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New movie revives debates about Civil War

By W. James Antle III
web posted March 17, 2003

Hard pressed to find four free hours to spend in a movie theater, I have not seen Ron Maxwell's new Civil War film Gods and Generals. So I have no idea which of the disparate reviews – which range from glowingly positive to implacably negative – accurately reflects whether it is worth seeing.

Stephen Lang and Robert Duvall in Gods and Generals
Stephen Lang and Robert Duvall in Gods and Generals

But I have had occasion to witness the ideological debate that has surrounded much of the commentary about the film. Maxwell has won praise from those who believe that the South has been maligned in most retellings of Civil War history. Others by contrast charge that Gods and Generals whitewashes the Confederacy, particularly its history on race.

There are two competing versions of the origins and nature of the Civil War. The most popular and widely taught formulation holds that it was a war fought by the Northern states and others loyal to the federal government both to free Southern slaves and preserve the Union. Southern apologists counter that an imperious federal government increasingly controlled by aggressive Northern states was, through unconstitutional legislation and high protective tariffs, circumventing the South's political and economic freedoms. When Southern states exercised the previously uncontested right to secede from a Union that was no longer consistent with their liberties and interests, the North responded by waging war to forcibly bring them back under federal domination.

One side sees the Civil War as a struggle for human equality and an unambiguous battle between the forces of slavery and freedom. The other sees it as the equivalent of the British prevailing over the colonists in the American Revolution, a failed bid for self-determination. Both sides contain some elements of truth, but neither is entirely true.

These Civil War discussions have had new life breathed into them by internal conservative and libertarian debates. Those influenced by the scholar Harry Jaffa and others at the Claremont Institute have made the case for the Union position as part of the American tradition of expanded freedom consistent with natural law principles. Paleoconservative and paleolibertarian scholars and writers – such as Lew Rockwell, Thomas DiLorenzo, Paul Gottfried and Thomas Fleming – regard Abraham Lincoln as the "Great Centralizer" who by defeating the Confederacy ultimately defeated the Constitution and the decentralized republic of the Founding Fathers.

There was no "libertarian" side in the Civil War. Northern leaders were the political heirs of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists. They favored a strong central government and adhered to mercantilist economic theories. Many Southern leaders were critical of key concepts in the Declaration of Independence, especially natural rights. They were also very selective about their decentralism and more than willing to use the powers of government to protect the interests of the plantation-owning class. And of course, there was also the question of slavery.

Nor was there a side that lived up to all the abstractions identified with it. The Northern political class was not made up primarily of principled abolitionists. Industry leaders did not wish to compete with slave labor in the agrarian South; the Union allowed the presence of its own slave states. Southerners for their part were willing to contradict their stated political values to preserve slavery – consider the Fugitive Slave laws – and the Confederacy committed some of the civil liberties violations that its partisans find Lincoln guilty of.

Based on the accounts I've read, Gods and Generals appears to have a correct understanding of why the men who actually fought in the Civil War did so. One scene reportedly has Robert E. Lee explaining the significance of the homeland his army was defending as something beyond markings on a map: "To us, they're birthplaces and burial grounds, they're battlefields where our ancestors fought. They're places where we learned to walk, to talk, to pray. They're places where we made friendships and fell in love. They're the incarnation of all our memories and all that we love."

Gods and Generals was released as war looms in the background. Those who favor war against Iraq often appeal to global democracy, humanitarian concerns for those oppressed by Saddam Hussein, an international rule of law that precludes nuclear proliferation and weapons of mass destruction. But the men and women who fight will be motivated by a desire to defend their homes, friends and families. They will want to protect the land that was home to their ancestors and the promise of a future for their descendants. Those who were moved to join the armed forces after September 11 may have been firm believers in this nation's ideals, but they were drawn by loyalty to real people, places and institutions.

I part company with my colleagues who believe the Union victory was unjust. We were in fact able to abolish slavery without abandoning the Framers' system of limited government. But those who say we should purge every remnant that commemorates those who fought on the Southern side are also wrong. Vanderbilt mathematics professor Jonathan David Farley went so far as to argue in an op-ed piece for The Tennessean that everyone who fought on the Confederate side should have been executed at the conclusion of the war. But most of those who carried rifles and fought on the battlefields fought not for slavery or for any abstraction. They fought in the belief that their homeland was being invaded.

Today there exist many new threats to the homeland we share. Once again, patriotic Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line are wearing their country's uniform to defend it.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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