The Stories We Love

From last Friday's thread on revenge-seeking Confederates, Cynic offers some perspective:


Perhaps 50,000 southern civilians perished during the war, an appallingly high total, although also a strikingly low ratio of civilian to military deaths. The overwhelming majority of those civilians died as a result of disease and malnutrition. A few were certainly caught in the crossfire But even battles waged in populated areas exacted a small toll in the lives of civilians; perhaps twenty civilians were killed during the bombardment of Atlanta. 

Things were bloodier along the frontier, in Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and neighboring states where guerilla warfare blurred the distinctions between combatants and civilians. Atrocities were committed by both sides - although, I hasten to add, hardly in equal measure. Even there, the deliberate murder of a woman would have been an extraordinary and rare event. There were also, among the Union forces, the usual share of thugs, thieves, brigands, and charlatans. Place millions under arms, endow them with the authority of the gun and the uniform, and some number will abuse that power - and Union soldiers were indeed tried and executed for murder. But if there is a documented historical incident that serves as the model for the narrative of the wife of a Confederate officer being deliberately murdered, I am unaware of it. 


So why is this storyline such a Hollywood favorite? Part of it, I think, is the enduring power of the Dunning School canard of Union forces ravaging a defenseless South. Note that these cinematic narratives all focus on the victimization of the flower of Southern womanhood. The Birth of a Nation apparently lives on in tinseltown. But perhaps even more important may be the appeal of the drifter. The winners of a war go home; but the story of the vanquished, his home destroyed, his life upended, is more tempting. On the other hand, Confederates are not terribly sympathetic figures. So throw in a raped and murdered wife, to transform him into a sympathetic victim of the war. Now the producer can applaud himself for conceiving of a storyline with genuine moral complexity. 

Genuine moral complexity? How about ex-Confederates working on the railroad, as thousands did, who wholeheartedly supported an evil cause and then struggled to reorient themselves after its defeat? Or, if we have to have a storyline of vengeance, how about a freedman who tried to build a respectable life for himself, only to have his wife murdered and his home burned down by redeemers offended by his claim to equal dignity? Now there's a storyline with ample precedents in the historical record.

As soon as you delve into the Civil War, you see that the Neo-Confederate strain is simply one of many potential Southern aesthetics. From George Thomas to Shadrach Minkins, narratives abound. I think, in addition to the fallacious notion of a victimized South, the sense that the Civil War was a "brother against brother" struggle, where both sides were morally equal still reins. So ex-Confederate translates into "veteran of brave but defeated Army," no "veteran of white supremacist Army."

Beyond that, I think there is the general ambiguity we all feel toward modernity. In that sense The Old South was not so much wrong, as it was outdated. In that rendering, The gallant Southerners are the brave knights and longbowmen, who could not cope with the arquebus. But still we look back at those old days with some degree of wistfulness. Or at least some of us do. Others have no such option.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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