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The Silver Screen’s Impact on the Blue and the Gray.

Americans began their struggle to define the historical meaning of the Civil War as soon as four years of slaughter ended in the spring of 1865. Their quest frequently took the form of heated debates that continue today despite the passage of nearly 150 years. Many of the arguments carried out by the Civil War generation focused on details relating to military operations. Another set of debates shifted the spotlight to how the war’s broader meaning would be interpreted by subsequent generations. Many people North and South cared passionately about how history would judge their actions in a struggle that had sent more than 3 million men into military service and claimed more than 600,000 lives. These larger debates brought the poisonous issue of slavery into the picture, both as a precipitant of secession and war and, in the form of emancipation, as a factor that altered the character of the conflict and helped define its aftermath. They raised questions about comparative sectional virtue, moral right and even divine approbation.

Four major interpretive traditions, the Lost Cause, Union Cause, Emancipation and Reconciliation, provide background for an examination of films and artworks that have informed Americans’ attitudes about the war. One of those four formed almost immediately after the war in the South, while two others had their inception in the North. The three offered starkly contrasting versions of the Civil War era, and all have modern counterparts that echo their arguments. The fourth tradition appeared somewhat later, won numerous adherents throughout the nation by the end of the 19th century and remains widely evident today.

Lost Cause

What came to be called the Lost Cause school of interpretation arose in the South and contained several elements that have proved to be remarkably tenacious. Former Confederates confronted the postwar world as a people thoroughly beaten on the battlefield but defiantly unapologetic about their attempt to establish a slaveholding republic. The conflict had killed one in four military-age white Southern men (American fatalities in World War II would have been approximately 6.5 million, rather than 400,000, if the ratio of dead to total population in the United States had matched that of the Confederacy), left much of the region’s economy in ruin, wrought dramatic changes in the landscape and, most important by far, destroyed the South’s slave-based social system. Ex-Confederates sought to take something positive away from their catastrophic experiment in nation- building. They embraced a public memory of the Civil War era that celebrated their antebellum civilization with little reference to slavery, justified secession on constitutional grounds, highlighted their undeniable wartime sacrifice and insisted that defeat in the face of impossible odds entailed no loss of honor.

Refined and repeated endlessly during the post-Appomattox decades, Lost Cause arguments reached a wide audience through participants’ memoirs, speeches at gatherings of veterans, and commemorative programs orchestrated by Ladies’ Memorial Associations at the graves of Confederate soldiers. Various artworks, including prints published in the North, also celebrated the Confederate struggle, as did a large number of public monuments.

Union Cause

A second school of interpretation developed in the North and presented a direct challenge to the former Confederates’ portrait of secession and the war. This Northern equivalent of the Lost Cause has never been given a convenient name (perhaps winners worry less about such things than losers), but an accurate label would be the Union Cause. It argued that slaveholding secessionists sought to undo the work of the founding generation by dismantling a Union that afforded white citizens wide economic and political opportunities and stood as a democratic example to the world.

For Americans infused with a sense of national exceptionalism, the stirring rhetoric of Daniel Webster had gotten to the heart of their sense of Union. “I speak today for the preservation of the Union,” Webster famously had proclaimed on March 7, 1850. “Hear me for my cause.” The Massachusetts senator went on to affirm: “We have a great, popular, constitutional government guarded by law and by judicature, and defended by the affections of the whole people. No monarchical throne presses these States together, no iron chain of military power encircles them; they live and stand under a government popular in its form, representative in its character, founded upon principles of equality, and so constructed, we hope, as to last forever.” Twenty years earlier, countering what he claimed was South Carolina’s support for nullification, Webster had thundered on the floor of the Senate, “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.” The printed version of that speech sold nearly 150,000 copies and influenced generations of American schoolchildren.

Republicans and Democrats across the North united in opposing secession after Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, and first to last most white Northerners would have said the war was about restoring the Union. Republicans and many Democrats eventually accepted emancipation as a useful tool to help defeat the Rebels and punish the slaveholding class most Northerners blamed for secession and the outbreak of war; however, except among abolitionists and some Radical Republicans, liberation of the slaves took a back seat to preservation of the Union.

