This is another of the papers I wrote for my U. S. History 1914-1945 class last year. It's long, but I hope you'll find it interesting. For those of you who are fans of Gone with the Wind, I apologize. Sometimes I just can't help myself!
If you stick around for future papers, you'll get a sense of deja vu, since I'll be using some of the same research again. And possibly again.
SELLING THE MYTH
Remember the war against Franco?
That’s the kind where each of us belongs
Though he may have won all the battles
We had all the good songs.
--Tom Lehrer, “The Folk Song Army,” 1965
Almost immediately after the Civil War ended a form of amnesia descended on both the North and the South. An estimated 3.9 million slaves, or more than 10% of the population of the country at the time, were freed, and both North and South were at a loss as to how to deal with the former slaves.
The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were passed between 1865 and 1870, giving black Americans suffrage and equal protection under the law. Former slaves could now vote, own property, receive an education, legally marry, sign contracts, file lawsuits, and hold political office. By 1868, 700,000 blacks were registered as voters, fourteen held seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and many held office in state legislatures. Blacks formed their own churches, schools, and organizations. With the help of the Freedman’s bureau, some 200,000 learned to read. Reconstruction was begun to enforce these amendments and bring the South back into the union. Under Reconstruction the first Ku Klux Klan was suppressed in 1871.
As with any long war, the country suffered from fatigue. Once the war ended, even the victors wanted to move on. As early as 1866 an editor of the Chicago Tribune is quoted by Phillip Leigh in his 2017 Southern Reconstruction as having written the following to Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull:
“You all in Washington must remember that the excitement of the great contest is dying out, and that commercial and industrial enterprises and pursuits are engaging a large share of public attention…people are more mindful of themselves than of any philanthropic scheme that looks to making Sambo a voter, juror and office holder.”
As the country’s attention turned to westward expansion, scandals in the Grant administration, and the economic crisis of 1873, its already limited appetite for reform waned. As part of the compromise to settle the contested election of 1876, Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction. Rutherford B. Hayes removed the last troops from the South in 1877.
After Reconstruction ended, the South implemented Jim Crow laws, suppressed voting rights, and many former slaves became sharecroppers, which gave the former slaves all the disadvantages of slavery without the upside of being fed and clothed by their former masters. Further, many still had no education and were at a disadvantage when it came time to calculate their share of earnings and powerless to do anything about it when they were cheated.
After Reconstruction, Northerners generally forgot about the former slaves and hoped the problem would go away. It was easy in the public mind to look back on the antebellum world as a time when things were simpler, chivalry ruled in the South, and so on. The country was ready for what became known as the myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.
The myth began very shortly after the war ended. Caroline E. Janney, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, writing in the Virginia Encyclopedia, traces the term to Edward A. Pollard, an editor of the Richmond Examiner, who published The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates in 1866. Other southern writers followed. The myth included six tenets, according to Ms. Janney. These are:
1. Secession, not slavery, caused the war.
2. African Americans were “faithful slaves,” loyal to their masters and the Confederate cause and unprepared for the responsibilities of freedom.
3. The Confederacy was defeated militarily only because of the Union’s overwhelming advantages in men and resources.
4. Confederate soldiers were heroic and saintly.
5. The most heroic and saintly of all Confederates was Robert E. Lee.
6. Southern women were loyal to the Confederate cause and sanctified by the sacrifice of their loved ones.
To those tenets should be added that the martyred Abraham Lincoln was a saintly man of the people, and, had he lived, he would never have imposed a harsh Reconstruction on the defeated South.
In 1907, Columbia University Professor William A. Dunning published Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865-1877. This book portrayed Reconstruction as an unmitigated evil. That view would prevail for much of the Twentieth Century. (My copy of the book, a 1962 Harper Torchbook edition found at an estate sale, contains a blurb by Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Donald saying, “[E]ven though many of its viewpoints are now controverted by modern historians, it remains the point of departure for all recent scholarship in the field.” A blurb by another Pulitzer Prize winner, Allan Nevins, concludes, “[The book] should be read at the beginning of all study of the period, and reread at the end.”) Academia was sold. Now to get the message to the masses.
