American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley (second episode) – BBC 4

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It’s extremely annoying when people claim that the American Civil War was about Abraham Lincoln leading an anti-slavery crusade.  It wasn’t. So I was really looking forward to seeing some of those myths debunked, but this second episode of Lucy Worsley’s series just didn’t work as well as the first one did, because most of the  “fibs” being addressed just weren’t things that most people actually believe.  Does anyone genuinely believe that true racial equality in the United States exists even now, never mind that it was brought about in the 1860s?  And, much as I love Gone With The Wind, surely nobody today actually buys that frighteningly romanticised view of slavery?  Those “fibs” just can’t be compared with Paul Revere’s Ride and the ringing of the Liberty Bell, stories that actually do form part of American culture.  However, that’s not to say that the programme wasn’t interesting.  It was.  In particular, it showed just how dangerous the distortion of Civil War history has become in our own time.

As with the first episode, it had several barely-concealed digs at Donald Trump.  It began with a crack about “alternative facts”, and ended with a discussion of racism being immediately followed by a shot of a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap.  I don’t disagree, but the BBC is supposed to be neutral.  I’m so sick of all the bias in the media!  It’s getting worse and worse: it’s becoming almost impossible to find anything that just tells you what’s going on and leaves you to make up your own mind about it, rather than trying to force one viewpoint or another down your throat.  OK, rant over!

The programme started off with the Union myth of the Civil War, which, history being written by the victors and all that, is the official version.  Slavery and reunification.  Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves and saved the Union.  Incidentally, the programme utterly failed to point out that the biggest fib about the Civil War is that it was … er, a civil war.  It wasn’t.  USA versus CSA, not Northern USA versus Southern USA.  Having said which, the same happened with Yugoslavia in the 1990s.  It also reminded us that the war killed 600,000 people, more Americans than were killed in the First and Second World Wars combined.

There’s only so much you can fit into an hour, and, OK, there really wasn’t time to go into the Wilmot Proviso, Bleeding Kansas, popular sovereignty, the Compromise of 1850, Dred Scott, John Brown and so on and so forth, and so we just got a brief mention of the fact that there’d been disputes over whether or not slavery should be extended into the new states being organised in the West.  Then a historian saying that slavery in the southern states would have been worth trillions of dollars in today’s money.

The point being made was that concerns about slavery were economic rather than ideological.  I’m not sure how well that actually worked.  The northern and southern economies were developing along different lines, so it wasn’t really a question of competition; and a lot of the opposition to extending slavery west actually was ideological.  A lot of it was also due to the belief that slavery was actually bad for the economy, which didn’t tie in with what the programme was saying.  Slavery was, obviously hugely economically important for the South, but I’m not at all convinced that opposition to slavery in the North was also about economics.  I think all that talk about economics actually over-complicated things.  Debunking the myth?  Many people believed that slavery was wrong.  That didn’t mean that they wanted, or wanted their husbands and sons and brothers, to go off to fight in a war about it.  Myth debunked!

When we actually got to the war, it was oversimplified.  Yes, OK, there were time constraints, but that was no excuse for factual inaccuracies!  No, it was not a case of nineteen free states versus eleven slave states: Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri, all slave states, remained in the Union.  And, if you want to be thorough, West Virginia seceded from Virginia!  And there were not eleven states in the Confederacy at the time of Fort Sumter!  Having said which, the issue of the slave states which didn’t secede was mentioned when talking about the Confederate battle flag, which has thirteen stars because it includes Kentucky and Missouri.  And it was a fair point that what everyone thinks of as the Confederate flag is actually the Confederate battle flag.

Oversimplication’s one thing, but blatant errors are another.  The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued after three years of fighting, apparently.  Ahem … Fort Sumter, April 1861, Manassas/Bull Run, July 1861, Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, September 1862, to take effect in January, 1863.  How do you make that into three years of fighting?!

