Entry 17: The Battle of Hazzard County

The Dukes of Hazzard, “Treasure of Hazzard,” Season 2, Episode 16. Directed by Hollingsworth Morse. Written by Gy Waldron, William Raynor, and Myles Wilder.

Release Date: January 25, 1980.

Available here

In the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, I (like everyone else) wrote a piece about the Confederate Battle Flag. In part, I argued there was a brief period in the mid-to-late 20th century when popular culture appropriated the flag as merely a symbol of rebellion and the South, ostensibly devoid of any white supremacist connotations. I highlighted The Dukes of Hazzard as one of the primary examples of this phenomenon. The show subsequently became a focal point of this ongoing debate when TV Land pulled it due to the prominent placement of the flag on the roof of the Duke brothers’ famous car, “The General Lee.” The show indirectly also made news when Ben Jones–who played Cooter and, until recently, served as the “Chief of Heritage Operations” for the Sons of Confederate Veterans–made himself one of the flag’s most vocal defenders. In the wake of these developments, I decided to watch an episode for the first time in 30 years to measure how much Civil War memory really influenced the show. The second season episode, “Treasure of Hazzard” seemed like a good place to start, since it’s apparently the only episode that directly uses the war as a plot point.

However, no one watched this show for deep stories, and there isn’t much of one here. A professor from “State College” (former Miss Texas, Jeannie Wilson) shows up with a letter from a Union soldier who fought in the “Battle of Hazzard,” indicating he buried a lockbox containing a regimental payroll somewhere in the county to keep the Confederates from capturing it. She immediately encounters Bo and Luke Duke (John Schneider and Tom Wopat, respectively) who agree to help find it by taking the letter to Uncle Jesse (Denver Pyle), who uses the family Bible to decipher some of the letter’s 1860s geography. As the Dukes piece together the location of the lockbox, they are pursued by two groups hoping to take the money for themselves: goons working for series villain Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke) and two staffers from the local historical society. The episode culminates in a near 10-minute car chase (surprise! surprise!) before the Dukes locate the payroll, foil the historical society’s treachery, and trick Hogg into giving up the treasure by telling him he can keep all of the money if the professor gets everything else. The final twist is the lockbox only contains Confederate money, which is worthless to Hogg, while the real treasure is a letter from Abraham Lincoln ordering the Union commander to bury the payroll.

This all pretty innocuous, but the Lost Cause does bubble up in a couple places, especially when Uncle Jesse analyzes the professor’s map. It’s here that the episode first references the Civil War directly, but Jesse calls it the “War Between the States”–which has long been code for a pro-Confederate interpretation of the Civil War. He then references “Carpetbaggers,” suggesting he’s not too keen on Reconstruction either. Indeed, the episode (and, in some ways, the entire series) contains echoes of a pro-Confederate and pro-agrarian interpretation of southern history. The historical society folks don’t talk like southerners, making them sort of modern carpetbaggers using trickery to steal southern wealth (the professor also doesn’t have much of a southern accent and she’s a good guy, so maybe this is just inattention to detail). More interestingly, Hogg is a southerner, but an elitist member of the landowning class. He does nothing but consume food and scheme to take money away from the less-entitled residents of Hazzard. What’s more, his first and middle names are Jefferson and Davis–references to the leader of the plantation class’s boldest attempt to seize control of the region. Thus, we get a scenario in which both intrusive northerners and elitist southerners serve as parasitic opportunists, preying on “good ol'” yeoman farmers (and moonshiners) like the Dukes.

It’s in this last divide that I think the show’s ideology (however limited) really resides. The Dukes of Hazzard seems to celebrate Jeffersonian agrarianism (the belief that real Americans are landowning subsistence farmers) more so than an overt Lost Cause narrative. A pro-Confederate interpretation of the war is always there (one character remarks that the “Yankee are still runnin'” from the fictional Battle of Hazzard, which is ironic given the Confederacy’s poor track record in Georgia) and there is certainly a long tradition of tying Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian ideals to the Confederacy–or at least the Confederate soldier.

But then you think about that car and we end up right back where we started.

Regardless of how facile the show’s ideology might be and how little it directly references the actual events of the Civil War or the racial history of the South, its primary feature is a car named after the Confederacy’s greatest general, emblazoned with the Confederacy’s primary visual symbol, and fitted with a horn that plays the Confederacy’s unofficial national anthem. In light of what I saw in “Treasure of Hazzard,” I stand by my earlier interpretation that the show uses these symbols simply to represented “rebellion” and “South,” but we know these symbols mean more than just those two things. Removing the show seems like an extreme measure, but there’s absolutely a Lost Cause subtext here, however shallow, and that’s clearly a problem as the nation reckons with its racial and Civil War past. Banishing The Dukes of Hazzard is not an effective way of working through some of these issues and I’m a firm believer in the viability and availability of pop art, but maybe it’s wise to temporarily put it on a shelf while we’re still working out exactly what kind of a role Confederate memory should play in our popular culture.

Additional Dispatches:

  • I’m sure some of you are wondering why the Union lockbox was full of Confederate money. The writers seemed to have wondered too. The best they could manage was have the show’s narrator (Waylon Jennings) declare, “that’s a whole other story.”
  • Would a regimental payroll have amounted to much money anyway?
  • The professor may have risked her life for Lincoln’s letter, but boy does she handle it roughly. Same with the officer’s letter, which she crumples like crazy. My little documentary editor heart was breaking just watching her.
  • You can really see how Dukes aligned with the era of “jiggle TV.” Catherine Bach’s Daisy Duke unsurprisingly receives the brunt of this, being the subject of no less than two creepy scenes. In the first, two of Hogg’s henchmen discuss their desire to “pinch” her. In the second, one seemingly crawls into bed with her and the professor, uninvited. The episode also features a pair of young sex-starved female twins whose father has isolated them from young boys. Upon encountering Bo, they trap him in a net and conspire to take him off into the woods for some hanky panky. Only the arrival of their father saves Bo. You’d think it would end there, but the episode concludes with Bo happily riding off with the twins to presumably pick up where they left off.
  • Daisy’s jeep is called Dixie. Forgot about that.
  • Does it mention slavery? No, although Hogg does potentially make a slight reference when he castigates a henchman for calling him by name, saying “you call me boss, chief, or even master, but not Hogg.” The line–perhaps unintentionally–again links Hogg with a morally-corrupt landowning southern class by referencing its former use of slavery. It’s also tacky but, then again, so is the whole show.

Next Entry: Billy Idol, “Rebel Yell”

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5 comments

  1. Greg Eatroff · August 6, 2015

    Monthly pay for a full strength Union infantry regiment (roughly 1,000 officers and men) would have been somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000, but veteran regiments were much smaller. It was rare to find a veteran regiment that still could field as many as 500 after a couple of years of combat, and not uncommon to find units down below a quarter of their original strength. So the size of the payroll would depend on the size of the regiment, but it will be less than $15,000, probably a lot less.

    Of course antique currency that’s still in good condition could have collector’s value above the nominal value on the bills.

    • Christian McWhirter · August 6, 2015

      Thanks for the info. Probably wasn’t even enough money to pay for the auto damage to Hogg’s crew.

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