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Civil War

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Ted Turner, executive producer of “Gods and Generals,” which premiered in Washington this week, “didn’t set out to make an antiwar movie,” the Washington Post concluded in its coverage of the event, “but history is funny that way.” Not as funny as the Post, which managed to miss the entire point of the movie—that, as horrible as war might be and the American Civil War actually was, some things are worth killing and dying for. ["Washington's Front-Row Seat For History," By Roxanne Roberts, Washington Post, February 11, 2003]

Obsessed with the “VIP audience” that attended the world premiere and hypnotized by the celebrity of Mr. Turner, the Post was easily misled. As a not very important part of the VIP audience, I was not. In the first place, “Gods and Generals” is not an antiwar movie; it’s just a very honest movie about war. Its scrupulously accurate battle scenes lack the tasteless carnage of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” but nevertheless slam into your soul the horror of war, no matter how well justified. In the second place, the star of the evening was not Mr. Turner. It was the writer, producer and director of the film, Ron Maxwell.

Mr. Maxwell, noted for his earlier production of “Gettysburg,” based on Michael Shaara’s novel about the great Civil War battle, “The Killer Angels,” has turned out what is known today as a “prequel,” telling the story of the war from its beginnings after Virginia’s secession down to the Battle of Chancellorsville in May, 1863, two months before Gettysburg. The movie is based—loosely– on the novel of the same name by Mr. Shaara’s son, Jeff.

I say “loosely” because Mr. Maxwell essentially rewrote the book, which recounts the epic through the personal stories of several major players in it: Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Union war hero Joshua Chamberlain, and others. In Mr. Maxwell’s version, Jackson quickly emerges as the main hero, and the others tend to dwindle in comparison. There’s a reason for this: The real hero of the film is not so much Stonewall Jackson himself as what Mr. Maxwell argues he represents: A Southern civilization defined by religious faith and a ferocious determination to be free of Northern dominance.

That’s the point the Post managed to miss entirely, but you can bet your boots others won’t. For perhaps the first time since D.W. Griffith produced “Birth of a Nation” in 1915, Mr. Maxwell has had the courage and the vision to make a movie that tries to tell the Southern side of the war seriously. It’s a side that downplays slavery and race, a point the movies’ other critics are not going to drop.

It has now become a commonplace on both left and right that the Civil War was really about slavery and Abraham Lincoln’s righteous determination to abolish it, even at the cost of 600,000 American lives. That’s a huge historical blunder that Mr. Maxwell’s movie corrects. As he has Chamberlain explaining in the film, ending slavery was never an original war aim of the Union, and as both Lee and Jackson insist, it was resistance to Northern military aggression that pushed Virginia and the Upper South into secession, not a commitment to slavery.

Actor Stephen Lang’s performance as Jackson, driven by intense religious fires, dominates the movie. Mr. Maxwell is perhaps on weaker ground in having Jackson deliver a short sermon to a slave on how slavery is bound to end. From what I know of Jackson, he thought little about slavery, except to believe that God had established it. Mr. Maxwell may be skirting inaccuracy—and a certain amount of political correctness—in trying to ignore what was a genuine Southern belief that racial slavery was divinely ordained, though Lee himself (played in the movie by Robert Duvall) was a good deal less attached to the peculiar institution than many.

But the director is certainly right to say that for Virginians it was resistance to Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops to crush the “rebellion” in the Deep South that led the Old Dominion and its Upper South sisters out of the Union. Lincoln’s call for troops is what caused the war—not secession, not slavery, and not firing on Fort Sumter. The prospect of an American president sending troops to fight other Americans was too much for Virginians—and most other Southerners and many non-Southerners—to swallow.

And that, as Mr. Maxwell’s great movie tries to tell us, is what is really worth fighting for—national independence and the freedom that goes with it. These days, when we’re told that national sovereignty is on the way out and Americans are about to be dragooned into fighting yet another war for other peoples’ countries, it’s a point that no American, North or South, can afford to miss.

• Category: History • Tags: Civil War 
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The Confederate flag and most other white Southern symbols have been stripped down from almost all public monuments in the South and whatever other parts of the country might once have sported them, but white-haters still can’t let it go.

