Book Review This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal by Nina Silber

Pat Young

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This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal by Nina Silber published by Univerity of North Carolina Press (2018) 234 pages. Hardcover $32.95 Kindle $14.74.​

When I think of how the Civil War was remembered in the 1930s, the movie Gone With the Wind inevitably spring to mind. In fact, the movie held such a large place in my parents' recollections of their memory of the times they grew up in, that it seemed to overshadow all else.

In reading Nina Silber's new book on Civil War memory in the 1930s and 1940s, I was struck by how much of that "memory" we have now forgotten. The 1930s were a time of finacial depression, personal suffering, and social ferment. Issues of the enslavement of whole peoples in Europe by the rising fascist tide and the possibilities of violent revolts in the United States made it an era of fear. The 1940s called for national unity and individual sacrifice in a war that would claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

The memory of the Civil War in this New Deal Era was never all "Midnight and Magnolias," as one might imagine from the dominance of Gone With the Wind. Sure, there were reactionary uses of the Civil War to call for white Southern unity against Black demands for inclusion, but there was also a growing recourse to the example of Lincoln as Emancipator by progressives to call for Federal government leadership in righting the economy and eliminating de jure racial discrimination. Heck, when the Communist-led American battalion went to fight Franco in Spain, they called themselves the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

The image of Lincoln, himself became fluid. Long the sole possession of the increasingly pro-business Republican Party, he was now claimed by Northern Democrats as a champion of the common man and by Blacks and radicals as the partner of Frederick Douglass in the civil rights struggle.

1936-1940 was the 75th Anniversary of the Civil War, and the commemoration was the first major milestone of the war celebrated without the veterans playing a major part in it. But the parks and historic sites would not be the main battlegrounds for refighting the war. It would be on screen, in books and magazines, and in the popular theater that the conflict would be sharpest.

Note: Due to its length, this review will be posted in several installments.
 
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Part 2:

One of the developments of the 1930s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the war, as against the 50th, was that African Americans insisted that their memory be heard. It wasnot often listened to, but at least their dissenting views registered with the public. Silber's book makes sure to include this too often overlooked set of voices. Silber writes:

If white northerners wavered on their Unionist principles, African Americans remained the nation’s most steadfast defenders of the Union cause and vigilant critics of the Confederate legacy. The Chicago Defender, for example, took particular pleasure in chastising Confederates who claimed to be patriotic Americans yet insisted that southern schoolchildren should not be forced to pay tribute to Lincoln. They also cheered on the Grand Army men, white and black, who refused to hold joint ceremonies with their Confederate counterparts. In 1931 they reminded their readers of this crucial distinction: that the Grand Army of the Republic “meets to commemorate union and liberty” while “the Confederate Veterans meet to commemorate slavery and treason. Think of what this country would be, what you would be, if Lee and not Grant had won the War of the Rebellion.” Not surprisingly, the Defender also gave prominent attention to the historic struggle for emancipation and kept its readers apprised of various Emancipation Day celebrations.
 
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Part 4:

The American white people had inherited a reconciliationist narrative from people who came of age in the 1890s and early 1900s. As the U.S. emerged on the international stage, it needed a way to reconcile the influential men of the sections as well as the demicratic masses. Silber writes:

The basic elements of that narrative went something like this: the Civil War had been a tragic break in the American family, a moment of division that resulted from a vague mix of constitutional and cultural differences. Slavery had played a part, but certainly not a decisive one, since both sections had contributed to the emergence and growth of that institution. The slaves themselves weren’t truly members of the family, only its stepchildren, or distant relatives. In the war itself, both Union and Confederate soldiers fought bravely and with distinction, although most accounts tended to see a bit more bravery and distinction on the part of Confederates, who, after all, had to battle against some pretty tough odds. In the end, all could agree that the war brought about the happy consolidation of a stronger United States, along with slave emancipation. There was, of course, the unfortunate aftermath of the war, when extremists in Lincoln’s Republican Party pushed a vengeful and punishing agenda—which in no way conformed to what Lincoln himself would have done—but once southern whites were allowed to return to “home rule,” bringing with them an unquestioned victory for “white supremacy,” national reunion was complete. (p. 20).
 

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Part 5:

The new generation of writers and artists openly challenged the conventions of the American past. The old narrative would be challenged, even if not quite overthrown. Push-back was inevitable, and the guiding light of the counterrevolution was the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

In 1931, the UDC moved forward with its effort to distract Americans from the Black freedom struggle by pushing for a monument to Heyward Shepherd, a black man killed by John Brown's raiders. The monument was erected in response to the growing appeciation of Brown in the African American community.

When the monumnet was dedicated in Harpers Ferry, the UDC president gave a speech on the loyalty of blacks to white dominance. At the end,the audience was shocked when the black music director of the town's black college, pearl Tatten, stood up and announced:

“I am the daughter of a Connecticut volunteer,” said Tatten, “who wore the blue and fought for the freedom of my people, for which John Brown struck the first blow. Today we are … pushing forward to a larger freedom, not in the spirit of the black mammy but in the spirit of freedom and rising youth.” Awkward silence followed.
 

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Part 6:

When thinking of the 1930s version of the Civil War, one factor that needs to be recalled is that it was not just viewed through the Lost Cause, Reconciliationist, or Black Emancipation paradigms of David Blight, strong though these remained among their adherents. It was also framed by the ezperiences of men who fought in World War I. They had seen war up close in its unpretty form. They often felt manipulated by patriotic calls to arms for a war of uncertain aims that seemed to prop up the British Empire and the international banking system. They wondered if the "war to end all wars" and the "war for democracy" was a mirror image of a cynical "war for the Union" and "war to end slavery." For some of these men, all wars were cynical dodges by con men who stayed off the front lines. Patriotic gore was sold to the suckers who were processed by the machinery of death into human pot roasts for convenient mass burial.

