In his 1926 comic masterpiece, The General, Buster Keaton plays the protagonist Johnny Gray, a Southerner declared unfit for active service in the Civil War but determined to fight for the Confederacy anyway. Defending the Southern sympathies of the film, Keaton explained, “It’s awful hard to make heroes out of the Yankees.”
Keaton’s stance wasn’t unique. The majority of American films dealing with the Civil War side with the Confederacy, finding it easier to make heroes of those who lost a war and fought to preserve chattel slavery. Key among them are Birth of a Nation (1916) and Gone With the Wind (1939), both acclaimed “Lost Cause” romances featuring kindly plantation owners, happy slaves, and gallant Confederate soldiers hopelessly outnumbered by marauding Yankees.
Gone With the Wind is, for many, the perfect expression of the “Lost Cause” rewrite of American history, celebrating an agrarian paradise of moonlight and magnolias. The film’s opening shots of contented slaves wandering home from the fields at sunset represent a beautiful, blameless world about to be overrun by “dollar-loving Yankee” hordes determined to free slaves who have no desire to be free. As the accompanying title-crawl reads:
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 ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind . . .
Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind also did much to set the terms for our collective cinematic memory of postwar Reconstruction. It’s generally recalled as a cruel and sordid era dominated by economically rapacious Northern “carpetbaggers” in league with barbaric black freedmen.
After Birth of a Nation, it was no longer acceptable in American films to feature the heroic Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue of nobly suffering Southern whites, but filmmakers found it easy enough to substitute a heroic Southern vigilante whose violent acts are justified by his suffering under the barbarism of invading Northerners.
That scenario is the catalyst for innumerable American films, from the first of many celebrations of Jesse James, Lost Cause hero and ex-Quantrill Raider-turned-bank-robber, in the 1908 film The James Boys in Missouri through the 1976 Clint Eastwood film The Outlaw Josey Wales to 1999’s Ride with the Devil. Thousands of romanticized Southerners ride through the Western genre wearing their lost honor culture like invisible suits of knightly armor: stoic heroes (Gary Cooper as The Virginian), gentleman reprobates seeking redemption (John Carradine as Hatfield in Stagecoach), and perpetually angry, tragi-comic sidekicks (Elisha Cook Jr as Stonewall in Shane).
So it’s no use imagining that, after Gone With the Wind, Americans films shifted sides dramatically at some point, providing us with a spate of pro-abolitionist, pro-Emancipation, pro-Union films. Maybe in the early Civil Rights era of the 1950s, for example — or surely at the height of 1960s counterculture? But no.
It’s shocking how few unambiguously pro-Union films have ever been made. Outside of Glory (1989) and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), few come to mind. Film buffs might know Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target, a magnificent 1951 film about the struggle to thwart an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln right before his inauguration, which adopts a resolutely pro-Union, antislavery position.
Then there’s John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage (1951), unquestionably centered on Union soldiers, even if its focus is the subjectively terrifying experience of fighting in a war rather than the cause being fought for. You can even make an argument to include Johnny Shiloh, a 1963 Disney “movie” that was really two TV episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney, about Johnny Clem, a real-life drummer boy who in his zeal to fight for the Union worked his way up to the rank of youngest non-commissioned officer in American military history.
But after that it may actually be possible to count pro-Union films on one hand. As Civil War scholar Gary W. Gallagher puts it, the Union “is Hollywood’s real lost cause.”
Even in films of recent decades, made at a time when there are indications that Americans are waking up from the dreadful spell of the Southern “Lost Cause” narrative, there is a dearth of abolitionist sentiment.
In hunting for pro-Union films, one finds only moments, single scenes, marginal characters, in films that are either pro-Confederacy, or war-is-hell pacifist films condemning the violence on both sides, or urging the reconciliation of white Northerners and Southerners, or featuring some other agenda that obscures any forceful endorsement of the emancipation of slaves. In the absence of anything more substantive, it’s easier to treasure even the brief moment in Citizen Kane (1941), when young boy Charles Foster Kane is playing outside in the snow and shouts, “The Union forever!”
