Entry 12: E.T. Wins the Civil War

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Ancient Aliens, “Aliens and the Civil War,” Season 7, Episode 9. Directed by Susan E. Leventhal. Written by Rhys Thomas and Max Thompson.

Release Date: April 10, 2015.

Remember when I praised the History [Channel] for including some current scholarship in its most recent Civil War documentary? Well, screw that, because the network aired this historical abomination between the two episodes of Blood and Glory, and I fear crap sandwiches like this are what the current History [Channel] is really about.

Until now, I only knew Ancient Aliens as the show with that “crazy hair guy” who’s become more meme than man. Having watched a full episode (which, sadly, did not include our mushroom-coiffed friend), more than a little anger has settled in alongside the mockery. I don’t know what I expected going in, but the tone of the show and the History [Channel]’s placement of it on their schedule the day after the Appomattox sesquicentennial lent it an air of authority that it certainly does not deserve. Indeed, I only found out about the episode because I watched Blood and Glory on the channel’s website, which constantly prompted me to watch Ancient Aliens as if it were a documentary of equal standing. Ancient Aliens even shares Blood and Glory‘s producer (Kevin Burns) and two of its writers.

To be sure, the History [Channel]’s narrator (Robert Clotworthy) never overtly states anything said by the show’s stable of talking heads is true, but he comes so close that the distinction is negligible. Every segment features a cluster of preposterous but sincere-sounding rhetorical questions–each wondering if some increasingly outlandish paranormal phenomenon is real, followed by the inevitable answer: “ancient astronaut theorists say yes.” While this isn’t a concrete endorsement by the History [Channel], the fact that this statement gets repeated at least five times an episode reinforces the impression that this is serious historical inquiry.

So, what do “ancient astronaut theorists” want you to believe about the Civil War? Here, broadly speaking, are their arguments:

  1. Joseph Smith predicted the Civil War in 1832 due to a vision granted him by aliens pretending to be the Angel Moroni.
  2. The antebellum period saw an increase in UFO sightings in the United States, according to sporadic newspaper reports of lights in the sky.
  3. Aliens were communicating with Abraham Lincoln through his dreams and interactions with spiritualists like Nettie Maynard. They guided him in managing the Union war effort and possibly dictated the Emancipation Proclamation.
  4. George McClellan also received a prophetic dream during the Peninsula Campaign, which was, in fact, aliens communicating with him.
  5. While marching to Little Round Top on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the men of 20th Maine reached a fork in the road and did not know which way to go. The ghost of George Washington appeared and pointed to the right path, thus allowing the regiment to secure the position and win the battle for the Union. That ghost was (you guessed it!) an alien.
  6. Ambrose Bierce gained the power to communicate with aliens after receiving a head wound at Kennesaw Mountain. His postwar fiction was primarily designed to accommodate readers to the idea of multiple dimensions (“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is just a description of two parallel universes–as if you didn’t know that already) and paranormal phenomena. This, he hoped, would mentally prepare Americans for the eventual arrival of extraterrestrials. The aliens rewarded Bierce by allowing him to live among them during his last years (sort of like David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey), which accounts for his 1913 disappearance.

Mind blown, right?

I originally considered using this post to debunk the show (for instance, Lincoln opposed Mary’s involvement with Maynard) or point out that it even gets some of its non-alien-related history wrong (contrary to popular belief, the 20th Maine did not single-handedly win Gettysburg). However, I think I’ll just let the above six points sit there and they can spin around in your brain like a Mobius strip (or make you throw up, if that suits you better). All have at least a vague connection to primary sources, but they demand the shallowest possible reading of those sources along with an additional leap that the already dubious paranormal or spiritual situations they describe are, in fact, all part of a cosmic pageant being performed by aliens.

And it’s that cosmic pageant that interests me the most because the overall argument of the “alien astronaut theorists” rests entirely on a belief in American exceptionalism. You see, the endgame for these aliens is to introduce themselves to humanity and, I suppose, issue us into the next phase of our evolution (again, shades of 2001). According to Ancient Aliens, extraterrestrials are particularly interested in the United States because an inclusive democratic society would supposedly be more receptive to alien life than a closed one. Thus, these aliens needed the Union to win the Civil War because defeat would have ended the “great American experiment” and destroyed modern democracy. In other words, this is the central theses of Lincoln’s “Second Annual Message to Congress” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” adapted to UFO mythology. Instead of democracy providing the “last best hope of earth” and God leading the Union Army to victory over slavery, we have the United States providing the “last best hope” of the galaxy with aliens shepherding the nation to cosmic glory. This is American exceptionalism stretched as far as it can go and maybe accounts for the appeal of Ancient Aliens to some American viewers. Seven(!) seasons in, the show keeps arguing that aliens have manipulated human history from the beginning and the ultimate culmination of that relationship (and, therefore, history itself) is the United States.

USA! USA! USA!

Additional Dispatches

  • I love that the show chose the Emancipation Proclamation to be the Lincoln document dictated by aliens. If so, Lincoln should have written it himself because it’s text is some of the most boring he ever wrote.
  • Does it mention slavery? Not much, except it sees the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery as the ultimate result of Lincoln’s association with aliens. I guess we can extrapolate that the aliens realized, like 19th Century Republicans and abolitionists, that slavery was inherently undemocratic and America was not a true democracy as long as slavery was legal. Either that or, you know, aliens!

Next Entry: Southern Accents

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6 comments

  1. satchel29 · May 2, 2015

    So according to these shows we’re all just “monkeys at the monolith” then? They do realize that the monoliths eventually decide to deal with our “exceptionalism” by trying to block out the sun and exterminate us, right?

    • Christian McWhirter · May 2, 2015

      “Ancient Astronaut Theorists” think being shot in the head gives you the power to communicate with aliens. Their secondhand Arthur C. Clarke mythology is the least of their problems.

  2. Karen Whitlock · April 30, 2015

    I gave up on the History Channel long ago. Even in their more legitimate programs, the goal seemed to be to make events seem more controversial than they are. And the music that underscored these programs was manipulative and maddening!

    • Christian McWhirter · April 30, 2015

      Thanks for the comment, Karen, and I’m glad you brought up the music. I mentioned in my last post that it was corny but this is doubly frustrating in a Civil War documentary, when there’s such an abundance of good period music out there. I suppose I can at least be glad they didn’t break out a theremin for Ancient Aliens.

  3. Sean Munger · April 30, 2015

    This crap makes me utterly furious. The whole “ancient aliens” thing is moronic to begin with, but to poison the Civil War with this intellectually dishonest and dangerous misinformation is totally unethical. The next time I teach an American history course I’m going to get stupid questions about this. I should send History Channel a bill for the time that will be wasted in class refuting this nonsense.

    • satchel29 · May 2, 2015

      Agreed, but at least this one is mostly harmless (even if infuriating). A few years ago I had to spend a lot of time convincing a large number of very troubled students that the world was NOT ending in December. The History Channel had been running 2012 programming virtually non-stop in the weeks leading up to the final date (22nd/ 23rd). In that case it wasn’t just nonsense, it was dangerous.

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