Welcome to my first blog, Civil War Pop. Here, I’ll examine a different piece of popular culture from or about the Civil War every week or so. I am a professional historian and an amateur critic, so my posts will primarily focus on how a film, song, game, story, etc. holds up against current historical consensus (or non-consensus) and how it reflects America’s popular memory of the Civil War Era (roughly, 1850-1876).
For those who aren’t familiar with me or my work, I’ve published one book, Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War, and written elsewhere about popular culture from and about the period. Going into this blog, I’m envisioning it as a sort of experiment – getting a sense of how pop culture has dealt with the war since the 1860s and trying to ascertain how we currently understand it as a culture.
Right off the bat, I can predict two major themes will emerge. The first and most significant will probably be an extended discussion of the Lost Cause interpretation of Civil War history and how it’s reflected in popular culture. “Lost Cause” refers to a pro-Confederate narrative of the war that emerged in the conflict’s aftermath. Its two main assertions were that slavery was not a major cause of the war and that Confederate defeat largely resulted from the North’s superior industry and manpower, not its prowess on the battlefield. Historians have generally dismissed the Lost Cause as an accurate narrative of the Civil War but it’s influence on American Memory is still felt. The subject is especially relevant here because popular culture has been critical to preserving and popularizing the Lost Cause, especially in the twentieth century.
The other theme likely to receive heavy attention here is what I call the “football analyst” school of Civil War history. It’s my perception that there is a large segment of Civil War enthusiasts who frequently reduce the conflict to a mere football game—a battle of wits and strength devoid of any political or ideological context. It’s the type of mindset that delights in debating whether Lee or Grant was a better commander or characterizes troop movements at Gettysburg like bloodless plays in a scoring drive, but isn’t concerned with the larger social, political, and cultural issues of the war. This is not a slight against military history, which I respect and occasionally practice, but against the “American Iliad” school, who view the war as a sort of American epic, rather than an actual event with real causes and consequences.
But I’ve rambled on long enough. I hope you’re all going to tag along with me on this journey through America’s past as Americans have told it to themselves. And let me say, as a parting note, that I consider this your journey as much as mine, so please share your own opinions in the comments and don’t be afraid to recommend future topics for me to discuss.
Thanks and let’s have fun with this.