The American Civil War (1861-1865) remains one of the bloodiest conflicts in American history. Not only did it leave close to a million people dead, leave southern towns and countryside ravaged, and fundamentally transform the operations of the federal government, but it also enabled the emancipation of nearly four million enslaved people and the ultimate destruction of legal slavery in the United States. It's no wonder, then, that filmmakers have returned to the Civil War over and over again, grappling with questions about the war's meaning, its impact on ordinary people, and the role of generals and politicians in prosecuting the war to its destructive end. In this playlist, I've compiled an eclectic mix of films that seek to represent some aspect of the Civil War - whether it's the northern and southern home fronts, the experience of combat, the bravery of Black soldiers, or the role of the much-revered and much-debated Union President, Abraham Lincoln. What we can see from this group of films is that the meaning and legacy of the war is far from fixed. As recent controversies over Confederate iconography demonstrate, Americans are deeply divided over what the war was "about"; the long-term ramifications of the conflict - especially the failure to truly transform the racial order of the Old South - reverberate today in American politics, society, the economy, and culture. In many ways, these films tell us more about the times and the people who produced them, than about the war itself. Whether it's probing ideas about gender, race, class, or the changing depiction of Confederate "heroes", the American Civil War has long acted as a mirror through which Americans negotiate, consciously or otherwise, their relationship with their history and the identity of their nation.
Content note: please be aware that many of these films depict and tacitly endorse racist attitudes common to the time in which they were produced.
Dr Rachel Williams, University of Hull
- American Studies
American Civil War, history, Confederacy, Abraham Lincoln, war, masculinity, race