Stirring up the hornet’s nest

Judging from the reaction in the major media to Gov. Bob McDonnell’s reinstatement of Confederate History month, the starry cross of the Confederacy remains America’s most controversial icon.

The Saint Andrew’s cross embedded in this emblem can be seen as a symbol for the cross roads and cross currents of American history. For many Americans the flag is like a dagger to the heart, a painful reminder of the worst of America’s past injustices and persisting racial prejudices. To many others, the flag inspires pride in a heroic past, it stirs, even in Lincoln’s phrase, the “mystic chords of memory” for gallant and fearless warriors fighting for their independence. Each side finds it difficult to appreciate the genuine feelings of their counterparts or to reconcile the one viewpoint with the other.

The Civil War was a brutal episode in our history. More than a half million were killed and many more horribly wounded. Tens of thousands were made refugees. The suffering was beyond our reckoning. Individual heroism and courage, duty and honor, only make sense in the context of these trials and tribulations.

There are more than a few in the academy, in the media, in politics, who tend to reduce the fearful agony of the Civil War to simplistic jargon. They insist on seeing the war in terms of the good guys and the bad guys. In their self-appointed roles as cultural commissars they will not hesitate to ridicule or vilify those who deviate from their orthodoxy.

In his insightful essay, “The Legacy of the Civil War,” Robert Penn Warren posits the notions of two great myths persisting in the American consciousness — for the South, the Great Alibi and for the North, the Treasury of Virtue.

“Once the War was over,” says Warren, “the Confederacy became a City of the Soul . . . Only at the moment when Lee handed Grant his sword was the Confederacy born; or to state matters another way, in the moment of death the Confederacy entered upon its immortality.”

In the Great Alibi, in the attempt to recall and enshrine the best motives for Southern independence, the most repugnant factor is sometimes overlooked or de-emphasized — the issue of slavery.

“If the Southerner, with his Great Alibi, feels trapped by history, the Northerner, with his Treasury of Virtue, feels redeemed by history, automatically redeemed,” Warren continues. “He has in his pocket, not a Papal indulgence peddled by some wandering pardoner in the Middle Ages, but a plenary indulgence, for all sins past, present, and future, freely given by the hand of history.” Or, as Brook Adams once noted, “The Yankees went to war animated by the highest ideals of the nineteenth century middle classes? But what the Yankees achieved — for their generation at least — was a triumph not of middle-class ideals but of middle-class vices. The most striking products of their crusade were the shoddy aristocracy of the North and the ragged children of the South. Among the masses of Americans there were no victors, only the vanquished.”

More than a few film critics were miffed that “Gods and Generals” did not perpetuate the victor’s myth of a war waged against an evil Confederacy. They cling to their simplistic received wisdom as if it were Holy Writ. In “Hermanos,” William Herrick’s novel of the Spanish Civil War, a character responds to the conforming pressures of his Bolshevik party leaders in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade by saying, “They will hurt you the first time you tell them a truth they don’t want to hear.”

It is not the job of the filmmaker to reinforce the prejudices and tastes of the critics, the prevailing elites or even the general public. The filmmaker must resist, in advance, the pressure to say the right thing, utter the expected phrase. It may be a good career move and it may seduce a critic or two, but it will only invite contempt in the long run. One only has to look back over the last 100 years of filmmaking to separate the panderers from the iconoclasts, to distinguish those who offered up the easy answers from those who posed the hard questions.

Warren offers a cautionary note to future novelists, historians and yes, even filmmakers. “Moral narcissism is a peculiarly unlovely and unloveable trait, even when the narcissist happens to possess the virtues which he devotes his time congratulating himself upon.” It would be taking the easy path, seeking the approbation of those who guard the Treasury of Virtue, to present the Civil War as a contest between good and evil. Conversely, it would be all too tempting to strike the pose of the outrageous provocateur — to indulge in the perpetuation of the Great Alibi.

What has interested me as a filmmaker and chronicler of the Civil War are the hard choices that real people had to make, riven by divided loyalties and conflicting affections. Each historical character embodies their own internal struggle — their own personal civil war. “Gods and Generals” begins with a quote from George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” referring to the importance of place, of the local, of the particular. It sets the stage for the central dilemma. Humans by their very nature are attached to place and home. These attachments can be powerful in both constructive and destructive ways.

People are also attached to family and to group. They can be motivated by ideas and ideals. The characters in “Gods and Generals” are not immune to these forces. They are all, to a man and a woman, pulled and pushed by these conflicting allegiances.

In the film “patriotism” metamorphoses from a philosophical abstraction to an organic life force. For many 19th-century Southerners patriotism expressed a love of state and locality that seems strange if not incomprehensible to inhabitants of the new global community. For 19th-century Unionists, who found themselves on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, patriotism constituted a love of the entire country, from Penobscot Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. For African-Americans patriotism could mean all of the above, further influenced by the group identity and allegiance fostered by slavery in the South and prejudice in the North.

Martha, the domestic slave in the Beale family (played by Donzaleigh Abernathy, daughter of the great civil rights leader) has a genuine affection for the white children she has helped rear alongside her own. She is also tied by emotion, tradition and circumstance to the larger community of blacks, whose fate she shares. When Yankee looters come to ransack her home in Fredericksburg she will not let them pass. A few days later, when Yankee soldiers seek to requisition the same home as a hospital, she opens the door and attends to the wounded.

In “The Gulag Archipelago,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

A school of historians write about the forces of history, about ideology and determinism. Whatever truth there is in such analysis, it is not the place where individuals live out their lives. Ordinary people like you and me and the characters who inhabit my two Civil War films live their lives day by day, hoping to make the best of it with dignity, hoping to get by, simply to survive. They in their time, like we today, have bonds of affection across racial, religious, sexual, and political divides.

Warren provides a kind of credo for the filmmaker with the audacity to venture into these waters. “Historians, and readers of history too, should look twice at themselves when the (Civil War) is mentioned. It means that we should seek to end the obscene gratifications of history, and try to learn what the contemplation of the past, conducted with psychological depth and humane breadth, can do for us. What happens if, by the act of historical imagination — the historian’s and our own — we are transported into the documented, re-created moment of the past and, in a double vision, see the problems and values of that moment and those of our own, set against each other in mutual criticism and clarification? What happens if, in innocence, we can accept this process without trying to justify the present by the past or the past by the present?”

“(T)here is a discipline of the mind and heart, a discipline both humbling and enlarging, in the imaginative consideration of possibilities in the face of the unique facts of the irrevocable past. History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.”

Gov. McDonnell has done Virginians a great service in refocusing our attention on the central event of 19th-century America and perhaps of our entire history — which took place, after all, in our own backyards. “To experience the full imaginative appeal of the Civil War,” says Robert Penn Warren, ” . . . may be, in fact, the very ritual of being American.”

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About Ron Maxwell 8 Articles
Ron Maxwell: filmmaker, dog lover, tree hugger; moved to Rappahannock County in 2003. He is currently prepping a western entitled "Belle Starr."