When watching Civil War films, it’s a pleasant shock every time a soldier in a Yankee uniform isn’t represented as part of an undifferentiated horde of unworthy victors or hated occupiers, or as a villain stealing food out of the mouths of the poor, or about to set fire to a plantation house and possibly rape the Southern belle who’s hiding behind a pillar.
In the 1965 film Shenandoah, one scene features a dignified, sympathetic Union army officer played by George Kennedy, who’s trying to help the main character, a Virginian, locate his son in the bloody confusion between battles. It’s so downright startling to see a “good Yankee” in that normally demonized blue uniform (especially as played by George Kennedy, who was generally cast as a big-mouth lout) that by the time one’s faculties adjust to the unfamiliar sight, the scene is over.
I was briefly thrilled to run across an obscure 1931 film by “poverty row” studio Republic Pictures called The Lonely Trail starring a young John Wayne as a Union soldier returning home to Texas where his neighbors, all Confederate sympathizers, set out to make him pay for his disloyalty. I thought perhaps in such a low-budget Western, before John Wayne was a big name, they might take a chance on a Union soldier hero.
But it was just another Lost Cause movie in disguise. In its opening scene a fat corrupt carpetbagger named Benedict Holden is offering a box of expensive cigars to “Mr. Armstrong,” a man sitting on the opposite side of the desk, off-camera, promising him money in exchange for votes. The camera pans over to reveal a well-dressed black man taking one of the cigars and lighting it. It’s clear this revelation of Mr. Armstrong’s race is supposed to be shocking, because he’s being treated respectfully — though not for long, of course. Soon he’s “put in his place,” given his marching orders, and shouted out of Holden’s office.
But not before Mr. Armstrong actually makes a very sensible remark about the black vote, which might’ve led to an interesting movie if the narrative had followed him: “I expect I could get my people to vote for anybody who could show ’em some material benefits from this here Emancipation.”
Of course, the film doesn’t follow him. Any black characters encountered later are loyal to their previous owners, and struggling alongside them against post-war “Northern aggression.” In short, the film quickly reverts to a typical Reconstruction story emphasizing the sufferings of the white South. Wayne’s character, John Ashley, jumps in to defend his community, regain his neighbors’ trust, and win the heroine’s love. At one point, Ashley explains to her his decision to fight for the North, saying, “I had to do what I thought was right.” He never specifies what the “right” was.
This kind of evasion was no accident or anomaly — it was policy in the American film industry after the storm of controversy that greeted Birth of a Nation. There were fierce protests by the NAACP and the organization tried to have the film banned, while a resurgent Ku Klux Klan proudly marched in support of the film. For the generation of filmmakers to come, politicizing movies risked needlessly alienating some of their potential audience. They took the safe route and avoided contentious issues.
Even Gone With the Wind, which by contemporary standards looks like a truly appalling Lost Cause film, was carefully airbrushed at the script stage to remove its most racist and partisan points. References to both the Ku Klux Klan and empowered freedmen were removed. Scholar Thomas Cripps quotes producer David O. Selznick telling his screenwriter that he had no desire to “produce an anti-Negro film” and that Gone With the Wind must not become “an advertisement for intolerant societies in these fascist ridden times.”
As a result, when watching Gone With the Wind, one can easily miss the fact that Ashley Wilkes and his fellow white male Southerners are engaged in KKK vigilantism when they try to “clean out” the shantytown of poor black freedmen, after Scarlett O’Hara is attacked near there. No hooded sheets are worn, and the attack on the shantytown is not shown directly. We only get the seriocomic aftermath with Ward Bond playing an endearingly gullible Yankee officer fooled by Rhett Butler into thinking all the men were with him at a local brothel.
There were many ways of glossing over controversial aspects of the war. For example, as Bruce Chadwick points out in The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film, the majority of Civil War films begin after the shelling of Fort Sumter. By ignoring the South’s responsibility for starting the conflict, these films tend to represent a Confederacy victimized by an unprovoked invading army, or a mass of suffering soldiers and civilians of both North and South, caught up in a whirlwind of circumstances beyond anyone’s control.
If a no-fault war cannot be readily achieved, the next best thing is to stress that both sides had their drawbacks. The easiest way to do that is to condemn war and violence no matter what the cause. This is the path of Shenandoah. Made in 1965, it is generally noted as a turning point film of the Civil Rights era, when the Lost Cause narrative began to be challenged in American film.
