Today we welcome a guest post from Nina Silber, author of This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, just published by UNC Press.
The New Deal era witnessed a surprising surge in popular engagement with the history and memory of the Civil War era. From the omnipresent book and film Gone with the Wind and the scores of popular theater productions to Aaron Copeland’s “A Lincoln Portrait,” it was hard to miss America’s fascination with the war in the 1930s and 1940s. Nina Silber deftly examines the often conflicting and politically contentious ways in which Americans remembered the Civil War era during the years of the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. In doing so, she reveals how the debates and events of that earlier period resonated so profoundly with New Deal rhetoric about state power, emerging civil rights activism, labor organizing and trade unionism, and popular culture in wartime.
This War Ain’t Over is available now in both print and ebook editions.
The Lost Cause in the New Deal Era
The Lost Cause, that fantastical story white Southerners have long told about their antebellum and Civil War past, has received more than its share of historical scrutiny. What tends to get less notice is how the Lost Cause has adapted to suit different historical circumstances. During the 1930s and 40s, the Lost Cause morphed in noteworthy ways, especially as memory of the war became more untethered from first-person experiences and as new memory-makers felt less constraint about prodding the war’s memory into something that fit their present-day purposes.
During the 1930s, membership in the nation’s premier Lost Cause organization, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, declined significantly but the group still found ways to shift its influence to new and somewhat unexpected venues. Hollywood producers, for example, sometimes adopted the UDC’s stamp of approval to market films to audiences across the South. The organization also pursued partnerships with Roosevelt’s New Deal, including collaborations with the CCC and the WPA, which provided funding for UDC pet projects. Additionally, UDC members got jobs as writers and state directors for the Federal Writers Project, giving Daughters positions as interviewers and editors in the ex-slave oral history project and a chance to inject their nostalgia for the kindly relations of slavery into an official historical record. In 1936 the WPA’s Federal Theater Project staged its first production in New York’s Times Square with a play, fully vetted by the UDC, on the life and times of the Confederacy’s one and only president. Apparently not content with one Jefferson Davis play, the UDC also pitched a musical pageant on the Jefferson Davis National Highway for consideration by the Federal Theatre.
Beyond these UDC efforts, the Confederacy, and those once devoted to it, gained new prestige in these years, especially since the economic crisis made it possible to cast the Confederate past in an increasingly sympathetic light. As southerners, and Americans generally, sought a measure of economic security, the strivings of defeated southerners from the American past – white southerners in particular – seemed unusually deserving of national respect. Perhaps nothing spoke quite as forcefully to this sentiment as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Although mostly written in the 20s, when the book appeared in 1936 people responded to the way it resonated with present-day tribulations. Millions of female readers, many struggling with contemporary problems, were captivated by Scarlett O’Hara’s story of survival. “After all,” wrote Marion Fritz of Menlo, Iowa, in a fan letter to Mitchell, Scarlett “wanted only what so many of us want now. Material security for our families that life may hold something but the endless drudgery of a bare existence.” A reviewer concluded: “The real stroke of genius is in the story of Scarlett’s struggles to survive—it is the story of thousands of…women during the depression.”
Aside from its seeming economic relevance, the Confederate tradition was also adapted to speak to the conservative political agenda of the 1930s, gaining new credibility as a vehicle for anti-communism. Historian and Agrarian writer Frank Owsley, for example, equated 1930s communists with abolitionists and carpetbaggers and urged white southerners to remain staunch in their defiance of northern radical incursions. In a 1933 speech before the American Historical Association, Owsley maintained that white Southerners, with their time-honored commitment to agrarian values and decentralized government, would present “the greatest obstacle to Communism.” The United Daughters of the Confederacy likewise insisted that nobody was better fitted for “exterminating” communism than the Daughters “with their heritage of…loyalty to the principles of the Founders.”
Finally, Southern white Democrats returned repeatedly to Lost Cause themes in arguing against federal anti-lynching laws – laws that would have allowed for more direct federal oversight of lynching cases. Calling up the long-standing myth of Reconstruction – the one that imagined white Southerners as the victims of vengeful Yankees and malicious blacks – Southern Democrats (and some Northern allies) maintained that a federal anti-lynching law sprang from an identical impulse, to put victimized whites under the heel of government overreach in a way that would encourage black criminality. According to Senator “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina, Reconstruction had been a moment when ex-slaves became legislators and judges “and rapine and lust [had] no check.” “The same element of strife and contention that ran rife during reconstruction,” Smith said, would flourish with the proposed anti-lynching law. Yet another congressional representative referenced Gone with the Wind – perhaps the most pernicious purveyor of a false memory of the war and Reconstruction – in explaining his opposition to the proposed law, and the need for white Southerners to reject federal interference in race matters. In these conversations, the long-standing myth of Reconstruction appeared almost as instinctive memory, so firmly rooted in the southern white psyche it could be wielded toward almost any political argument. Ultimately, the combination of conservative politics and distorted memory made Roosevelt reluctant to push the law, a point civil rights activists of the time keenly understood. “Whatever sentiment there was in the South for a Federal anti-lynch law,” explained NAACP leader Walter White, that sentiment “evaporated during the Gone with the Wind vogue.” As White suggested, this modified Lost Cause had the power not only to distort Americans’ view of history, but also to erode the modern campaign for racial justice.
Nina Silber is professor of history at Boston University and also the author of The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900, and Gender and the Sectional Conflict. You can read her previous UNC Press blog post here.