The Good Old Days of Uncomplicated Civil War Narratives

2011 February 1
by Leah Nahmias

We are pretty excited round here for our upcoming series of panel discussions on the Civil War, which kicks off next Thursday, February 3, with Did the Real War Ever Get in the Books? In our first panel, historians Bruce Levine, Jim Oakes, Stephanie McCurry and Greg Downs will discuss recent scholarship on such issues as how ideas about gender influenced politics and society; the sustained and decisive actions of African Americans (both enslaved and free) to secure emancipation; and the currents of dissent that roiled the Confederacy.

In anticipation, we’ve done a little digging around in the Internet Archive to see if we could find any old educational films to conveniently frame outmoded ways of thinking about the Civil War. Fortunately (?), the United States Information Agency, the propaganda wing of the Cold War State Department, created an entire film series Scenes from American History that provides forehead-smacking depictions of the past. There are enough hearty pioneers, noble be-wigged Founding Fathers, and efficient—and curiously worker-free–factories chugging along to populate any number of Tea Party fantasies of the good ol’ days. “A House Divided”, the fifth part of the series produced in 1960, is almost a 30 minutes long and includes 10 whole seconds depicting slavery (2:07-2:17).*

As painful as USIA’s narrative of progress is, it is actually not the biggest offender among 1960s government films on the Civil War that I found. No, that honor has to belong to the Department of Defense’s 1963 film A Nation Sings: A Musical Remembrance of Civil War Tunes. The film, which I assume was some sort of television special, actually opens with soldiers dressed in blue and gray holding the Stars and Stripes and the Stars and Bars. Keep in mind, 1963 was not just the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg; it was also the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the year that Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to prevent black students from attending and riots broke out in Birmingham after months of non-violent protest against segregation. And yet the military holds a celebration that opens with the Confederate flag, features soldiers dressed in Confederate uniforms singing sentimental songs, and strikes up the band for a rousing rendition of “Dixie.”*

Internet Archive and YouTube are rich troves when it comes to seeing how the Civil War has been remembered in other eras. Both of these films, and scores of others, were produced around the time of the Centennial in 1961-1965. Be sure to leave your most surprising vintage educational film finds in the comments.

*Note: The titles of each film will link to the film in Internet Archive; we were unable to format the video files so that they embedded properly in this post.

Last 5 posts by Leah Nahmias

No Comments

Comments are closed for this entry.