Shenandoah makes an obvious end run around many divisive issues of the Civil War. It stars the least controversial of actors, Jimmy Stewart, as the patriarch of a Virginia farming clan who opposes slavery on principle and is determined to keep his family out of the war. Stewart’s Charlie Anderson is Thomas Jefferson’s idealized yeoman farmer, the embodiment of righteous independence, who conducts family dinner table conversations as informal models of democracy.
Of course, maintaining neutrality while battles are fought across your front lawn is almost comically impractical, and one Anderson family member after another gets picked off by Yankees or Rebs. Remarkably, Charlie Anderson is never drawn into the conflict beyond attempts to recover family members. It’s a pacifist narrative, with Stewart’s final monologue dismissing the Civil War as “like all wars, I guess. The undertakers are winning. And the politicians who talk about the glory of it.”
An overriding concern with preserving the family unit is generally a handy way for Civil War narratives to avoid dealing with what is at stake in the conflict, making the war a bad abstraction, pitting brother against brother in vague defense of different “ways of life.” Shenandoah edges toward a nominal thread of an emancipation narrative in the minor story of a slave named Gabriel, who is befriended by Anderson’s youngest son, Boy. Gabriel takes his freedom only when he’s told to take it: “You don’t have to go tell Mr. Anderson anything. You’re free.”
So Gabriel goes off to join the Yankees, which sets up the inevitable reconciliation scene when he finds himself fighting on the opposite side of a battle from Boy Anderson, his old friend. One half expects both of them to be shot so they can die in each others arms, a liberal integrationist’s version of the Northern-Southern white buddies in Birth of a Nation who die in a brotherly embrace. But instead, Gabriel carries the wounded Boy to safety so he can go back home to his worried pacifist Pa and unite the shattered remnants of the Anderson family.
While looking over the history of Civil War–related films in a desperate hunt for pro-North titles, it’s striking how there wasn’t so much as one admiring biopic of Ulysses S. Grant cranked out by Hollywood in the old days when admiring biopics of prominent Americans were a favorite genre. He’s a minor character in only a few films.
Even that racist, incompetent, unregenerate Confederate-loving impeached president Andrew Johnson got his own film: 1942’s Tennessee Johnson, starring Van Heflin. Lionel Barrymore plays his antagonist, the great Republican radical Thaddeus Stevens, portrayed here pushing for Johnson’s impeachment out of sheer vindictiveness. The film was regarded as useful World War II propaganda, making Johnson a hero of reconciliation and national unity.
However, a certain amount of protest attended the film’s production on the grounds that a movie celebrating a racist, pro-Southern extremist like Johnson wasn’t all that unifying. As Cripps notes in “The Absent Presence in American War Films,” Tennessee Johnson “faced protests from both the NAACP and the Communist Party as a result of which its maker, MGM, cut and reshot most references to African-Americans.”
There were also demands from progressive organizations that the “anti-Stevens libel” be softened, which were plainly ignored. Director William Dieterle even wrote a defense of Andrew Johnson that appeared in the Daily Worker, though in the film, Johnson was not allowed to call Abraham Lincoln “the old ape,” as originally scripted.
Speaking of Lincoln, it seems that reverent film bios of the sixteenth president are about the closest we have come to pro-Union narratives in American film. There are a number of those from the classic Hollywood studio era, but they’re remarkable in the way they tend to soothe Southern sensibilities by concentrating on Lincoln’s life when he is all promise and no controversy, as titles such as Young Mr. Lincoln and Abe Lincoln in Illinois attest: before he took office as president, before the Civil War, before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Films showing us the later Lincoln deal with the infinitely weary, loving-hearted, grandfatherly Lincoln, the saint just about to be martyred by an assassin’s bullet but spending his last moments forgiving the South everything and urging angry Northerners to do the same. For this portrait of Lincoln, look no further than Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, in which the president is visited by “Austin Stoneman” — read Thaddeus Stevens, Civil War cinema’s favorite villain, readily identified by his clubfooted limp and badly fitting wig. Griffith takes great pains to make these characteristics monstrous so that Stoneman is a twisted, creeping gargoyle manipulated by his black mistress, an evil, scheming loony. (This is a libel of Lydia Hamilton Smith, Stevens’ housekeeper and reputed common-law wife.)