The most recent installment of white-hatred comes from Vanderbilt University, where a black professor is braying advocacy of something close to the outright genocide of white Southerners.

Jonathan David Farley is an assistant professor of mathematics at Vanderbilt and apparently spends more time calculating how many whites should decorate the local lamp posts than at what the school supposedly pays him to do. The latest spillage of the waste products that pass for his political ideas appeared in the Nashville Tennessean. [Jonathan Farley, "Remnants of the Confederacy glorifying a time of tyranny," November 20, 2002]

Mr. Farley wrote that “every Confederate soldier … deserved not a hallowed resting place at the end of his days but a reservation at the end of the gallows.”

Interpreted literally, and you can bet your Confederate nickels that’s how Mr. Farley wants it interpreted, that means Mr. Farley would have liked to murder several hundred thousand to a million white Southerners and thereby virtually exterminate whites in the South.

It’s not unlikely he entertains the same agenda for whites today.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy, he wrote, is an organization “that honors traitors,” while Confederate Gen. Bedford Forrest was a “19th century Hitler and modern-day Confederate heritage groups are “the new holocaust revisionists.” “The race problems that wrack the United States to this day are due largely to the fact that the Confederacy was not thoroughly destroyed, its leaders and soldiers executed, and their lands given to the landless freed slaves,” he trumpets.

Allen Sullivant, head of heritage defense for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, one of the heritage groups Mr. Farley thinks is indistinguishable from “holocaust revisionists,” says the professor is “just one of those people who’s got a real chip on his shoulder.”

You perhaps already guessed that.

The professor’s eruption in the Tennessean was hardly his first, however. In 1997 he ran for Congress (as a Green; surprisingly, he didn’t denounce the party’s name as racist) and quickly labeled his two rivals in the Democratic and Republican Parties as “two old white men with identical views.” Actually that’s probably not an inaccurate description, but Mr. Farley probably also thinks they should be executed along with the Confederate veterans.

A clue to where Professor Farley is coming from is that his real hero is Che Guevara, and his photograph on the university’s web page shows a grim-faced Mr. Farley with arms folded across his chest trying his best to look like a black Benito Mussolini in front of a picture of Che. You have to wonder if anyone has ever tried to tell the professor that his politics are about 40 years out of date; probably not, they’d end up on the gallows.

Mr. Farley [send him mail], and the university have been receiving quite a bit of e-mail recently from white Southerners outraged at what he said. No doubt they should be, but the more appropriate reaction to preposterous creatures like him is a good, long snicker.

The university’s vice chancellor, Michael Schoenfeld, [send him mail] is careful to explain to anyone interested in listening that “Professor Farley … does not represent Vanderbilt University’s policy, and his statements are neither supported nor endorsed by the university.”

No doubt we are all refreshed by learning that, but the school has to expect that if it hires great minds like Mr. Farley, it will receive more than its own fair share of snickers (or worse) as well.

What is a bit more frightening than the desperate and rather pathetic efforts of an unnoticeable mediocrity to attract attention to himself is the willingness of both the university and the Tennessean to give him a platform at all.

If Vanderbilt had a white teacher who posed before a picture of Hitler (or for that matter Bedford Forrest) and said the real reason the United States is “wracked” by race problems is that whites didn’t execute all the slaves instead of freeing them and making them citizens, would the university proclaim its neutrality with quite as much nonchalance as it does with Mr. Farley? Would the professor espousing such views get to spout them out in the Tennessean?

As such a hypothetical white man, paraphrasing Professor Farley, might write,

“The race problems that wrack the United States to this day are due largely to the fact that universities,newspapers, and similar institutions that permit and even encourage the expression of anti-white race hatred have not been thoroughly destroyed, their leaders executed, and their assets given to over-taxed whites.”

Of course, I neither support nor endorse such ideas myself.

But they are worth publishing—don’t you think?

• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Blacks, Civil War 
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You don’t hear much these days about the war against the Confederate Flag, especially since the flag’s enemies got their behinds kicked when they tried to remove a Confederate emblem from the Mississippi state flag through a state referendum last year. Nevertheless, don’t imagine the enemies of the flag and the heritage it represents are gone; like termites, they do their work when you don’t see them.