I rather bizarrely started thinking about The King and I, at this point.  I know that sounds daft, but international perceptions of the American South had been very deeply affected by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and a lot of people today say that the first time they heard of that book was when they first saw The King and I.  We also get Deborah Kerr proclaiming that Mr Lincoln is “fighting a great war to free the slaves”.  Yes, all right, all right, The King and I is hardly an accurate reflection of anything; but was that how the rest of the world saw it even at the time?  Quite possibly, yes. There’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Manchester city centre.  A letter was sent to him from the working men of Manchester (er, what about the working women?!) saying that they supported his war, his anti-slavery war.  Despite the terrible effects of the Cotton Famine.  By the way, why weren’t blockade runners mentioned in this programme?  If you want to talk about romanticising the Lost Cause, you need blockade runners!  Anyway.  Lincoln wrote back … and, whilst his letter mentioned slavery, he said that his main responsibility was the preservation of the Union.

So who’s inventing the myth?  The whole argument of this programme was that America was telling fibs about its own history, but I think there’s an argument that the myth of the war being an anti-slavery crusade existed outside America well before it existed within America.  It is definitely a myth, though.  Who’s the myth about, Lincoln or the Union?  That all got a bit confused, as well, but Lincoln has very much become the personification of the Union – which is daft in itself, because he wasn’t really that popular.

Lucy made two crucial points here.  Lincoln never seems to have been that keen on immediate emancipation, and certainly not in favour of equal rights for African Americans.  And the proclamation only declared the slaves free in the states of the Confederacy, not in the slave states which remained within the Union.  Battle Hymn of the Republic – “as he died to make men holy let us die to make men free”.  Was the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation supposed to make the war about slavery, even if not for ideological reasons on Lincoln’s own part than to boost morale and support in the North?  Or was it in the hope that the slaves of the South would all run off, knacker the Southern economy even more than it was knackered already and destroy Southern morale?

This is the crux of the matter … but, just as things were getting really interesting, the programme dropped the subject and started talking about Sherman’s march through Georgia.  It didn’t play Marching Through Georgia – you know, the one that gets used as a football song in England – for some reason, although it did play the Battle Hymn of the Republic, with Lucy dressed up as a Union soldier.  And it didn’t mention the infamous quote about presenting the city of Savannah to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present.  Was the march a great act of heroism or was it a war crime?  Well, read Gone With The Wind.  It may be biased, but it doesn’t say anything about Sherman’s march that wasn’t true.  But this all seemed to have got a bit waffly.

However, it got back to the point, with the events at Ebenezer Creek in December 1864, shortly before Savannah fell.  Many fleeing slaves were following the Union Army.  The Army looked on them as more of a nuisance than anything else.  Having crossed the creek, the Union XIV Corps destroyed the pontoon bridges which it had built.  The refugees tried to swim across.  Many of them drowned.  So much for “let us die to make men free”.

Back to Lincoln.  Why did the Gettysburg Address not get a mention in this?  That’s fascinating, because it talks about all men being created equal, but it means the question of whether or not the United States can survive, not whether or not black and white people are created equal.  It never got a mention.   However, we did hear a lot about Lincoln’s assassination.  Dying a violent death can often make someone into a saint and a martyr, whatever they’ve done during their lifetime – look at Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.  We were shown postcards showing pictures of Lincoln as a semi-divine figure – and Lucy commented on how the fact that he was assassinated on Good Friday seemed to add to that.  The great Frederick Douglass stated at the time that Lincoln wasn’t the great anti-slavery hero that he was made out to be, but the myth grew.

And, because he was dead, no-one could blame Lincoln for how badly wrong things went once the war was over.  The programme discussed sharecropping, and convict leasing.  Yes, it was appalling.  Yes, it makes a mockery of the idea that the war had anything to do with what we’d now call civil rights.  But it’s not a “fib”.  Everyone knows about it.

So that was the Union.  Well, it was Lincoln.  On to the Confederacy.  Various issues.  The romantic idea of the Lost Cause.  The distortion of Confederate history to try to justify horrifying violent racism.  And the argument that the war was about states’ rights.

Lucy said that it wasn’t about states’ rights – that it was about slavery.  I actually think that it was about states’ rights.  There’d been issues over tariffs going back to Calhoun and Nullification and all that.  But states’ rights were inevitably bound up with slavery, because the disputes between the states were inevitably about economics, and disputes about economics were inevitably about slavery.  So you can’t separate the two things.  However, what is indisputable is that Lincoln’s election brought matters to a head, and led to secession, because he was seen as being anti-slavery.  There’s not really much arguing with that.