Saint Lincoln dismisses Stoneman’s urgings to scourge defeated Southerners by saying, as if referring to nothing more serious than siblings seeking re-inclusion after leaving the last family reunion in a huff, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.”
We also get Saint Lincoln at the beginning of John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island when celebrating Northerners clamor outside the White House calling for a triumphal speech from their President. Lincoln instead calls for the band to play “Dixie,” “a tune I always liked.” Then the Northerners cheer again, indicating that had Lincoln lived he would’ve presided over the most complete and harmonious reconciliation two warring peoples ever enjoyed.
The president is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in the very next scene. The film goes on to condemn the vengeful barbarism of Northerners whose kangaroo court proceedings led to the hangings of the assassination co-conspirators — even Mary Surrat, a pathetic middle-aged woman! — and the cruel imprisonment of the noble innocent Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth’s broken leg when he was on the run from the law.
For a newer update of post–Civil War narratives of noble, innocent Southerners who never conspired to assassinate Lincoln, see the 2011 film The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford. It features Robin Wright as the improbably slender and beautiful Mary Surratt, asserting her martyred innocence with every tremulous chin-lift. At least John Ford did some wonderfully accurate casting of the conspirators in Prisoner of Shark Island, including the heavy-set, middle-aged, highly unglamorous Surratt.
The Conspirator makes a villain of Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s invaluable secretary of war, for his vigorous pursuit of the president’s assassins, by explicitly aligning him with Dick Cheney. Kevin Kline plays Stanton with a perpetual Cheney-esque sneer on his face as a way for Redford to align the post–Civil War trial of the conspirators with the post-9/11 attack on civil liberties in the name of national security. So Stanton is slandered in the service of vague post-millennial Hollywood liberalism, and Mary Surratt — whose innocence of the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln is very much in doubt — is whitewashed.
Just as I was giving up on ever finding an overlooked cache of pro-Union films, I ran across a lone scholarly reference to just such a treasure trove in Chadwick’s The Reel Civil War:
Movies were largely pro-Union through most of 1908 and early 1909, probably because of the success of the first version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin [in 1903]. But Southern theater owners, regional distributors, and moviegoers soon began to complain, particularly after the release of Escape From Andersonville, a one-reeler about the notorious Confederate prison camp in Georgia. A reader wrote to moving picture world in 1909, “Why do all the Civil War movies have the Northern army come out ahead?” His letter was not only a plea for a more balanced films but an indication that the reader, who lived in Florida, believed that the South had won the war.
Most scholarly studies of Civil War films start with Birth of a Nation, never acknowledging that there might be valuable antecedents. Further research backed up Chadwick’s claim. According to John B. Kuiper’s “Civil War Films: A Quantitative Description of a Genre,” out of 457 Civil War films made between 1897 and 1961, 29 percent are of a “Northern orientation,” as opposed to 42 percent Southern. Thirty-five Civil War films were made before 1909, and if Chadwick is right, most of those are pro-Union films. Still, that 29 percent is a startlingly high number, explained only by Kuiper’s caveat that “a film was considered a northern film if the action in it took place in the north . . .”
It just figures that the heyday of the pro-Union film would turn out to be the early silent film era. These are the films that are most likely to be lost, or to exist in archives if they survived at all. They’re the least accessible viewing experience to contemporary audiences.
And anyway, the pro-Northern film trend was soon cut short. By 1911, a new industry standard had been set by Confederacy fans D. W. Griffith and Thomas Ince, who romanticized the South and pro-reconciliation themes in their films.
There are many other factors that account for the swift shift from pro-North to pro-South. Early film studios were concentrated in the Northeast and tended to cater to audiences in the region, but by 1908 they began to move to warmer climes like Florida as well as west to California. Producers everywhere were delighted to discover an enthusiastic regional audience for films reflecting the Southern view of the Civil War, and found that these films did well in the North too.