Abraham Lincoln spoke eloquently for all those who loved the Union. His first inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1861, insisted the Union was perpetual; with secession, which meant rejection of the principle of majority rule, “anarchy, or despotism in some form, is all that is left.” Summoning images of a shared democratic destiny implicit in unionism, Lincoln closed on a lyrical note: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Four months later in a message to Congress, Lincoln staked out lofty ideological ground in arguing that secession “presents the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy—a government of the people, by the people—can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes.” Much deeper into the war, at Gettysburg in November 1863, Lincoln recalled the Founders and expressed his hope that the shining American democratic example of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” would endure in a restored Union.


A third interpretative tradition, the Emancipation Cause, emerged shortly after the war from black and white abolitionists and Radical Republicans. Its adherents almost always paid homage to the Union, but they considered the emancipation of more than 4 million slaves to be the conflict’s most important outcome. They joined Union Cause brethren in laying full blame for the outbreak of war on the seceding states and tied the rebellion directly to a “slave power conspiracy” that had wielded inordinate power in the antebellum decades. Many Northerners monitored the growing Lost Cause literature in the 1870s and sensed that it was earning respect even above the Mason-Dixon Line. Those devoted to the Emancipation Cause deeply resented what they saw as a tendency among some Northerners to forgive ex-Rebels too easily. They also worried that those who trumpeted reunion above all else failed to give due attention to the death of slavery as a pathbreaking accomplishment.

Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address foreshadowed two crucial parts of the Emancipation Cause. Delivered on March 4, 1865, it left no doubt about slaveholders’ role in precipitating the war and held up emancipation as an outcome that, to a significant degree, preceded final restoration of the Union. “One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it,” Lincoln said of the situation in 1860. “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party…anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.” At Gettysburg Lincoln also had acknowledged the centrality of emancipation, placing “a new birth of freedom” alongside restoration of the Union as a fundamental goal of the war effort.


The achievements of black men in blue uniforms went largely unnoticed in the fourth interpretive tradition—a movement toward reconciliation that gained power in the late 19th century and remains widely evident today. The Reconciliation Cause included major military and political figures who advocated a memory of the conflict that muted the divisive issue of slavery, avoided value judgments about the righteousness of either cause and celebrated the valor of white soldiers in both Union and Confederate armies. It was because of American traits showcased on Civil War battlefields, the reconciliationist interpretation maintained, that a U.S. economic colossus stood poised by 1900 to assume a central position on the world stage. Reconciliationists often pointed to Appomattox, where Grant and Lee’s behavior promoted peaceful reunion, as the beginning of a healing process that reminded Americans of their shared history.

Although sometimes combining with elements of the Union Cause and the Emancipation Cause, the Reconciliation Cause most often was characterized by a measure of Northern capitulation to the white South and the Lost Cause tradition. Although reconciliationists achieved considerable success, many Americans, South and North, remained resolutely unreconciled into the 20th century. They had been bitter at the end of the war and remained so long thereafter. A pair of examples illustrate this phenomenon. Reconstruction, with its 14th and 15th Amendments conveying political and legal protections to freed-people, deepened the white South’s already substantial sense of outrage toward the North. In 1905 former Confederate General Clement A. Evans sputtered about the “tragedy, pathos, corruption…and absurdities of the military dictatorship and of reconstruction.” The postwar era, thought Evans, had been marked by “topsy-turvy conditions generally, domestic upheaval, negroes voting, Black and Tan Conventions and Legislatures, disorder on plantations, Loyal Leagues and Freedmen’s Bureaus, Ku Klux and Red Shirts”—all of which, put simply, meant Evans and those who shared his perspective detested the North’s forcing unwelcome changes in the former slaveholding states’ racial structures.

Many Union veterans matched Evans’ strident sectional rhetoric. A publication of the Grand Army of the Republic, the major Union veterans’ organization, worried as late as 1925 about textbooks that included material favorable to the Confederacy. Labeling the war a “Great Pro-Slavery Rebellion,” the Grand Army Record referred to a “Lost Cause of Historical Truth” in attributing influence to pro-Confederate writings that obfuscated the real history and meaning of the conflict. Public displays of the Rebel flag elicited strident responses among Northern veterans. In 1891 the Grand Army’s national commander forbade members to participate in events that featured “the emblem of treason.”

For a half-century and more after the war came to a close, politicians at the state and national levels often resorted to highly charged language that kept wartime passions alive. Republicans waved the “bloody shirt,” former Confederates excoriated scalawags and carpetbaggers, and candidates throughout the nation manipulated race and emancipation to suit their purposes.


From Causes Won, Lost and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War, by Gary W. Gallagher. Copyright © 2008 by the University of North Carolina Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher (

Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.