One major termite is historian David Brion Davis, probably the world’s leading authority on the history of slavery and no friend of the American South. In recent years, Mr. Davis has been complaining that the South actually won the American Civil War after all, since, within a few years of Appomattox, both North and South were making up and the great crusade for Emancipation and Reconstruction (not to say Retribution) had been shelved. In the July 18 issue of the New York Review of Books, Mr. Davis, a professor emeritus at Yale, [send him email] returns to his theme. ["The Terrible Cost of Reconciliation" New York Review of Books July 18, 2002]

Reviewing historian David Blight’s recent (and multiple prize-winning)Race and Reunion, Mr. Davis tells us that Blight tries to explain “one of the most troubling questions for the understanding of American history: why it became accepted wisdom … that states’ rights, not slavery, was the cause of the Civil War.”

Since conflict over states’ rights was the major cause of the war, you can see why Mr. Davis finds the “question” “troubling.” Lincoln explicitly denied that he intended to free the slaves, and the Upper South seceded and the war began only when he mobilized troops for invasion.

Mr. Blight’s answer to the troubling question seems to be that both Northerners and Southerners had other things to do and think about in the late 19th century than pushing the federal government into social and economic revolution along racial lines. One such better thing was to restore “sectional harmony” and forge a shared sense of national unity and identity that ignored racial issues and allowed Americans of both sections to live together.

Apparently, Mr. Davis and Mr. Blight regard this achievement as an immense blot on the national honor.

By 1913, the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, surviving veterans of both sides met amicably in their uniforms as “the ultimate triumph of national reconciliation at the African-Americans’ expense.”

“Try to imagine German veterans, in full Nazi uniform, shaking hands in 1994 with American veterans in uniform at the beaches of Normandy,” urges Mr. Davis.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine it; such meetings have occurred, and why shouldn’t they?

Mr. Davis apparently believes that wars should continue forever, until the Good Guys wipe out the Bad Guys to the last man, but aside from that, he also assumes that the conflicts in the Civil War and those in World War II were largely the same.

For most Americans, North and South, then and now, they weren’t, but for some, like Mr. Davis and the other professional foes of the South, they were. The Civil War to them was not simply a war between sectional interests or different views of the Constitution or different economic and cultural systems; it was a war to the death, the purpose of which was to extirpate evil—not just slavery but racial inequality specifically and inequality in general—from the face of the planet, to trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

For that kind of mind, war never ends, for the simple reason that what they think is so irredeemably evil is in fact part of human nature and the human condition.

The reaction against the war’s hidden agenda for social and racial reconstruction, Mr. Davis writes, led eventually to “a Southern ideological victory” that lasted until the 1960s. Then the “civil rights movement” and the happy days of the Great Society descended upon us, and the crusade was in business.

The result to date has been the wreckage of most American cities, the entrenchment of a black underclass, forced busing and affirmative action, mass immigration from the Third World, and a generation of racial hatred, vituperation and resentment, as well as the eradication of most symbols of the Southern and Confederate heritage and the beginnings of a war against American and white culture generally.

Where the new crusade will end no one knows (least of all Mr. Davis), but some are starting to guess, and the future doesn’t look much brighter.

One reason these crusades keep coming back is that the ideologues who incite them—like Mr. Davis—never have to live with their consequences.

The Americans, Northern or Southern, who actually had to fight the crusade and endure its aftermath did— which is one reason, fifty years later, those who survived were ready to shake hands and get on with what was left of their lives.

• Category: History • Tags: Civil War 
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If there was ever any doubt, it’s now beyond question that the American Civil War settled nothing and never even ended. Not only is the NAACP still waging war against the Confederate flag but now the Clinton administration is also waddling into the breach to make sure the nation’s Civil War battlefields teach the right messages. You may be able to guess what the Clinton crowd thinks the right message is.