All regions were seeking an escape from the ills of modernity in the agrarian Neverland of the Old South, and Griffith and Ince specialized in them, making so many influential pro-Confederacy films between them that together they may have turned the tide. The fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War led to a burst of anticipatory filmmaking — 1913 was the peak year, with ninety-five Civil War films. These films tended to advocate North-South reconciliation, and given Southern sensibilities, that meant narratives favoring the South. The “Grand Jubilee” celebrations of 1915 were crowned by Birth of a Nation.
What all these explanations ignore is how anomalous those early silent pro-Northern films were in an American popular culture that by the early twentieth century was thoroughly saturated with pro-Southern rhetoric. Beginning with the 1866 publication of Edward A. Pollard’s The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates, a process began which ensured that, in the South for sure, and to a remarkable extent in other regions of the nation as well, the winners would not write the history books. By the end of the century, histories, biographies, popular novels, plays, and patriotic art celebrating the Lost Cause were big business. Chivalric portraits of Robert E. Lee far outsold those of any other military figure from the Civil War.
In addition to the better-known Lost Cause phenomenon, the mythology of the “New South” ensured that popular rhetoric would celebrate the South’s present and future along with its supposedly glorious past. It began with a legendary speech given by Henry Grady, influential editor of the Atlanta Constitution, at the annual New England Society meeting in 1886. Grady painted a picture of can-do white Southerners who had laid down their arms at Appomattox and, without wasting a moment on regret or bitterness, immediately picked up their tools to rebuild a thriving modern society. The triumph of the “New South” only required reconciliation with — and investment dollars from — the North to complete the process of a happy reconstruction.
The “New South” speech was careful to incorporate plenty of “Lost Cause” rhetoric too. Grady instructed his audience to picture “the footsore Confederate soldier, as buttoning up his faded gray jacket . . . he turned his face southward from Appomattox in April, 1865. Think of him as ragged, half-starved, heavy-hearted, enfeebled by want and wounds . . .”
Once we get this noble wreck of a man home to a South devastated through no fault of its own, we have to make the biggest imaginative leap yet:
What does he do, this hero in gray with a heart of gold? Does he sit down in sullenness and despair? Not for a day. . . . As ruin was never so overwhelming, never was restoration swifter.”
That’s a scene right out of Gone With the Wind. Ashley Wilkes, having limped home in defeat in his tattered gray uniform, is very shortly found out in the muddy yard behind the slightly charred plantation house, splitting rails and joking, “They say Abe Lincoln got his start splitting rails. Just think to what heights I may climb!”
If Henry Grady’s speech seems like a tall tale believable only to a New Englander who’d never gotten nearer to the South than southern Vermont, wait for it, we haven’t gotten to Grady’s version of the fate of the Southern black population yet:
But what of the Negro? Have we solved the problem he presents or progressed in honor and equity towards the solution? Let the record speak to the point. No section shows a more prosperous laboring population than the Negroes of the South; none in fuller sympathy with the employing and landowning class.
Only the most avid desire to live in denial, believe in fairy tales, and embrace the improbable dream of the complete reconciliation of the white populations of the North and South — now that the entirely separate “Negro problem” was nicely solved — can account for the success of this speech. At the end of it, Grady was “mobbed where he stood” by congratulatory audience members. He subsequently went on a national tour with the speech, which was widely reprinted and enormously influential.
Taken together, the New South’s white-reconciliation message, the pro-industry cheerleading, and the rhetorical segregation of the “Negro problem” that hints at the vicious reality of Jim Crow laws help account for otherwise ignored aspects of Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and so many other Civil War films and Westerns.
The structure of Birth of a Nation, for example, with a white Northern family, the Stonemans, and a white Southern family, the Camerons, as friends before the war, wrongly parted by monsters like Austin Stoneman who are seeking to head a “black empire.” The whole urgency of the film is invested in putting down the rampaging threat of the black freedmen caused by corrupt Northerners, and reuniting the surviving members of the two families, in particular daughter Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) and son Ben Cameron, the “little Colonel” (Henry B. Walthall), who end the film leading the triumphal parade of the Ku Klux Klan, celebrating white Americans reunited.
