Book Review

The causes of the Civil War get the Hollywood treatment

Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War By Gary W. Gallagher University of North Carolina Press, 274 pp., illustrated, $28

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Kenney
April 22, 2008

In the book and souvenir shops at the National Park Service's Civil War battlefield sites, there are for sale metal figures of soldiers, both Union and Confederate.

They are similar to the classic British-made figures, but are labeled "Made in China" and not as finely cast. Amid the flag-bearers, drummers, riflemen, even a red-pantalooned Zouave, there is, on the Union side, a historical figure made famous by a film.

That would not be Grant, or Sherman - or even Custer. But as a reader of historian Gary W. Gallagher's highly entertaining analysis of how the Civil War has been treated in popular culture will quickly guess, it is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of the 1993 blockbuster "Gettysburg."

In "Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten," Gallagher, a University of Virginia professor, organizes his discussion around the four traditions in which popular culture reflects how the Civil War has been seen, and its meaning debated.

Briefly put, those traditions are the Lost Cause ("constitutional high-mindedness and gallantry on the battlefield"), the Union Cause (preserving the Republic), the Emancipation Cause (struggle against slavery), and the Reconciliation Cause.

While there is some overlapping, Gallagher writes, each "can be examined as a quite distinct attempt to explain and understand the war."

The Reconciliation Cause is interesting, writes Gallagher, because it "[represents] an attempt by white people, North and South to extol the American virtues both sides manifested during the war," while "[muting] the role of African Americans."

Significantly, there are no speaking parts for blacks in "Gettysburg." The film borrows from all four traditions, but, Gallagher writes, highlights the Reconciliation Cause, suggesting in its promotional materials that "the soldiers were all Americans with more to connect than to divide them, who nevertheless found themselves trapped in a tragic war."

Gallagher looks at 14 films released from 1989 through 2003 as exemplars of the various "cause" traditions.

The classic Lost Cause film is 1939's "Gone With the Wind." Among more recent films, "Gods and Generals" from 2003 "takes a predominantly Lost Cause interpretive stance." But "Cold Mountain" from the same year "can best be understood as a feminist antiwar film that turns almost every Lost Cause convention on its head."

Gallagher regards the 1989 "Glory," which extols the Emancipation Cause, as the best of all Civil War films, noting in a "conversation" from his publisher that it is not only well-acted and quite moving, but "faithful to the big historical questions regarding the 54th Massachusetts and black soldiers in the war."

Which leaves the Union Cause - which is, as Gallagher remarks, "Hollywood's real lost cause."

Historians, he writes, often place freedom for the slaves along with preservation of the nation "as equivalent northern war [aims]." But of the two, "the concept of Union is much more nebulous; indeed it is almost impossible to convey to a modern audience why the Union meant so much . . ."

But it's in a rare attempt to make the Union's case that Chamberlain plays a role as significant as the defense of Little Round Top by his 20th Maine Infantry at Gettysburg.

In "Gettysburg" and again in "Gods and Generals," Chamberlain is called upon, as Gallagher writes, to offer "the main rumination about northern motivation." As a professor at Bowdoin College before the war - and governor of Maine and Bowdoin's president after the war - he seems an obvious candidate for such a role.

As Chamberlain's character remarks in "Gettysburg," "All of us volunteered to fight for the Union."

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

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