• History
  • conflict

The Stories That Skewed American Popular Memory of the Civil War

7 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

More than eight decades after it was released, 1939’s Gone with the Wind remains, adjusted for inflation, the highest-grossing movie of all time. The film and the 1936 Margaret Mitchell novel on which it’s based continue dominate American pop-culture memory of the Civil War — and a new book takes a deeper look at why that’s the case, and why it matters.

Cody Marrs, author of Not Even Past: The Stories We Keep Telling about the Civil War, spoke to TIME about who steered American memory of the war in its immediate aftermath, why Gone With the Wind is so popular and which other stories of the war should be better known.

Your work looks at the stories that have shaped American memory of the Civil War. What makes a Civil War story endure?

It surprised me that it has very little to do with what’s historically accurate or not, and often has a lot less to do with its quality as a narrative than you’d think. The main determinant in terms of whether a story will be successful or not, whether it will take off or be forgotten is: Does it tell us something about ourselves as people?

Gone with the Wind provides a very particular answer, a sense of order and meaning and belonging for white audiences, according to which slavery was a benign institution and the Civil War didn’t need to happen but it was a necessary maturation process for the country.

How does what was going on in 1930s, when the Gone with the Wind book and movie came out, factor into its popularity?

During the Great Depression, people have this lack of food, security, basic necessities we need for well being. When you see read the book and see the movie, what you see is luxury. It’s a powerful, enticing fantasy in a moment of lack. [But] I think the reason Gone with the Wind has persisted in American culture is different, and has more to do with race and identity. It’s also a romance story. Who doesn’t like a good romance story? That’s part of it.

So what does Gone With the Wind get right and wrong about the Civil War?

The thing it gets right is that the war was an existential crisis for a lot of people in the South. This created a real opportunity for the “Lost Cause” — propagandists stepped in and used that crisis to their own ends. The most common misconception about the Civil War is that it was not really about slavery. This is a foundational idea in Gone with the Wind, that it’s an act of northern brutality.

How does the Lost Cause come to dominate Civil War memory? Is there anything about the origins of that idea that people get wrong today?

If you have to boil it down, the Lost Cause is a revisionist take on the Civil War, according to which the war was not a fight over slavery, but over constitutional interpretations. According to the Lost Cause, secession was a legal right and the war was a result of northern aggression. The reason it’s untrue is because the Civil War was undoubtedly over slavery and everyone at the time knew that. But after the Civil War, several interested parties, mostly Confederate politicians and Confederate soldiers, played a big hand in reframing what it was about. Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, wrote a book called the A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States. Jefferson Davis wrote a similar book, so did Edward Pollard, an editor and influencer at the time.

I think the thing I learned that I didn’t entirely understand before is that the reason [the idea] became powerful is because of a peculiar cocktail of circumstance and propaganda. The circumstance has to do with the destruction of the South. People were trying to figure out how to put the pieces back together, and the Lost Cause provided that.

Get your history fix in one place: sign up for the weekly TIME History newsletter

Has any story about the Civil War come close to Gone with the Wind in popularity?

One that was very popular that isn’t as popular now is Brother Against Brother. It was probably the primary narrative for the Civil War throughout the North and in parts of the South for a long time in the 19th and into the 20th century. There were definitely some actual cases of some prominent families in border states that divided their allegiances, and part of that had to do with how people thought about identity and loyalty at the time and their allegiances were a lot more local and family based than they became later on. But these stories were played up and mythologized.

What do recent debates over Confederate memorials say about how we remember the Civil War?

Throughout the book I try to situate the Confederate memorials as not actually memorials for the Confederacy, but retroactive stories about what the Confederacy was about and what the Civil War was about. There’s a difference. From my perspective they’re not actually lessons in the history of the Civil War. They’re lessons in the history of American memories about the Civil War, precisely because they were all created after the Civil War, sometimes decades after, in order to ensure that the Confederacy’s memory lived on.

What real history about the Civil War should be remembered more?

The book starts with André Callioux, who fought for his freedom and played a big role in the black community in New Orleans in the 1850s and 1860s up until his death. He was the first black soldier who died a very public death that was talked about in newspapers. His memory was passed on in poems, but his life was disregarded almost immediately as soon as he dies. Confederate sharpshooters ensure the Union soldiers can’t retrieve his body, so his body slowly decomposes on battlefield for weeks on end, and there is this kind of disrespect for black lives contained in that, that is redoubled in the fact that he fades in American memory. Part of what I’m trying to do in the book is make sure these stories get told.

Which artists and writers captured the spirit of the Civil War accurately?

There are a few that I wish were talked about more. Evelyn Scott’s The Wave [1929] introduces itself through this metaphor of corks floating on the ocean and for Evelyn Scott, that’s a metaphor for our role in history. Each chapter is from a different person’s perspective — free, enslaved, northern, southern. Margaret Walker’s Jubilee [1966] is an astounding novel, a kind of black rewriting of Gone with the Wind. It’s hyper-aware of the fact that freedom is not something just handed down from on high but instead something that has to be struggled for and continually achieved, acquired, protected and maintained over time. The book led me to the artwork of Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, a black woman sculptor and one of the great 19th century artists and great American artists. She studied classical sculpture, and sculpted free people and some of the leaders of the Union.

How have Civil War anniversaries affected public memory of the conflict?

Those anniversaries do play a big role because they’re public occasions on which to remember the struggle. The 50th is a big one for influencing Civil War memory but it’s the centennial that strikes me as the biggest. Not only does Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech take place at the Lincoln Memorial, but also he gives a remarkable speech to the New York State Civil War Centennial Commission that was just recently fully transcribed. He says the Emancipation Proclamation is one of the great historical acts, but he also says this is incomplete, situating it in context of Jim Crow segregation. For me, that’s one of the defining acts of memory from that era. That King speech really connects the 1860s to the 1960s and says you can’t understand what’s going on now without understanding what was going on then.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com