Sickened by war, this segment of society asked if the really brave people of the 1860s were those who tried to avoid war and who offered compromises rather than conflict. As millions of Americans soon hoped to appease Hitler to avoid a bloodbath, some wondered if cooler minds could have prevailed against the war-mongering of abolitionists and secessionists. Few African Americans fell into this camp, as you would expect, but many white Americans seemed to adopt a "peace at any price" attitude towards the Civil War.
 

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Part 7:

Having given us an overview of different attitudes towards the Civil War in the 1930s, Silber looks at the cutural artifacts from that decade that helped mould the consciousness of the American public. Of course, the biggest impact came from the movie Gone With the Wind, but it was neither the only, nor even the first, film of the decade on the war.

So Red the Rose, the story of members of the Southern planter elite, began life as a bestselling novel and was made into a movie in 1935. The King Vidor film portrayed a Lost Cause version of the Antebellum South filled with beautiful clothes on white people, enviable mansions for slave owners, and happy singing slaves.

Vidor decided the path to success was to make a film that even the UDC could love. He did. It failed.

Reviewers panned the movie for its anti-emancipationist sympathy for the dispossessed Southern aristocracy. It was widely seen as a propaganda film and failed at the box office accordingly.
 

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Part 8:

Hollywood saw the failure of the blatantly white supremacist message, but sought other ways to appeal to to a Southern white audience while not alienating theater-goers outside that region. A small corps of "professional Southerners" advised production teams on how to make movies "authentically Southern." Susan Myrick, a journalist from Macon Georgia, was particularly prized for her lack of sentimentality. She made sure that accents and clothing met Southern expectations.

Margaret Mitchell would insist that Myrick advise on Gone With the Wind, a film rich in Lost Cause mythology, although with central characters who defied Lost Cause stereotypes. Although Myrick insisted that not all plantation houses were grand and not all planters were gentlemen, the greatest of the Southern themed movies would be filled with both.
 

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Part 9:

The Civil War, or at least the post-war, was the setting for lesser known films like John Ford's Judge Priest starring Will Roger's. Since it is a humorous look at Confederate veterans getting on in years, it pokes fun at the UDC as a group more concerned with Confederate purity than with the well-being of aging veterans. The Yankees are long gone, so the real enemy is the propriety and prejudice of the children of the Confederate elite. Blacks appear as childlike men and mammies whose greatest pleasure is to accomadate white folks.
 

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In the war itself, both Union and Confederate soldiers fought bravely and with distinction, although most accounts tended to see a bit more bravery and distinction on the part of Confederates, who, after all, had to battle against some pretty tough odds.
Yeah, tough odds indeed. Two to one against the Union, for the most part. They did pretty danged well, under the circumstances.

Eleanor Roosevelt, in the 1930s made it her business to go to Black churches and to sit in segregated sections with African Americans in diverse congregations.

Her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Great Liberal Hero, did absolutely nothing for African Americans and in fact helped institutionalize racial discrimination through myriad federal policies. Don't even get me started on this.
 

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@Pat Young, did the author address federal home lending policies and how this may have impacted African American families?

Serious question.
 

Drew

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Why would he? It has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of his book.
Yes, it does. You guys think you're pure and good. You're not.

Show us what President Roosevelt did to help African Americans and I'm good.

Post the danged evidence.
 

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Yes, it does. You guys think you're pure and good. You're not.

Show us what President Roosevelt did to help African Americans and I'm good.

Post the danged evidence.
You're not paying attention. It has nothing to do with the topic of the book.
And nobody but you said or implied anything about "pure and good."
Typically, you are complaining about what's not there.
 

Drew

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You're not paying attention. It has nothing to do with the topic of the book.
And nobody but you said or implied anything about "pure and good."
Typically, you are complaining about what's not there.
You ought to re-read the OP and think about the Roosevelt Administration, before you accuse anyone of not paying attention.
 

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Part 10:

While films like Judge Priest hardly gave realistic presentations of black life, in one respect they were more realistic than earlier films. The movies of the 1930s no longer used white people in blackface to portray African Americans. This meant that productions on the Civil War Era were no longer Negro-Free Zones. The growth of a professional black acting corps during the 1930s would slowly help to wean Hollywood from its deeply racist portrayals of black people.

Silber writes of the immediate problem in the 1930s:

white producers, directors, actors, and audiences now had to deal with real-life black men and women, people far removed from a slave past...

These black actors could push backs on the demands of their roles.
 

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Part 11:

In 1939, the movie Gone With the Wind premiered in Atlanta. The many black actors who played roles in the film were barred from attending the opening night because of the city's Jim Crow laws. The production team sought the blessings of the UDC, but avoided catering to the censorious organization.
 

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Part 12:

The book jumps away from Gone With the Wind (temporarily) to raise a theme that will be repeated several times. According to Silber, "slavery" became a Civil War Era trope that was to dominate public consciousness in the 1930s. The slavery discussed was the enslavement of whites.

Of course, the labor movement had long denounced "wage slavery." With the Depression deepening, million of Americans felt enslaved. White slavery was said to be worse than "negro slavery" because blacks were used to it!

White working class Southerners claimed that they had been enslaved after the Civil War by racious Northern capitalists who had destroyed the agrarian way of life and forced them into the exploitative system of industrial capitalism. They had been enslaved following Emancipation.

Silber quotes the head of the Mississippi State Planning Commission who said that “The North set our slaves free but the North made the whole South slave.” (p. 69) Black slavery was replaced by the enslavement of a region.
 


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