In Gone With the Wind, tensions between the mythologies of Lost Cause and New South are expressed in tensions within and between characters. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are lively, charismatic New Southerners, inclined to scandalize their old-fashioned neighbors by doing business with Yankees and profiting handsomely while helping to rebuild Atlanta as a thriving industrial town. But both are also drawn to the supposed nobility and graceful living of the Old South, embodied by Ashley and Melanie Wilkes, the brave boys in gray, a host of faithful black servants, and Tara, the glorified plantation.
But together, the two mythologies are a terrifically powerful one-two punch. In Westerns, much of the Lost Cause and New South ideology is reconfigured and reenacted. In the periodic lulls when the popularity of the Civil War film waned — generally, during the World Wars — the “celluloid West was,” as Chadwick puts it, “the perfect place to move the homeless Civil War soldier.”
Agrarian utopias can take root in a sparsely settled wilderness, which also raises the possibility of growing townships, new industry, railroads, and all the trappings of modernity as either a threat or a promise, or both. The honor code of the Southern gentleman can be absorbed into and somewhat disguised by the character of the free-ranging Western hero whose past is often obscured. A cross-section of regional types from North and South can mix together in barrooms and on stagecoaches. And “the Negro problem” is nicely avoided out West, where slavery never spread. Or rather, it’s transformed into a common enemy that white Northerners and Southerners can fight together as “the Indian problem.”
This type of North-South unity is explicitly urged in countless Westerns from John Ford’s cavalry films to Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee. Only The Ox-bow Incident (1943), an anti-lynching “social problem film” in Western costume, stands out as a film offering up Southern “honor culture” as hypocritical barbarism. The Southern army officer Major Tetley (William Eyeth), always decked out in full gray-and-gold uniform, persuades a posse to enact the lynching of three men wrongly accused of murder, one of them a Mexican (played by Anthony Quinn). Claiming to stand as an implacable force for justice, Tetley is actually motivated by covert sadism. When the truth is revealed, he shoots himself. It’s like a reverse of the plot of The Virginian, in which the hero participates in the hanging of cattle rustlers, one of whom is his friend, because it is a matter of frontier justice and honor, and ultimately convinces everyone he’s in the right.
Still, The Ox-bow Incident tends to impress people as a film that’s vaguely against mob rule rather than significantly critical of the way the romanticized image of the Old South attempts to cover the reality of a culture built on the inherent cruelty and violence of slavery. Even when there’s a pointed anti-Southern critique, nobody seems to notice.
It’s possible that we’re so accustomed to filming reconciliation when dealing with the Civil War, we can find no other way to approach it. But it seems to me that the 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox calls for something a bit stronger and truer than America’s long placation of the South.
Where is our wave of films examining the Northern side, the Union cause, abolition, emancipation, Reconstruction as it was conceived and actually happened? It seems it would require little more than taking an interest in the realities of history — not the absurdly distorted Lost Cause mythology. Even a reasonably accurate biopic of Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman, Thaddeus Stevens or Edwin Stanton, Ulysses S. Grant or William Tecumseh Sherman, say, would embroil us in harsh facts and remarkable deeds that would do us good to witness.
The one film we know is coming our way in 2016 is The Free State of Jones, about a poor Southern farmer named Newton Knight who deserted the Confederate Army and set up his own little pro-Union state in the middle of rural Mississippi, forming a lasting common-law marriage with an ex-slave woman and somehow holding out for decades among hostile gun-toting neighbors eager to kill him. It’s a true story, based on the excellent biography The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer. I’d be pretty excited about the film, except for the fact that Gary Ross is directing it, and he’s already proven he can make uniformly bland films out of any source material (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games).
Then there’s an upcoming TV series called To Appomattox, about “the emotional lives of America’s Civil War generals, their wives and families — from West Point to Appomattox — against a backdrop of a war.” Damien Lewis plays Sherman, Jason O’Mara is Grant, D. B. Sweeney is Longstreet, Dwight Yoakum is Meade, Noah Wylie is Pickett . . .
And that miserable prospect pretty well sums up where we stand as far as the Civil War on film. If we can’t do any better than that, perhaps we might as well forget the whole thing. The “Lost Cause” is clearly bollocks, but trying to recover an unequivocally pro-Union, pro-Emancipation, pro-Northern view of the war may be itself a lost cause.