actual war: abolition and emancipation,” Ms. Silber says.