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Gone With the Lost Cause
on 17 September 2010
First, a little personal background. My ancestors in Tennessee and Texas were Unreconstructed Confederates to the core.
When the Civil War aka the "War Between the States" aka the "War of Northern Aggression" aka the "War of the Rebellion" was won and lost, the hopes and dreams of the Southron States (as they would soon take to calling themselves) were toppled and smashed flat. Many ex-Confederates began to rethink their past and to redefine themselves. Leading the parade of redefiners was no less a personage than ex-President Jefferson Davis. Not far behind him on the military side was Jubal Early, a cantankerous, unlucky general who had managed to set off the Battle of Gettysburg by accident, just missed capturing Washington, D.C. ["Early was too late," chortled Sherman to Grant], and had the boom lowered on him--hard!--by Phil Sheridan. Davis, Early and a host of others collectively created what has come to be known as the "Lost Cause."
Included among the many tenets of the Lost Cause is the notion that the South was a natural country, a freedom-loving nation driven reluctantly to take up arms by the rapacious greed of coarse, indifferent Northerners. And, oh yes, a nation in which slavery played only a limited part among a narrow segment of the population, but which, nevertheless, conferred social and economic benefits for all.
The Lost Cause was, of course, unmitigated baloney. And it still is.
Slavery was the evil core of the Confederacy. Don't take my word for it. Read the pre-war speeches of southerners extolling its God-ordained virtues.
The economic impact of slavery was overwhelming. Consider just the cost of giving up slavery: a typical male slave in good physical condition had a market price of about $1200 dollars in 1861. That was an enormous sum, far greater than the annual income of a free working man in the agrarian South. Multiply that amount by the number of slaves and understand why the South was reluctant to release a major portion of its population from servitude. The Lost Cause to the contrary, financial greed and rapacity were not the exclusive property of the Damyankees.
This movie is very much a piece of Lost Cause thinking. Like many of the advocates of the Lost Cause, it uses half-truths to tell great whopping lies. The most egregious of these half-truths involve the slaves portrayed on the screen. Offhand, I can't recall coming across Stonewall Jackson's cook in Douglas Southall Freeman's magisterial, three-volume history "Lee's Lieutenants," but I am willing to accept that there was such an individual much as portrayed in the film. I am further willing to accept that at Fredericksburg and elsewhere were, as portrayed on screen, house slaves who displayed great loyalty to the persons and property of their owners. But I am NOT willing to accept the movie's refusal to acknowledge that first thousands and then tens of thousands of slaves flocked to the Union army encampments.
The blue coated soldiers were initially at a loss to know what to do with them. A few believed that they were still property and returned them to their owners, sometimes by force. General Fremont declared them to be free and earned a blistering retort from Lincoln which forced him to rescind his premature Emancipation Proclamation. At last a bright spark of a Yankee decided that the inflowing slaves were contraband of war and therefore subject to confiscation from owners who were in rebellion against the lawful government of the United States. "Contrabands" they became--and their efforts contributed greatly to the Union cause.
Another half-true lie is the scene in which that singularly admirable man of peace and war, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, contemplates the forthcoming Battle of Fredericksburg. He is shown quoting a classical passage on the return of Julius Caesar and his legions to the stream forming the boundary between Italy and his designated command area in Gaul. By crossing that otherwise insignificant stream, Caesar placed himself at war with the legitimate power of the Senate and People of Rome. He set on the path to seizing unlimited and tyrannical personal power. The placement and set-up of this scene clearly implies that Chamberlain identified his army on the verge of crossing the Rapahannock River with that of Caesar's crossing the Rubicon, and that this crossing into Southron land was the beginning of a tyrannical seizure of power.
Now, Chamberlain, among many other things, was a college professor and far more learned in the classics than most of us today. He might have even have made just such a quotation. If he did, it is irrelevant. First, the Union had already occupied territory in Virginia and had done so from the first day of the war, so the Army of the Potomac crossing that particular river had no significance for tyranny or otherwise. Second, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had just three months before invaded the North (and had paid a bloody price at the Battle of Antietam aka Sharpsburg.) And third, to Yankee minds if anyone had crossed a Rubicon in willful defiance of his country and its laws, it was Confederate General Beauregard when he fired on Fort Sumter.