Last year, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. managed to insert language in an appropriations bill requiring Civil War battlefield parks to “encourage” discussions of the role of slavery in causing the war. This year, Jackson and a platoon of left-leaning historians showed up at a National Park Service symposium to flap their jaws about the forthcoming discussions.

Kate Stevenson, the Park Service’s Associate Director for Cultural Resource Stewardship and Partnerships, and one of the Clinton administration’s major policy-makers on the battlefield issue, pronounces that “I don’t want to hear about battles when I go to a Civil War battlefield. I don’t care about battles.” She is by no means alone in her indifference to the history that really did take place on the battlefields and her passion for a history that never happened.

What John Latschar, superintendent at the Gettysburg battlefield park, wants visitors to learn is definitely not history. “I’m just absolutely convinced that we have a far more compelling need to move into the 21st century,” he told the Washington Times last week, “to give people the basic understanding of why the Civil War was fought, and the meaning of it all. … We can find that meaning in the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which is the new birth of freedom.” That’s much more important, he says, than “remembering the names of Union and Confederate generals.”

Of course, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address had nothing to do with why the war was fought; it was delivered two years after the war began, and Lincoln’s war aims had far less to do with the “new birth of freedom” his speech announced than clobbering the seceding Southerners and “preserving the union” at the point of the bayonet.

Nor did abolishing slavery have much to do with the war. Lincoln many times denied that was his aim, and slavery continued to exist in the North throughout the war and until the 13th Amendment after the war abolished it.

Latschar offers what he says is a “proper” way to tell the story of the war without stepping on any of the toes that still wiggle over it in both North and South. The only problem is that his account, as reported by the Times, is just plain wrong. “When 11 states seceded,” the Times reports Latschar’s version, “Lincoln responded by raising an army to invade the South to put down the rebellion.”

Well, not exactly. Only seven states seceded at first, and Lincoln didn’t raise an army to invade them. Only after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter did Lincoln call for troops and the other four states secede. Whether the secession was really an act of “rebellion” is a question that cannot and could not be resolved by war or by historical scholarship; it’s a matter of constitutional interpretation, whether the states had the right to secede or not.

Given the demonization of the South and all things connected to the Confederacy in recent years, it’s pretty clear what characters like the junior Jackson and his squad of leftish historians and pet bureaucrats want to do. They want to use the immense interest that Americans really feel for the Civil War to push their propaganda down the American throat, to preach about the evils of slavery and racism back then and then preach some more about the evils of slavery and racism today that the war failed to wipe off the face of the earth.

Shelby Foote, probably the most distinguished living historian of the Civil War, who conspicuously was not at the tame symposium put together by the Park Service, says, “We could argue that kind of stuff till doomsday,” and that’s probably the wisest thing to say about the whole issue. Some 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War when the arguments that started it failed to resolve the conflict, and no one has discovered any better ones since.

The battlefields are not the proper places to teach the causes of the war, let alone which side, if either, was right, nor is the National Park Service the proper teacher. The 11 million Americans who visit these fields every year are entirely capable of figuring out why the war was fought and who was right and who was wrong. If they’re wise, they won’t let the central event in their nation’s history be hijacked by propagandists.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Civil War, Political Correctness 
Sam Francis
About Sam Francis

Dr. Samuel T. Francis (1947-2005) was a leading paleoconservative columnist and intellectual theorist, serving as an adviser to the presidential campaigns of Patrick Buchanan and as an editorial writer, columnist, and editor at The Washington Times. He received the Distinguished Writing Award for Editorial Writing of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) in both 1989 and 1990, while being a finalist for the National Journalism Award (Walker Stone Prize) for Editorial Writing of the Scripps Howard Foundation those same years. His undergraduate education was at Johns Hopkins and he later earned his Ph.D. in modern history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

His books include The Soviet Strategy of Terror(1981, rev.1985), Power and History: The Political Thought of James Burnham (1984); Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism (1993); Revolution from the Middle: Essays and Articles from Chronicles, 1989–1996 (1997); and Thinkers of Our Time: James Burnham (1999). His published articles or reviews appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, National Review, The Spectator (London), The New American, The Occidental Quarterly, and Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, of which he was political editor and for which he wrote a monthly column, “Principalities and Powers.”