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.