The four films addressed in this paper, Birth of a Nation (1915), Abraham Lincoln (1930), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), and Gone with the Wind (also 1939) were made to appeal to their audiences and make money (tickets to see Birth of a Nation cost as much as $2—about $49 in today’s money—when most movies cost a dime), but they were also instrumental in imprinting the Lost Cause myth on a public that was more than willing to let the past be rewritten. Some, especially Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind (and especially Margaret Mitchell’s book, from which the movie was adapted), are more blatant in their proselytizing, but the two biographies of Lincoln, especially Abraham Lincoln, contribute to the mission as well.
Birth of a Nation is D. W. Griffith’s 1915 technical masterpiece describing the events leading to the Civil War, the war itself, Reconstruction, and how Southerners reacted to Reconstruction.
The story, based on The Clansman, a 1905 book by Thomas Dixon Jr., is told from the perspectives of two families who are friends—the Camerons, a Southern plantation family consisting of three sons and two daughters living in South Carolina, and the other a Northern abolitionist politician, Austin Stoneman, living in Pennsylvania with two sons and one daughter and spending time in Washington. The Southern family loses two sons in the war—the Northern family loses one—literally in the arms of one of the Southern family’s dying sons.
At War’s end, the Camerons are living in poverty, and Austin Stoneman is sponsoring Silas Lynch, a mulatto, for political office in South Carolina.
The film is almost as much an anti-war film as it is historical (or ahistorical, depending on one’s viewpoint). It was released in February 1915, almost seven months after what would become World War I began in Europe, and perhaps D. W. Griffith foresaw that the U. S. would have to decide whether to enter the war and was registering his opposition to our doing so.
By a scene at an abolitionist meeting in which one woman reacts to the smell of a black child, the film also briefly shows hypocrisy among abolitionists who, in Griffith’s world, wanted to free slaves but didn’t want to be near them.
The film came out fifty years after the Civil War ended, which was well within living memory at the time. For reference, 1968 is the same distance from 2018 as 1865 was to 1915, and the events of 1968—the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy as well as the Chicago Democratic National Convention to name a few—are still fresh and hotly debated today. So it was in 1915 with the Civil War and Reconstruction.
The film depicts some of the fears of the time—that blacks’ becoming too powerful would lead to political chaos, that blacks would disenfranchise whites, and that white women would not be safe.
A scene in the South Carolina statehouse portraying black lawmakers as not quite human drives the first point home; the second point is demonstrated by a scene in which blacks were allowed to vote while whites were not. Some former Confederate officials and military officers did lose the right to vote, but nearly all regained that right after a few years.
To emphasize the last point, that white women would not be safe—probably the worst and most politically effective fear and one that would be used to justify thousands of lynchings for decades to come, a placard held up at the Southern Union League reads, “Equal Rights, Equal Politics, Equal Marriage.” Silas Lynch frequently casts lascivious looks at Elsie, Austin Stoneman’s daughter, and eventually tells her he wants to marry her. The same happens to Flora Cameron, who jumps to her death when trapped by Gus, a freed slave who tells her he wants to marry her. Gus is soon lynched. Austin Stoneman supports Silas Lynch when Silas tells Stoneman he wants to marry a white woman, but he’s not so supportive when Silas tells him which white woman he has in mind. Given that the issue of consent on the part of the women doesn’t seem to be an issue, it’s tempting to conclude that “marriage” in this film is a euphemism for “rape.”
In response to the indignities heaped upon the South, Phil Stoneman comes up with the idea that becomes the Ku Klux Klan and brings back the good old days including disenfranchising blacks at gunpoint.
Most if not all of the black characters in this film appear to have been played by white actors in blackface.
