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Popular Culture Forces that Have Aroused
Public Interest in the Civil War

by David Madden

Civil War Book Review, Winter 2005

A question frequently asked by bewildered Northerners and beguiled Southerners is: What is it that draws people in increasing numbers to re-investigate the Civil War era? I imagine that profound needs in the public psyche, of which most people are unaware, respond to the newest popular culture force--as to the first great force: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. The public mind does not normally take into account the ways it has been prepared for the next force to take effect, but the ground had been plowed, seeds sown.

Release of the film version of God and Generals raises this question: What is the obvious distinction between the romantic notion of the Civil War era and the more assiduously academic, and "accurate" (problematic word in this context), representation of the war? Over time, there have been changes in how the Civil War has been and is being depicted. These forces are so powerful that they do not just appear and eventually fade; they endure, and, as an accumulated group at any point in time, functions simultaneously, so that Gods and Generals, a force itself, draws added strength from the energy, still vibrant, of earlier popular culture forces.

The following list does not include the work of a single academic historian because my contention is that, generally speaking, Americans' interest in the Civil War has been monumentally stimulated by popular culture events and works far more than by academic history books. Each item listed has re-stimulated interest in the war and in previous events and novels and movies about the war, as when Gettysburg resurrected The Killer Angels, reinvigorated the re-enactor movement, and inspired Jeff Shaara to write his novels. Without Ken Burns' documentary, I doubt that a sufficient audience would have been prepared to respond to and make a great success of Gettysburg. Ken Burns, as a force, came on the scene when interest was relatively low; all Civil War works and events thereafter owe a great deal to the success of Burns's masterpiece.

Forces:

  • Uncle Tom's Cabin [1852]
    This story appeared in various forms: an internationally best-selling novel, long-running play, and silent and sound movie.When he met author Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lincoln said, "So this is the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war."
  • Reconstruction [1865-1876]
    This era was the great effect of the war, lasting over twice as long as the war itself and far more powerful in prolonging, especially in the South, its effects: violence, economic depression, racism, and mistrust of government, legacies that are alive today. In 1999 or so, Shelby Foote, on a panel with me in New Orleans, said: "There are two sins for which America can never atone: slavery and reconstruction."
  • Family histories (oral and written), monuments, family photographs and portraits, mostly in the South; and the ruins of mansions
  • Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty [1867]
    This first major Civil War novel focuses on a Louisiana family, and was written by
    John William De Forest, a former Union officer.
  • Battles and Leaders, 4 volumes, Century Co. [1887]
    These volumes are compilations of personal recollections and drawings. Here historians and the general public interested in the War meet.
  • Ulysses S. Grant's Memoirs [1885]
    Published and promoted by Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway called it a great work of American literature.
  • Creation of the National Park Service battlefields,
    especially Gettysburg [1895] and Vicksburg [1899]
  • The Red Badge of Courage [1895]
    This novel by Stephen Crane was a great force, even though it is about courage and war per se more than about the Civil War; the famous battle scenes are lifted almost verbatim from De Forest's novel.
  • Books of Civil War Photographs, especially Miller's
    Photographic History {Mathew Brady et al}, [1911]
  • The Birth of a Nation [1915]
    This movie was based on The Clansman, [1905], a novel by Thomas Dixon.
    It sustained Southern resentment over Reconstruction and serves as a slavery apologia.
  • Poet Carl Sandburg's multi-volume biography of Lincoln,
    appearing from 1926 to 1954.
  • Ordeal by Fire [1935]
    The paperback title of this nonfiction work is A Short History of the Civil War; it is everybody's favorite all-time short history. Author Fletcher Pratt was not an academic, but wrote many military works.
  • Gone with the Wind, novel [1937] and movie [1939]
    The movie had the greatest effect on my own perception of the war. I read
    no books on the War until I began writing my own Civil War novel, Sharpshooter.
  • Civil War Centennial [1961-1965]
    Programs were mainly controlled by academic historians, but many novels and nonfiction works were produced. The focus was narrow, celebratory, and commemorative.
  • The Civil War: A Narrative [1958-1963-1974]
    This nonfiction work was written by novelist Shelby Foote (see also his novel Shiloh, 1952).
  • The Confederate flag controversies, from the
    Civil Rights Era to the present
  • Glory [1989]
    This film brought a fresh perspective on the war, and paved the way for Ken Burns's documentary.
  • The Civil War [1990]
    This documentary movie by Ken Burns stimulated much greater interest in Foote's history.
  • Creation of The United States Civil War Center [1993]
  • Gettysburg [1993]
    This movie was written and directed by Ronald Maxwell. It stimulated resurrection
    of The Killer Angels [1974]. Though it won the Pulitzer Prize, at the time of publication, the novel was not a big seller. The movie was a major stimulation
    of the re-enactor movement, reinvigorator of Civil War Roundtables and,
    unintentionally, Neo-Confederate organizations, as was Burns's movie.
  • Cold Mountain, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel [1997] and movie [2003].
  • Gods and Generals, novel [1996] and movie [2003]
    While all his novels prove that he is a worthy successor to his father, Jeff Shaara should be regarded as a fine novelist in his own right. He takes a myriadminded approach, thus setting a vitally new pattern for others to follow in all genres and venues. The movie was written and directed by Ronald Maxwell, and focuses on General Stonewall Jackson and General Lee. Joshua Chamberlain provides Northern perspective on slavery.
  • The Last Full Measure [1997]
    This novel by Jeff Shaara is a sequel to The Killer Angels with focus on General Grant.



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