Overview for films in Civil War
(Digital History ID 2954)

Up until the 1950s, Hollywood presented a highly simplified and romanticized portrait of the Civil War. None of the hundreds of films that dealt with the conflict indicated that the Confederacy touched off the war by attacking Fort Sumter. None indicated that the Civil War had anything to do with slavery.

These films disseminated a “moonlight and magnolias” mythology about the slaveholding South: That it was a land of cultured and aristocratic slaveowners, delicate and genteel ladies, and childlike yet loyal slaves. Movies like Santa Fe Trail popularized the notion that the Civil War was a needless and avoidable tragedy brought on by abolitionist fanatics.

Hollywood portrayed the Confederacy as a heroic underdog which waged a heroic if ultimately doomed struggle against the overwhelming resources of the North. Not until the television miniseries Roots was broadcast in 1977 did viewers view the Civil War from the perspective of slaves. And not until Glory, the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, was released in 1989, did Americans see black soldiers fight in the Union Army.

Why did Hollywood present a misleading, mythologized version of the Civil War? In part, it was because Hollywood didn’t want to offend a large part of its potential audience. Partly, it was because the movie studios viewed their role, up until the 1960s, as helping to forge a cultural consensus. But it is also important to recognize that Hollywood films reflected the scholarly consensus of the time.

While a few writers, such as the Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker, offered alternate perspectives, most scholars downplayed slavery’s significance as a cause of the Civil War. Charles and Mary Beard’s influential works of U.S. history held that the Civil War had been waged over economic issues and resulted in the triumph of Northern capitalism. Many other words depicted slavery as an inefficient, backward institution that would have disappeared in the absence of a Civil War.

In fact, slavery was a highly efficient, adaptable institution that, in Abraham Lincoln’s view—expressed in the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858—would likely survive for another century. Writing in the wake of World War II, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., argued that the Civil War, like the second world war, was a necessary war. There are times, he argued, when a society works itself "into a logjam; and that logjam must be burst by violence." By the mid-1850s, it was apparent that moral suasion and political institutions had failed to place slavery on the road to extinction. The nation had reached an increasingly violent impasse. Antislavery crowds sought to prevent slave catchers from transporting fugitives back to the South. "Bleeding Kansas" had revealed that popular sovereignty offered an illusory solution to the problem of slavery in the Western territories. The Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision eliminated possible compromise solutions to the westward expansion of slavery. Ultimately, slavery could only be ended by force of arms.

Recommended Film

Glory

Edward Zwick’s film tells the inspiring but little known story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and how this unit, one of the first black regiments to serve in combat in the Civil War, stood up against prejudice, discrimination, and derogatory racial stereotypes.

Copyright Digital History 2016