But what the programme didn’t say was that the states’ rights argument goes hand-in-hand with the idea that the war was about Northern aggression.  More about that later.

Fast forward to 1915, and The Birth of a Nation.  It was controversial even at the time – and yet it got huge viewing figures.  Although it’s a Civil War film, its significance is in relation to the Ku Klux Klan – which, as Lucy said, had long since died out at this point, but now made a comeback, complete with white robes and burning crosses … which had nothing to do with the Reconstruction-era Klan.  Reconstruction era, OK.  The Klan did not exist during the Civil War itself.  It was more akin to the Spanish Inquisition than anything else, which was quite ironic as the new-look Klan targeted not only African Americans but anyone else who wasn’t a “WASP” – white Jews and Catholics.  That was more Know-Nothing than Civil War – and the Know Nothings were in the North!

So what’s the issue here?  Well, it’s the distortion of the Southern myth, by people in the South.  The myth was supposed to be that the war was about states’ rights.  Suddenly, the myth became that it was about the persecution of white Southerners.  Incredibly dangerous – and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the inter-war years, and on into the 1960s, were beyond sickening.  And it’s misusing Southern history.  The Klan didn’t even exist during the war.

And then from violence to romance – with Lucy Worsley trying to dress up as Scarlett O’Hara, and talking about the idea of the Lost Cause.

About Gone With The Wind.  It romanticises slavery.  Ashley Wilkes does say that he’d have freed all his family’s slaves when his father died, but Ashley is supposed to be out of step with everyone else.  It also presents some horrible stereotypes of African American characters such as Big Sam and Prissy.  And it romanticises plantation life in the antebellum South, although a) the book doesn’t do that as much as the film does and b) someone needs to tell Lucy that Scarlett was not the mistress of Tara (well, except very briefly).  What it does not do is romanticise the Glorious Cause, later the Lost Cause.  Throughout the book, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are very cynical about “the Cause”, and contemptuous of those who do romanticise it.

Going back to what it does do – yes, it shows how “the Cause” was romanticised, especially by women.  Margaret Mitchell said that she grew up hearing these stories.  She wasn’t born until 1900.  The United Daughters of the Confederacy had been founded only six years earlier, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans almost four years later, almost thirty years after the end of the war.   In this programme, we were told how, in the 1930s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy had people checking the textbooks used in the South, trying to ensure that they didn’t say anything negative about the Confederacy!   Seventy years after the war, two completely different versions of events, The Lost Cause and the Anti-Slavery Crusade, both completely one-sided, neither accurate, were being peddled.  That’s not unusual, after a war, but when it’s in what’s supposed to be one country … how do you move on?

And the descendants of the freed slaves weren’t really getting a look-in in putting forward either version, never mind getting equal rights.  Martin Luther King, as the programme pointed out, made a very powerful comment about the end of the war having offered black Americans a promissory note, which had never been redeemed.

There still isn’t really a … a take on the Civil War, for lack of a better way of putting it, from the viewpoint of slaves.  People argue about the extent to which the war was about slavery, but the views of those who were enslaved, and the impact on those who were enslaved, never really comes into those arguments.

Back to Gone With The Wind.  Yes, it’s a Civil War novel, but a lot of it is about life in wartime generally. One of the most powerful scenes in is when the casualty lists reach Atlanta, after the Battle of Gettysburg.  Scarlett, reading through the lists, finds name after name of young men she’d grown up with, known all her life.  She becomes so distressed that she can’t read on any further.  Rhett, normally so cynical, is upset and angry at the waste of life.  Mrs Meade learns that her son Darcy has been killed: Melanie tries to comfort her, but there’s little she can say.  The Misses McLure learn that their brother Dallas, their own relative in the world apart from each other, is dead.  Dallas’s sweetheart, Fanny Elsing, collapses in her mother’s arms.  That’s not about slavery, or secession, or any of it: that’s just about war and its devastating consquences.

