"There Was a Right Side and a Wrong Side": Art and Historical Memorytags: Civil War, Frederick Douglass
Mark Byrnes is an associate professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.
The last several weeks have given rise to much commentary on how drama presents the recent historical past. The films “Selma” and “American Sniper” both provoked passionate, even divisive, disagreement. To some extent, that may be inevitable, since both treat subjects in the living memory of many people.
My recent experience in this area is rather different, concerning as it does long past events. Last weekend, I attended a local performance of “The Civil War: The Musical.” Everything about the production was top notch: the set, the costumes, the direction, the lighting, the singing. Yet I left the theater with a sense that the show itself was deeply flawed.
At the very beginning of the show, a voiceover sets the scene, discussing the firing on Fort Sumter, and ends by quoting Walt Whitman: “the real war will never get in the books.” This sets the theme for the whole show: the war was, first and foremost, the stories of the individuals engaged in it, the vast majority of whom never did—perhaps never could—record was it was truly like.
As far as it goes, there is much to be said for this approach, the kind of “history from the bottom up” story rather than “top-down” history of presidents and generals. There is also a danger in it, however, one that the show inadvertently showcases.
The audience is introduced to three (mostly) separate groups of characters: white northerners, white southerners, and black slaves (called the “Union Army,” the “Confederate Army” and “The Enslaved” in the script). There is virtually no interaction among the groups other than the battle scenes between the two groups of white men. While I’m sure the creators of the show (Frank Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd, and Jack Murphy) had the best of intentions, this division serves a certain interpretation of the war—one that all too often did find its way into the books.
To the best of my recollection (and perhaps I missed something), the subject of slavery is never discussed by any of the white characters—none condemns it, none defends it. The northerners talk of fighting for Union and freedom, of course, but not the issue of slavery itself. The southerners talk of defending their land, their way of life, but don’t talk about slavery as part of that way of life.
The entire nation, north and south, was complicit in slavery. Northern business interests invested in and profited from it. Northern politicians made common cause with southerners to defend it. Some southerners, like South Carolina’s Grimke sisters, openly fought against it. But you’ll hear none of that in the musical. We hear no northern soldier talk with pride of fighting to free the enslaved; we hear no northern soldier speak with resentment about being asked to risk his life to secure the rights of people he considered inferior. Both types existed. We hear no southern soldier denounce Lincoln for wanting to make blacks his equal; we hear no southerner angered at the prospect of dying for the wealthy planter’s right to own human beings. Both types existed.
The subject of slavery is, of course, addressed by the black characters, and one song that recreates a slave auction (“Peculiar Institution”), is emotionally wrenching. But in the larger context of the show, the institution of slavery primarily appears like an act of God, akin to a famine, a plague, a hurricane—anything but a choice made by human beings to enslave their fellow human beings. Even the slave auction scene ironically has that effect. We hear the crack of a whip and a woman recoils from the blow. Theatrically, it is a powerful moment. It has, however, the inadvertent effect of removing any human agency from the whipping. We see the human being on the receiving end, but no human being administers the punishment.
That’s the problem: in this show, no one is to blame. Everyone acts honorably, fights bravely, dies nobly. Historians of the late 19th century will recognize this interpretation of the war. It is the idea that allowed northern and southern whites to come together and put the war behind them after the end of Reconstruction. It is also the one that abandoned the freedpeople to the depredations of the “Redeemers” who took control after Union soldiers ended their occupation of the Confederacy.
As I noted earlier, the characters in this show are not famous—with one notable exception, Frederick Douglass. (He is inaccurately listed among “The Enslaved,” despite the fact that Douglass escaped slavery in 1838 and was a free man during the Civil War.) No doubt Douglass was used by the show’s creators to include his eloquent denunciations of slavery, and that is a welcome addition. But I could not help but think that the historical Douglass would be rolling over in his grave.
There was no greater critic of this show’s “no one is to blame” ethos than Frederick Douglass. In 1878, he stated the exact opposite, as clearly as is humanly possible: “There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget.” Yet in his final decades, he saw sentiment prevailing over memory. “I am not of that school of thinkers that teaches us to let bygones be bygones, to let the dead past bury its dead. In my view, there are no bygones in the world, and the past is not dead and cannot die. The evil as well as the good that men do lives after them…. The duty of keeping in memory the great deeds of the past and of transmitting the same from generation to generation is implied in the mental and moral constitution of man.”
“The Civil War: The Musical” aims to capture the war that didn’t make it into the books by focusing on unknown individuals and their admirable personal qualities. But Frederick Douglass was right. We do ourselves no favor by remembering only the good and forgetting the evil that men do. The Civil War—the historical event—was the product of human choice and human agency. There was a right side and a wrong side. That’s the truth that all too often has failed to make it into the books—and this musical.
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