The film emphasizes the saintly Lincoln version of history (in one scene Lincoln reprieves the remaining Cameron son from a death sentence) and shows just how well things were going after the Civil War until Lincoln was assassinated. D. W. Griffith evidently was relying on amnesia when driving this point home, since there were only six days between the end of the war and Lincoln’s death.
D. W. Griffith was born ten years after the end of the Civil War to a father who had been a Confederate colonel in that war. According to Dick Lehr in his 2014 The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War, Griffith idolized his father, who died when Griffith was ten as a result, according to Griffith, of a Civil War wound. Lehr posits the death was actually the result of too much food and bourbon. Griffith’s family was plunged into reduced circumstances when it was learned his father had three mortgages on his property to cover gambling and other debts. The land was lost, and Griffith’s mother moved to Louisville and attempted to earn a living running a boarding house. Griffith blamed his family’s poverty on the loss of his father, and his father’s death on the war. This was not going to be an objective film.
Griffith makes use of slides quoting Woodrow Wilson, who was president at the time and who had thus far “kept us out of war.”
The quotes from Wilson’s 1902 History of the American People demonstrate Wilson also suffered from the national amnesia:
“Adventurers swarmed out of the North as much the enemies of the one race as of the other, to cozen, beguile, and use the negroes (sic)… . In the villages the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority except as insolences
“…The policy of the Congressional leaders … wrought a veritable overthrow of Civilization in the South… in their determination to put the White South under the heel of the Black South.
“They were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South to protect the Southern Country.”
Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, died in August 1914, and the White House was in mourning when the film came out. Wilson, who felt he could not be seen watching a movie in public, allowed a special screening of the film at the White House and is reported to have pronounced it “…like writing history with lightening. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Some sources claim this quote is fake news, but it is consistent with Wilson’s actions as president.
Wilson was born in Virginia in 1856 and grew up in Georgia. In his 2013 biography, Wilson, A. Scott Berg says Wilson’s formative years during and after the Civil War shaped his views on race and his presidency.
Wilson’s views and his actions on race sparked protests at Princeton in 2016, where he was once president, seeking to remove his name from a building named after him. Whether it is reasonable or productive to impose Twenty-First Century views on a president who was a product of the Nineteenth Century is a topic for another paper.
Birth of a Nation also inspired William Joseph Simmons, an Atlanta physician, to form a fraternal group that would, with the help of some experienced public relations people, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke, become the resurgent Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. This KKK was so influential that, according to Linda Gordon’s 2017 The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, it became a national political force. It had the most members north of the Mason-Dixon line, especially in Ohio and Indiana, where most of the state government was under its thumb. Had the Klan not succumbed to sexual and financial irregularities, it’s difficult to know how far off the tracks the movement would have taken the country. Ms. Gordon ends the book in our current time, which is beyond the scope of this paper, but it appears once again sexual and financial irregularities may serve a purpose.
Abraham Lincoln, also a D. W. Griffith film, is a hagiographic look at the life of our sixteenth president. It begins on a slave ship in 1809, a year after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished. Many slaves have died on the ship, but the captain believes he has enough slaves left in the hold to make a good profit. A dead slave is unceremoniously dumped overboard. Next we see people in Virginia and Massachusetts who are willing to fight for their regions and believe only George Washington could have kept the Union together. We see Lincoln born, and we next see him in Illinois, where he fights the town toughs, drinks from a keg, and is accepted by the town. We see the rail splitter, an early adopter of multi-tasking, studying law while romancing Ann Rutledge, who dies, leaving Lincoln bereft. We see him again in 1840 meeting Mary Todd, who is portrayed as a scheming shrew. He misses his first wedding date after looking at a photo of Ann Rutledge, who had died in 1835, four years before photography was invented. Mary Todd and Lincoln are married in 1842.