Also, I’ve just said that it’s a Civil War novel, and that’s how everyone thinks of it, but much of it is actually set during Reconstruction.  Reconstruction was an absolute screw-up, and that’s partly why the “Lost Cause” got so romanticised.  It’s a big part of the myth of Lincoln as well.  If you’re succeeded by an idiot, history will remember you as one of the greats, because you look so good by comparison.  Barack Obama’s place in history is already secured!   It’s hard not to think that everything would have been different had Lincoln been in charge of Reconstruction, because he could hardly have done a worse job than Andrew Johnson’s useless government did.

And, after the war, Suellen O’Hara, one of Scarlett’s sisters, marries a Confederate veteran called Will Benteen.  Will typifies the South far more than the likes of Ashley Wilkes and the other men in the book do.  He comes from a relatively poor family.  It’s unlikely that he ever owned slaves: he wouldn’t have been able to afford to.  He had no political influence before the war: the decision about secession had nothing to do with him.  But he fought for his home state.  And, in doing so, he lost his health (he lost a leg) and his home.

None of this got a mention, and I thought that that was a bit unfair.  I don’t particularly mean in terms of characters in a novel, obviously!  I mean in general.

Lucy said that Gone With The Wind reunified the country!  I suppose it did, in a way.  It was so popular.  That’s a bit mad, really.  I mean, Melanie Wilkes, the sweet, mild-mannered Melanie, who couldn’t believe any ill of anyone, said that she’d teach her children and her grandchildren to hate the Yankees.  Should Northerners have hated  Gone With The Wind?  No.  It’s too good.  And its themes are universal, as typified by that scene with the Gettysburg casualty lists.  That’s the real tragedy of all this.  This war killed 600,000 Americans, and destroyed the lives of many others.   There’s nothing glorious about any war.  Yet this one’s been made to seem glorious in different ways, by different people, for different reasons.

And then on to the present day.  Charlottesville. We all know what happened at Charlottesville in 2017.  This is painful to write about, because it’s so horrible.  2017.  The twenty-first century.  I’m not a great fan of pulling statues down.  For one thing, it provides a flashpoint for trouble.  One man Lucy interviewed said that it’d make more sense to put up educational literature and use Confederate statues as a discussion point. However, what’s happening is that Confederate imagery – flags, statues – has become a modern-day battleground, between people who view it as a symbol of racism and people who use it as a symbol of racism, waving Confederate battle flags alongside Nazi flags, talking about Southern culture in the same breath as they shout anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic slogans.  It’s horrible: there aren’t words strong enough to say how horrible it is.

This is how history gets misused.  A primary school word like “fib” doesn’t exactly cover it.  And it makes it very hard to talk about the Civil War, because it’s got all tangled up with the “alt-right”, with anti-Islamism, with anti-Semitism, with misogyny, with homophobia, with transphobia … none of which have got anything to do with the Civil War.   It’s a long way from Will Benteen.  It’s a long way from Abraham Lincoln.

I once read a book which said that Britain still hadn’t got past all the issues of the Civil War of the 1640s.  America certainly hasn’t got past all the issues of the Civil War of the 1860s.  And the distortion of history is getting worse.  This was a very disturbing programme.  Did Gone With The Wind unify America, as Lucy suggested?  I only wish someone could come up with any sort of book or any sort of film that could bring about unity today!  Oh dear.  I started studying the American Civil War in the 1980s.  It really wasn’t like this, then.  Someone pour me a mint julep with extra whisky.  I think I need one!

 

4 thoughts on “American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley (second episode) – BBC 4

  1. Chris Deeley

    Typically brilliant! I still haven’t commented on the earlier episode involving ‘Patriots’ versus ‘Loyalists’. History will record Donald Trump as a more effective President than Barack Obama. Three of the main characters in ‘Gone with the Wind’ (film) were British! Roberts’ march from Kabul to Kandahar in 1880 was more impressive than Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’. ‘Synnove Solbakken’ by Bjornstjerne Bjornson is an example of a ‘unifying’ novel. ‘The King and I’ was banned in Thailand (hopefully still is). European army chiefs dismissed the American war as conflicts between ‘armed hordes’. (I would have said ‘armed rabble’.)

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