Saturday, December 27, 2003

Why I Won't be Watching (or Reading) Cold Mountain

For the same reason that I've never watched a single episode of Friends through from beginning to end: I don't have the time to waste on entertainment that airbrushes out black people. If it is ridiculous that a show supposedly set in New York could have no blacks, hispanics or Asians as regulars, it is the height of absurdity that an entire movie could be made about the American Civil War without putting any focus on the central issue at stake in that war - black slavery.

Flouncy dresses, Southern honour. Frankly, my dears, I don't ...

Ben MacIntyre

TO THE VICTOR the spoils: among these, usually, is the privilege of writing, and often rewriting, the history of the conflict in order to show that the winners were in the right and the losers were, well, losers, who deserved what they had coming to them. From the Roman conquests to the Second World War to the late unpleasantness in Iraq, the principle is the same: win the war, and you win the history.

The exception to this rule is the American Civil War. The Confederates were vanquished and the South economically ruined, the slave-owners deprived of their immoral human capital and bound back into a union most of them detested. The defeat could not have been more comprehensive.

And yet the great Lost Cause, began to be romanticised from the moment it was lost. Memory of the rebellion was maintained by ritual and nostalgia, the myth of the courageous Southern cavalier was forged, and groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy sprang up to honour the Confederate flag. Robert E. Lee was celebrated as the flower of Southern chivalry, in contrast to the brutal image of the North’s Ulysses S. Grant. The very names of Southern generals such as “Stonewall” Jackson were invested with a heroic twang.

Seen in this rosy but distorted light, the American Civil War was no longer fought over the question of slavery, but over economics and trade tariffs, in defence of states’ rights. Films like Birth of a Nation in 1915 and, even more emphatically, Gone with the Wind in 1939, reinforced the romance and glamour of the Old South as a place of ancient honour, flouncy dresses and fine Southern Gen’lemen.

Yesterday saw the release of Cold Mountain, the film of Charles Frazier’s novel about a Confederate soldier making his way home to the woman he loves. It is a beautiful novel, and the film is getting wildly enthusiastic reviews. But yet again, the Civil War has been shorn of its racial underpinnings and meaning. Indeed, there are virtually no black people in the film.

In Frazier’s book, the returning soldier is asked at one point whether he owns any slaves:

“No, not hardly anybody I knew did,” he replies.

“Then what stirred you up for fighting and dying?”

“Four years ago I maybe could have told you. Now I don’t know. I guess many of us fought to drive off the invaders.”

The war, in as much as its causes are examined at all, is a matter of self-defence, the classic Lost Cause argument. For modern consumption, the story has become one about the supremacy of love over war, a modern preoccupation. This does not prevent Cold Mountain from being a cracking read and an excellent film, but it does stop it from being history.


Two distinct strands of symbolism are at work. There are many who genuinely revere the old culture of the South, but there are also many for whom the symbols of the Confederacy are a thinly-disguised racist code. When Strom Thurmond ran his Dixiecrat presidential campaign in 1948 in defence of segregation, the icons and lore of the Confederacy were swiftly appropriated. (The same Strom Thurmond, it has emerged posthumously, fathered an unacknowledged child with a teenage black servant — another seldom-discussed Southern tradition.) As Tony Horwitz noted in his bestselling Civil War exploration Confederates in the Attic, in the market for Confederate memorabilia, the upstanding Robert E. Lee is outsold by Nathan Bedford Forrest, slave trader and first imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

There is a tendency to try to heal the lingering wounds of the Civil War by regarding the two sides as somehow morally co-equal. True, there were racists among the Northerners, and honourable, tolerant individuals among the Southern troops, just as there were other factors behind the rebel cause including independence, economics and a certain doomed gallantry. But the antebellum South also represented a grim culture of white slaveholders who can never be intellectually rehabilitated, and which no amount of retrospective romance and Hollywood gloss should be allowed to obscure.

The South was defending its rights, to be sure, but chief among these was the right to own slaves. To strip away the true significance and cause of the war is to give those who misuse its symbols today a free pass.

Unlike some American wars since, the Civil War had a right side and a wrong side. Whatever the acting performances of Nicole Kidman and Jude Law might have you feel, in the end the Civil War was about much more than just love, actually.

Few things do more to discredit conservatives than their strange reluctance to call it like it is about the Civil War and "Southern Heritage." Not all Southerners are racists - indeed, two of the best friends I have had have been white Southerners - and there are certainly plenty of bigots in the northern states of America, but to pretend that symbols like the Confederate flag, or historical personages like Jefferson Davis, can be shorn of their association with black slavery is as deceitful as to suggest that the Nazi flag or the person of Hermann Goering could someday be thought of merely as stand-ins for "German Pride."