Based on his performance in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, the Republican Party solicits Lincoln to run for president. Lincoln’s views on the Union are well-known. South Carolina secedes, and against the advice of his cabinet, Lincoln decides to defend Fort Sumter. The Civil War begins, Lincoln suffers through some battle losses and tells his wife he’s going to run the war. He chooses Grant as his general. Grant upsets Mary by smoking cigars in the White House. Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation (the film skips over the fact it was only a partial emancipation) and tells Grant the North “must win the war as a duty to the South as well as the North.” Grant is portrayed as a drunkard, which is a commonly held view of Grant that Rod Chernow disputes in his 2017 book, Grant.
Robert E. Lee and his army are portrayed sympathetically. The soldiers are ragged and many are shoeless. Lee is exhausted, but not too exhausted to overrule an order of execution for a spy. With Lee’s surrender in sight, Grant and Lincoln discuss what’s to happen after the war. Lincoln makes it clear he wants no executions and no property confiscated and that “We’re going to take them back as if they’d never been away,” which was also shown in Birth of a Nation to emphasize that Lincoln never intended to implement Reconstruction. We see John Wilkes Booth listing his grievances against Lincoln and plotting the assassination. The film ends with Lincoln’s death and a long take on the Lincoln Memorial, thus avoiding any discussion of Reconstruction.
The film was released in August 1930, ten months after the 1929 stock market crash. In those ten months the shock effects of the crash were rippling through the economy. Banks had used depositors’ money to make bad loans and speculate in the stock market and had no way to pay their depositors back. Banks failed, jobs vanished, and consumers not only had no money to buy new items, they could not make the payments on things they had already bought on the installment plan. Farms became more productive, but crop prices fell, so increased productivity actually worked against farmers, who were not breaking even. The worst was yet to come, but in 1930 things were bad enough. Perhaps D. W. Griffith was sending a message that people had survived bad times in the past and would do so again, and perhaps Griffiths’ portrayal of Lincoln taking charge of the war was a suggestion to Herbert Hoover that he should take action on the economic crisis.
The film was the first of Griffith’s two talkies and, in spite of a script by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Vincent Benet, it has not aged well.
Young Mr. Lincoln is John Ford’s Oscar-winning 1939 film about Abraham Lincoln’s early years, roughly from 1832 until 1842 (the latter year is determined from the fact the film ends before Lincoln’s marriage to Mary Todd, who makes an appearance in the movie).
The film begins with Lincoln running for office. He supports a national bank, internal improvements, and high protective tariffs. He buys a barrel of used books, some of which are law books. He courts Ann Rutledge, who dies, and Lincoln allows his fate to be determined by which way a stick falls at Ann Rutledge’s grave. He moves from New Salem, Illinois to Springfield, where he sets up a law practice. He presciently plays Dixie, which was written in 1859, on a mouth harp and meets Mary Todd at an Independence Day parade where a murder takes place. Lincoln singlehandedly faces down a lynch mob, successfully defends the accused murderers, solves the case, and rides off into a thunderstorm to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Lincoln is portrayed by Henry Fonda as an overly folksy and under pretentious everyman. The film, released in June 1939, came at a time when the country had suffered through nearly a decade of economic uncertainty and the Dust Bowl. Many farmers had lost or abandoned their land and moved to places where their prospects may or may not have improved. The film’s audience may have been able to relate to Lincoln’s telling the poor farm family of the accused murderers about how his family left its Kentucky home because they couldn’t compete with slave labor. Many people in the 1930s had also had left unprofitable land and had moved to what they hoped would be greener pastures (this writer’s father’s family among them).
A year after this film came out Henry Fonda played Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name about a family that left Oklahoma for California. That film was released in June 1940. On a somewhat humorous note, Joseph Stalin showed The Grapes of Wrath in the USSR to demonstrate how America was failing. The message Soviet viewers took away from the film was that in America even poor people had cars.