This is a film made up of several strands. "The Life of Saint Stonewall" is such a strand, one closely related to the Lost Cause. The nearest thing to a central figure in the film is Thomas Jonathan Jackson, whose life is loosely followed from the time he was a major in the US Army to the day he died as Lieutenant General Stonewall Jackson, commander of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, slain by "friendly fire" after his set-piece triumph at Chancellorsville. Jackson is by any measure extraordinary, a man as much out of the normal course of humanity as George S. Patton (whose ancestor and namesake, by the way, died commanding the 22d Virginia under General Jubal Early).
A biopic of Jackson might have been something to see, but this is not it. Here, Jackson is made much less than he really was. Like most of his contemporaries who grew up on the classics and devoured the works of Charles Dickens, Jackson was given to what seem to us to be pompous statements about duty combined with excessive sentimentality where children were concerned. The movie gives us plenty of that--too much, in fact--but it shortchanges us on Jackson the man who kept his secrets, Jackson the man who waged ferocious feuds with other generals and, most of all, Jackson the man of war. It entirely ignores Jackson in independent command in the Shenandoah Valley, carrying out one of the most brilliant campaigns in all of military history. It is blind to Jackson at Second Bull Run, playing the anvil upon which the Army of Northern Virginia hammered poor, befuddled John Pope in Robert E. Lee's most perfect battle.
Finally, there are the battle scenes offered up by re-enactors in the thousands. Specifically, we are shown a portion of the battlefield at the First Battle of Bull Run (aka Manassas) in 1861, Fredericksburg in 1862 and Chancellorsville in 1863. These are the core of the movie. The volunteer re-enactors devote vast quantities of time, money and discomfort to accuracy. The producers virtually crow over the perfection of their images.
And I don't buy them for a second.
Bull Run was a complex series of encounters between two newly-raised and largely untrained armies. It most certainly was not won by Jackson's brigade making a single frontal assault.
Fredericksburg was a three-phase battle that began with the building of a bridge while under heavy fire, a skirmish in the town and then the great, tragic assault on Lee's impregnable position. It is the third phase that is unique. A union brigade would march up the heights, be shot to pieces and another brigade would pass over the survivors to be shot to pieces in turn, again and again ... and yet again. The stupendous bravery of the affair was matched only by the unbelievable stupidity of it. In the movie we see the first Union brigade attack and fall, a second attack in parade ground order and a suggested third. There were many, many more than that. The unspeakable futility of this most futile of battles is hardly suggested.
At Chancellorsville, Jackson moved his corps swiftly and silently over mere country tracks to get to the unprotected flank of the much larger Union army. Jackson's men were famous and tireless marchers but even they realized that their feat was something extraordinary. They emerged out of the trees and routed the 11th Corps of the US Army--to the endless shame of that particularly luckless outfit. The movie shows Jackson's corps begin its move and then it tells us they've arrived. The grueling march that is the very essence of the battle is barely suggested.
Then the movie, in true pageant form, shows Confederate soldiers, hidden within the tree line, standing silently to attention in their extended line of battle, waiting for Jackson's order to attack. Well, I for one do not believe that any Confederate soldier anywhere ever stood silently at attention while waiting for the order the move out, especially not exhausted, foot-weary ones. And if I did believe that, I flat out do not believe--based on the universal testimony of the Confederates themselves--that any Confederate attack was ever made in straight and closely aligned lines of battle. And even if I believed THAT, I still wouldn't believe that Jackson and his whole staff would ride twenty yards behind his skirmishers and in front of his main battle lines through the whole depth of the enemy position.
Finally, those re-enactors. They are too healthy. Too well-fed. Look at the contemporary photographs. By 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia was a fantastically skillful military machine composed of rail-thin, mad-eyed scarecrows--in no way resembling those good ol' boys on the screen.
"Gods and Generals" is undramatic, misleading and ultimately unconvincing. Too bad.