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Comments by YACCS
Monday, April 11, 2005

The end of treason

End of a folly

Today is the 140th anniversary of Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, which essentially ended the American Civil War.

As a (white) child growing up in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s, I looked forward in history class to the tale of the Appomattox surrender, because it marked the end of the interminable period of time we spent studying--or more accurately, saturating ourselves in--the War Between the States each year. Indeed, such was the extent of our wallowing in the Confederacy that we rarely made it past World War I in American history.

Far beyond elementary school, in the broader southern white culture I grew up in, there was an odd exultancy about Appomattox that had nothing to do with vicarious relief at the end of that brutal war. No, we drank in the details of Lee's peerless dress and manner at the moment of surrender, and were encouraged to think of the shabby Grant's generosity in victory as little more than the acknowledgement of a superior being--and a superior, if Lost, Cause. A Cause, moreover, that was about everything other than the ownership of human beings--about states' rights, about agrarian resistance to capitalism, about cultured Cavaliers defending civilization against philistine Puritans, about Honor, about Duty.

And that was the essence of Confederate Nostalgia in those days: a cult of romantic defeat, denial, self-pity and pride. I never quite shared it, even as a child, but never quite understood its pathological depths until its mirror images in Serbian and (some parts of) Arab culture became part of world events in more recent years. And remarkably, I get the sense Confederate Nostalgia is not only surviving, but perhaps even reviving among people too young to know its nature and political usages.

So now, in many heated conversations with my fellow white southerners--and occasionally with Yankees who've been caught up by the Romance in Grey--I find myself insisting on an acknowledgement of the reality of the Confederacy, and its consequences for our home region.

It was an armed revolution led by a planter class that could not tolerate restrictions on the "right" to transfer its human property into the territories.

It was a "Cause" centered in the states most dependent on slavery, made possible by a secession bitterly opposed by poor white farmers in much of the region, and imposed on them by the narrowest of margins.

It was a rebellion whose success entirely relied on the calculation that the people of the North would not sacrifice for abstactions like the Union and Freedom.

Its inevitable defeat plunged the South and all of its people into a century of grinding poverty, isolation, and oligarchical government. Its heritage has been used again and again to justify racism and every other sort of reactionary policy.

I look at Appomattox and see the end of a disastrous folly that killed over 600,000 Americans, maimed far more, and made life miserable for those of my ancestors who survived the Planters' Revolt. No romance. No victory-in-defeat. Just carnage and destruction in a bad cause made no better by the good men whose lives and futures it claimed.

It is far past time for southern pride--which I share to an almost painful extent--to attach itself to everything, anything, other than those four disastrous years that ended at Appomattox Court House. -- Posted at 9:41 PM

I would just add this: the myth of the South is as much a creation of film and literature than anything, anything written during the actual war and it's aftermath.

How did the real war diverge from the image?

The robbers of the post-war period were not heroes in any sense of the word. Jesse James was, in modern parlance, a war criminal. He rode with Bloody Bill Anderson, who specialized in terroizing Kansas farmers. The guerilla war in the Mississippi River area was about as violent as the partisan struggle in Yugoslavia. You had groups of people killing their neighbors.

What is the image we get of this war? Take the Outlaw Josey Wales. A great movie, but historically, quite wrong. Wales would have been a confederate guerrilla who probably murdered hundreds of people, farmers, women and `children, destroyed towns. In short, a 19th Century Arkan. He would have been quite unsympathetic to people living at the time.

Then, you have Ride with the Devil, which had a black slave fighting with Quantrill's guerillas. Which is about the same asx a Jew fighting with the 2nd Das Reich division with a yarmulke on. Impossible isn't the word. These folks killed black slaves when they could. They hated blacks for racial and economic reasons.

What Hollywood has done is moderate the viciousness of the south and the war they fought. The noble struggle crap was revisionism promoted to hide the same of their racial war of conquest.

In the immediate post-war period, to about 1900, it was the Union and their soldiers who defined the telling of the war. The Grand Army of the Republic was the NRA or AARP of it's day, but as Americe moved on, the South redefined the war as a struggle for a way of life, just as Jim Crow was rising.

The first hit movie, Birth of a Nation, was this kind of ridiculous revisionist history, but with one difference, black soliders actually existed. In the next 50 years, their existance would vanish from popular history.

But for most of Hollywood's history, the Confederacy has been the perfect foil for Hollywood's image of doomed heroism. Nothing better than showing the losing side of a war to enoble the characters.

Imagine, however, a story of romance between a German factory owner's wife and an SS officer transfered to the Russian Front. You can't even play German soldiers in FPS games, imagine a movie like that. It wouldn't be made in Germany, much less the US. Yet, American film makers have done the same with the South since 1915. There are two exxceptions to this: A series of John Wayne movies where he played Union officers and Glory, which detailed the first black regiment to see combat in the Union Army.

Glory has always been an emtional film for me to see, because it's about the liberation of my family, who comes from Charleston. America's film industry has minimized the cruelty and abuse of slavery. I have never seen Gone with the Wind for that reason. At least Birth of a Nation is upfront with it's racism, Gone with the Wind is just as racist, but hides it in romance and hides the blacks.

The thing is that the reason so many people can believe in the noble cause is because they can see good movies about the Civil War and th South, but movies which so veer from reality, it would be like Battleground, but with actors playing the SS troopers instead of the Airborne troopers from the 101st ABN. Your heart would swell when Shermans were knocked out and US soldiers murdered in cold blood.

Yesterday, I watched Shelby Foote lavishisly praise Nathan Beford Forrest for his military skills on the Civil War documentary. What came to mind is that Forrest, postwar founder of the Ku Klux Klan, actively murdered black soldiers. In WWII, he would have been tried and shot, as many SS officers were. The first thing anyone who talks about Forrest should say is this: he was a violent racist who violated the rules of war.

It has taken until the last couple of years for people to say the Civil War was an act of treason. Which it was.

The ignorance of the true nature of the civil war is so great that blacks have been acting as Confederate reenactors. Which is about the same as Jews acting as SS reenactors. Which is a message lost to many people. The Confederacy is little different than the SS. Every time you see a flag or someone talking about the glory of the South, insert the words SS and Nazi and you'll be right. Which is a reality that most Americans have still yet to wrap their mind around.

posted by Steve @ 1:41:00 AM

1:41:00 AM

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