With the passing of time, Lincoln is being reassessed, and if anything, his reputation is enhanced by this reassessment. Instead of being perceived as a saint awaiting beatification, Lincoln’s intelligence, cunning, and pragmatism are being recognized. An excellent example of the modern take on our sixteenth president is Gore Vidal’s 2000 Lincoln: A Novel, which is technically fiction (as is the murder case in Young Mr. Lincoln), but it’s fact-filled and readable.
Gone with the Wind is David O. Selznick’s 1939 masterpiece based on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name. The film won ten Academy Awards, including one for Hattie McDaniel, making her the first African-American to win an Oscar. The film remains the highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation.
The main focus of the film is Scarlett O’Hara, who pursues a miserable Ashley Wilkes for twelve years. (Scarlett is sixteen when the film opens and admits to being twenty-eight at the end of the book.) Scarlett is pursued and, after Scarlett marries and buries two husbands, is married by Rhett Butler, who overheard Scarlett profess her love for Ashley at Twelve Oaks, the Wilkes’ plantation. After Scarlett’s first husband died, Rhett Butler told her at a fundraising ball early in the war he wants to hear Scarlett say the words she said to Ashley Wilkes in the overheard conversation. At the end of the film, Ashley is a widower, and Scarlett realizes she really wants Rhett who has decided, after Scarlett professes her love for him, that he is leaving her, after which she asks Rhett, “Where shall I go? What shall I do?” To which Rhett responds with the famous line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” So, for a short period of time each has what they’d pursued and decided, in the words of an Irving Berlin song, “after you get what you want, you don’t want it.”
The film is four hours long and is choked with subplots. Scarlett promises Ashley she’ll look after Ashley’s wife, Melanie, who is pregnant. As luck would have it, this leaves Scarlett and Prissy, Scarlett’s slave, alone with Melanie when Melanie goes into labor just as Atlanta is about to fall. Prissy has stated she is an expert on childbirth but has overstated her qualifications, for which Scarlett gives her a violent slap. As Scarlett seeks Dr. Meade, overhead shots of the massive number of dead and wounded in Atlanta drive home the toll the war has taken. The doctor, of course, cannot leave these thousands of soldiers to tend to a childbirth, so it’s up to Scarlett. Prissy finds Rhett, who rustles up a horse and buggy and takes Scarlett, Melanie, Prissy, and the baby part of the way to Tara. He leaves an annoyed Scarlett to join the war. Scarlett makes it past a ruined Twelve Oaks to Tara, which is standing but only because northern troops had used it as a headquarters. Scarlett finds her mother has died and her father is mentally unstable. As with the birth, the responsibility for her family and plantation falls on Scarlett. At this point Scarlett unearths a radish in the garden and swears that if she has to lie, cheat, or even kill, neither she nor her family will ever be hungry again. Shortly thereafter a lone Union soldier enters the house, and Scarlett shoots and buries him. The soldier has some money on him as well as some jewelry and (in the book) some coffee.
Carpetbaggers invade and raise the taxes on Tara. Scarlett is determined to keep Tara and to get the money for the taxes, she has a dress made out of her mother’s drapes (sans rod) and goes to Atlanta, where, after an unsuccessful encounter with Rhett, she settles for husband number two, Frank Kennedy, her sister Suellen’s intended, convincing him that Suellen has a new beau. Frank owns a general store and sells lumber on the side. Scarlett, observing the construction going on rebuilding Atlanta, realizes lumber is where the money is and takes over that business, which is a highly unusual action for a woman, and especially a married woman, to have taken not only in the Reconstruction era, but also at the time the book was written and the film was made.
Far be it for me to question the plot of a Pulitzer Prize winning best-selling book and one of the most successful movies of all time, but wouldn’t one expect Frank at least to verify whether Suellen actually had a new beau before marrying Scarlett?
While conducting business, Scarlett is attacked and nearly raped by inhabitants of a shantytown. Frank and some other men attend a “political meeting” that is in reality a Klan meeting set on cleaning out the shantytown. Rhett saves the day for everyone except Frank, who is killed. Rhett seizes the opportunity, proposes to Scarlett, and becomes husband number three.
