How Much Civil War is in Star Wars?

A ragtag group of rebels sustain an extended military revolution through pure gumption and righteousness against an omnipresent, corrupt, industrial empire. Sound familiar? You either just recognized the underlying narrative of the Lost Cause or, more likely, the plot of the most popular and influential franchise in film history. Star Wars never really left us, but it’s been inescapable for the past few months as we await The Force Awakens. I have only a scant impression of where this trilogy is going but I do know that, when George Lucas was in charge, the series wore its historical influences on its sleeves. Star Wars is often touted as an adept melange of Lucas’s cinematic influences, but it’s also a collection of historical echoes and allusions that resonate enough with audiences to add familiarity without becoming overbearingly allegorical. That begs the question: how much of the American Civil War is mixed into the Galactic Civil War?

Lucas’s historical influences are varied and it’s worth noting at the outset that, if the Civil War is among them, it’s not prominent. Much has been made of how the original trilogy hit theaters in the wake of the Vietnam War—seemingly making the Rebel Alliance stand-ins for the North Vietnamese against an evil overbearing American Empire—but there are a host of other historical influences. The Empire primarily gets its look and feel from Nazi Germany mixed with elements of the British Empire (everyone evil, except Darth Vader, has a British accent) and ancient Rome (the Emperor’s name, Palpatine, suggests “Palatine,” the hill that housed the Roman imperial palace). The Jedi are a similar melting pot, combining elements of the samurai, Shaolin monks, and Medieval knights. But the film is an American film and the repeated references to “rebels” courageously standing up to overwhelming odds vaguely suggests the pro-Confederate narrative established by the Lost Cause. When you factor in the Lost Cause’s domination of Hollywood depictions of the Civil War for most of the 20th Century, you have to wonder if it was rattling around somewhere in Lucas’s head.

Overt references to the Civil War in Star Wars are tough to pin down. However, there is one seemingly innocuous but difficult to dismiss example in the middle film of the prequel trilogy, Attack of the Clones. The prequels are less satisfying entertainment but they allude to historical events just as much as their predecessors—initially mirroring the transformation of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire and later serving as a parable for American centralization during the War on Terror (especially in the last film, Revenge of the Sith, as Lucas suggested himself). But I distinctly remember sitting in the theater for my first and only viewing of Attack of the Clones and finding myself startled when Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) assembles his army of Stormtroopers and declares them “The Grand Army of the Republic!” The copious and obsessively devoted Star Wars fanbase even uses “GAR” as shortform, just like Civil War historians. Is this reference coincidental?

Coruscant GAR Post No. 1 (Camp Vader).

It’s difficult to say if Lucas was aware of the Union veterans’ organization and, if so, that he was purposefully linking Palpatine’s massive agent for galactic oppression with Abraham Lincoln’s massive agent for restoring the Union. The allusion would certainly fit with modern libertarian criticisms of Lincoln—viewing him as a despot who used the Civil War to create a proto-fascist federal government that eventually grew into a global empire. At the very least, the reference draws out the faint echoes of Civil War memory lying behind the previous four films, especially the repeated references to “rebels.” Students at Ole Miss picked up on this subtext when they were asked to suggest a new mascot to replace the recently-banned Nathan Bedford Forrest caricature, Colonel Reb, and chose Rebel Alliance admiral and frequent trap-related meme subject, Admiral Ackbar.

Admiral Ackbar doing his thing.

Admittedly, this isn’t much to go on. At the very least, Lucas’s vague references to the Civil War highlight the ubiquity of the Lost Cause in Hollywood history. Like Quentin Tarantino today, Lucas proudly touted his films as a reflecting his myriad influences—and most of those came from old Hollywood and popular history. The Lost Cause claimed a prominent place in both, so it must have bled into his thinking as he created his fictional conflict in a galaxy far, far away. If the new films continue to draw on history for their stories, it will be interesting to see if the Civil War pokes its head out of the laser beams and force chokes.

And, hey, isn’t that Robert E. Lee leading the Rebel assault on the Death Star?

It is well that the Dark Side is so terrible—we would grow too fond of it.

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13 comments

  1. Jeremy · December 17, 2015

    Nice read. I’ve always wondered: Why would anyone ever yell before entering battle?

  2. Meg Groeling · December 17, 2015

    For anyone’s information, LucasFilms, in San Francisco, is housed in the old Letterman Hospital–and it is still called the Letterman Building–that’s Dr. Jonathan Letterman of the Army of the Potomac . . .

  3. Pingback: New Orleans & Rebels; Star Wars & Rebels | History Headlines
  4. gdbrasher · December 17, 2015

    Good stuff, Christian. Also, I would add, don’t forget that in order to receive his centralized power and GAR, Palpatine covertly engineered an attempt by “thousands” of star systems to secede from the Republic. It is crushing this rebellion that gains him the powers and forces he needs to create the Empire. Obviously, as you point out, there is Roman history in there, but I think you are right that there is some distorted Civil War history in there too. Labeling that army as the GAR can’t just be a coincidence. Now, if we could just find proof that Lincoln actually engineered secession in order to gain centralized powers by crushing it. Hmmm, now there’s a conspiracy theory to contemplate. (Oh goodness, I hope we didn’t just give some libertarian historian an idea).

    • Christian McWhirter · December 17, 2015

      Thanks for expanding on the post. I’ve always been reluctant to take the Palpatine/Lincoln thing too far because I know I see everything through Civil War-colored glasses, but it all seems to fit for me. Maybe Lucas is a closet DiLorenzo fan.

      On the other hand, there’s an NPR article making the rounds about how the Galactic Senate in the prequels is so decentralized that it hardly appears able to govern at all. If there is a libertarian strain in those films, it’s certainly muddled.

      • gdbrasher · December 17, 2015

        Let’s keep playing with this just for the heck of it. Perhaps the Antebellum Republicans took on their antislavery platform, knowing that it would essentially push the South into secession, creating a rebellion that they could then build an army to destroy, centralizing their power in the process. In this reading, Palapatine, Dooku, Darth Maul, and Darth Vader are Stanton, Seward, Sumner, and Lincoln. Then, carrying it into Reconstruction, the enfranchisement of African Americans is nothing more than a way to solidify their powers by gaining the votes they need to maintain control of Congress and the White House. (This is a strange and very twisted blending of Oakes, DiLorenzo, and the Lost Cause. And before anyone takes me out of context, of course I am just kidding and having some fun with it). Whaddaya think?

      • Christian McWhirter · December 17, 2015

        I’m just glad you brought up Oakes before I did.

      • Christian McWhirter · December 17, 2015

        Does that make the destruction of Alderaan Sherman’s March?

  5. Andy Hall · December 17, 2015

    That top picture has made the rounds for a while. My favorite caption to it: “Really gettin’ tired of your sh1t, Bob.”

  6. Scott A. MacKenzie · December 17, 2015

    “I take orders from only one person, me!” George B. McClellan, April 1862.

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