A daughter is born and Rhett mounts a successful charm offensive so their daughter will be accepted in society. Scarlett is caught in a rather innocent scene with Ashley just before his surprise birthday party, word of the scene goes around town, and Rhett forces Scarlett to attend the party. Scarlett comes home, wants a drink, and comes downstairs to a waiting and drinking Rhett who winds up carrying Scarlett up the stairs and raping her.
In a scene that would cause apoplexy among the #MeToo movement were it in a film today, Scarlett is in an unusually good mood the next morning. Alas, Rhett is taking their daughter to London. When he comes back, Scarlett tells him she is pregnant. Things get nasty, and Scarlett falls down the stairs. She survives but miscarries. While she is recuperating, their daughter falls to her death from her pony. Melanie Wilkes is called to talk to Rhett, who will not allow the funeral to be held. After convincing Rhett to allow the funeral, Melanie, who is pregnant against her doctor’s advice, collapses.
The rest of the movie all happens so fast it’s difficult to reconcile all that’s going on in such a short period of time. Melanie, who has just collapsed, is dying. Rhett and Scarlett are in her parlor. What’s happened with their daughter’s funeral? Scarlett, who was just recuperating from her fall and miscarriage, is now in perfect health. At any rate, Melanie asks Scarlett to look after Ashley, Rhett leaves the Wilkes’ house, Scarlett decides she isn’t in love with Ashley, Rhett goes home and packs, Scarlett comes home and declares her love for Rhett, he leaves, and she decides to go to Tara for one last rendition of “Tara’s Theme.”
By the time the book came out in 1936, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy myth was received wisdom. The North had witnessed more than twenty years of the Great Migration, and racism was pervasive throughout the country.
When the film premiered in December 1939, the country had been in the Great Depression for nearly ten years. The dry west had been through the Dust Bowl. War had just broken out in Europe. People longed for a simpler time. The introduction to the film addresses both the Lost Cause myth and the longing for a simpler time:
“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South..
“Here in this pretty World Gallantry took its last bow.
“Here was the last to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave..
“Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered.
“A Civilization gone with the wind.”
The film, like Abraham Lincoln, dwells on the hardships suffered by the South, including the shoeless soldiers.
None of the three movies that deal with the Civil War address the fact that the war was no picnic for Northern troops, either, especially for those in prisoner of war camps such as Andersonville.
Like Birth of a Nation, Margaret Mitchell’s book is skeptical of war. At the barbecue at Twelve Oaks, early in the book, Grandpa McRae, upon hearing of the pro-war talk, enters the discussion:
“You fire-eating young bucks, listen to me. You don’t want to fight. I fought and I know. Went out in the Seminole War and was a big enough fool to go to the Mexican War, too. You all don’t know what war is. You think it’s riding a pretty horse and having the girls throw flowers at you and coming home a hero. Well, it ain’t. No, sir. It’s going hungry, and getting the measles and pneumonia from sleeping in the wet. And if it ain’t measles and pneumonia, it’s your bowels. Yes sir, what war does to a man’s bowels—dysentery and things like that—" But who wants to hear what old people have to say?
At a fundraiser for the convalescing soldiers, Rhett’s support of the Cause is questioned.
“Do I understand, sir, that you mean the Cause for which our heroes have died is not sacred?”
Rhett responds, “All wars are sacred to those who have to fight them. If the people who started wars didn’t make them sacred, who would be foolish enough to fight? But, no matter what rallying cries the orators give to the idiots who fight, no matter what noble purposes they assign to wars, there is never but one reason for a war. And that is money. All wars are in reality money squabbles. But so few people ever realize it. Their ears are too full of bugles and drums and fine words from stay-at-home orators. Sometimes the rallying cry is ‘Save the Tomb of Christ from the Heathen!’ Sometimes it’s ‘Down with Popery!” and sometimes ‘Liberty!’ and sometimes ‘Cotton, Slavery and States Rights!’”
Of course it would be impossible to put the entire thousand-plus page book in a movie that audiences would sit through (four hours is probably pushing the limit), but it’s interesting that, unlike the unabashedly anti-war Birth of a Nation, the only anti-war sentiments that filtered from the book to the movie are Rhett’s and Ashley’s cautions at the beginning of the film.
Perhaps Margaret Mitchell’s anti-war sentiments were lost on the cutting room floor. Perhaps David Selznick was concerned that if, as happened in World War I, America joined in the war, the film would be perceived as anti-American and would be censored or banned. Perhaps Selznick, whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, did not want to prevent Americans from being prepared for an increasingly likely war with a violently antisemitic Germany, which had invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938 and Poland in 1939.
In the book Scarlett is a much more complicated character than she is on film. Each of her first two marriages produced a child, and Scarlett considers aborting her third pregnancy. While married to Frank Kennedy, Scarlett does business with the hated Yankees, who are building homes, have money, and need lumber, which Scarlett sells.
Mitchell calls out Northern hypocrisy when one of Scarlett’s customers, a woman from Maine, asks Scarlett where she could find a replacement for an Irish nurse for her children. Scarlett suggests she hire one of the many black women who are looking for work as a result of being freed. The woman rejects that suggestion using vile, racist language that offends Scarlett’s black driver.
Scarlett replies, “It’s strange you should feel that way when it was you all who freed them.”
The woman responds, “Lor’! Not I, dearie,” and continues with more vile, racist remarks.
The campaign for the Lost Cause myth was a successful one. For decades students were taught slaves had been better off before emancipation and that the end of Reconstruction allowed the South to put things in their natural order.
In 1930, the same year Abraham Lincoln was released, Eliot Morrison and Henry Steele Commager wrote in their widely-used textbook, Growth of the American Republic, “As for Sambo, whose wrongs moved abolitionists to tears, there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its peculiar institution.”
The Literature of the South, by Richard Croom Beatty, et. al., published in 1952 by the textbook publisher, Scott Foresman Company, describes the post-war years as follows:
“With national politics in the hands of vindictive and often unscrupulous men, Reconstruction measures were such as to rub salt into the still sensitive wounds made by the Civil War…
“Corruption in the South was so bad that the Ku Klux Klan was organized, under such leaders as Nathan Bedford Forrest, to fight radical Reconstruction policies and to reestablish white supremacy.
“Beginning in 1874, however, a number of occurrences brought about a healthier national attitude toward the South. [Radicals] were defeated at the polls; the Supreme Court, following the election returns, reversed opinions issued a few years earlier and abolished the legal basis for Reconstruction policies. One of the first acts of the newly elected Congress was to relinquish control of the Southern racial problems.”
John D. Hicks, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, writes in his The American Nation: A History of the United States from 1865 to the Present, Third Edition, a college textbook published by Houghton Mifflin in 1955, “The reconstruction of the South was badly done. After the death of Lincoln, the government of the United States fell into the hands of crass and cruel men who scrupled at nothing in the achievement of their ends. Andrew Johnson, a Southerner who comprehended the problems of the South, was first swept out of power, then out of office, and with General Grant as an ineffective front the Radicals in Congress had their way.”
Such was the version of Reconstruction taught in public schools and universities for much of the Twentieth Century, including the years I attended. It was the only version I was exposed to until I took some graduate courses at Ohio State in the 1970s, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is still a mark in the floor of the classroom where my jaw dropped when I first learned another viewpoint existed.
To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, the North may have won the war, but for a good part of the last century the South won the narrative.
And even now the myth lives on. Just this month Cindy Hyde-Smith won election to the U. S. Senate after her embrace of the myth and her 2007 sponsorship of a resolution in the Mississippi state senate to honor a 92-year-old daughter of a Confederate soldier who “fought to defend his homeland.”