The South Rises Yet Again, This Time on HBO

The South Rises Yet Again, This Time on HBO

For someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how Americans remember the Civil War, the last few months have been something of a treasure trove. The sectional conflict has surfaced repeatedly, in a variety of ways–some hopeful, some troubling–from confrontations over the removal of Confederate monuments to the most recent, even absurd, entry into the Civil War memory landscape: the announcement by HBO that it plans to produce an alternative Civil War history television series. Confederate, created by the showrunners for Game of Thrones, aims to depict a world in which the South succeeds in its efforts to leave the Union and create “a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.” Spotlighting the lead-up to the “Third American Civil War,” Confederate will depict men and women on “both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone–freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.”   No doubt recognizing the problematic optics in having white men produce a series about a slave society, HBO enlisted the black husband and wife team of Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman who will serve as both writers and executive producers for the show.[1]

Many commentators have already weighed in on this proposed venture, with some expressing deep concern about what it might mean to bring Game of Thrones sensibilities to bear on a television drama focused on American slavery. I have nothing to say about that; I’ve never watched GoT. But as a historian with some awareness of the long historical arc of Civil War memory, I am interested in what this new effort means in the context of the current political landscape. Others, including scholar Roxanne Gay, have taken up this theme and have voiced strong reservations about making a show like this at this unsettled and turbulent political moment.[2]

In an interview with Vulture, David Benioff, one of the white producers and a self-professed “history nerd” explains how he got the idea for the proposed series. “I remember reading a history of the Civil War,” Benioff explains, in which he learned the story of Robert E. Lee’s “lost orders” before the battle of Antietam. Here, let me just note that for those interested in this hypothetical, there is a well-done essay by Civil War historian James McPherson, as yet un-credited in this HBO fantasy, speculating about this very scenario: that if never lost, then Lee’s orders would never have been discovered by a Union corporal and passed on to General McClellan who, in turn, would not have attacked the Confederate commander at Antietam. At any rate, as Benioff explains, he was interested in “what would the world have looked like if Lee had sacked D.C., if the South had won.”[3]

I suppose this seems straightforward enough, but here is where my concerns emerge. It troubles me that Benioff’s starting point is a “dorky” (as he puts it) military fantasy, one that countless neo-Confederates may well have indulged in, which puts their side in the victory seat. Had he mentioned, say, his interest in thinking about our long-standing legacy of racial inequality and its links to the Civil War era, I might feel differently. Even more, Benioff’s remarks show little awareness of how much a Confederate-centric narrative already holds a dominant place in American culture: how our culture has been awash with a romanticized fantasy about the Confederate war effort and whitewashed notions of slavery.

Like Benioff’s account of his artistic inspiration, Americans have long told the Civil War story strictly in military terms, paying little attention to the central problem of slavery, and even less to the drama of emancipation. And as historian Fitzhugh Brundage reminds us, even though Confederates lost the war, the economic and political power held by white Southerners allowed them to create “a landscape dense with totemic relics”. In contrast, “southern blacks could never fix their memory in public spaces in the same manner or to the same extent.” I would urge anyone who wants to imagine, in film, or fiction, or television, a Confederate “victory,” to keep that memory imbalance in mind.[4]

One example of neo-Confederate merchandising that forwards a particular perspective on Civil War history. Image courtesy of fashionnetwork.com.

Benioff and his collaborators enter a crowded field of Civil War counterfactuals, including websites devoted to “Alternative History” along with films, novels, and historical essays. Earlier versions of the story showed considerable interest in how a Southern victory might affect the global balance of power. Winston Churchill penned his own version of this story in 1930, following visits and conversations with Lee biographer Douglas Freeman.   In Churchill’s version, Lee wins at Gettysburg, enters Washington, and proclaims that the “victorious Confederacy would pursue no policy toward the African negroes” that conflicted with western European principles. In short, Lee, cheered on by British leader William Gladstone, freed the slaves. As Churchill saw it, this happy settlement of “the color question” represented a validation of British policies in “dealing with alien and more primitive populations.”   In 1960, noted Civil War novelist MacKinlay Kantor likewise imagined a Confederate victory with the slaves emancipated in the 1880s. Evincing little interest in the race question but considerable concern about the Cold War, Kantor’s main point was to show how the threat of Communism would eventually cause the disunited states to reunite to fight their common foe.[5]

More recently, writers and artists, attuned to the deep and ongoing power of racism in American life, have opted for a scenario in which the South wins and maintains some version of a slave system. In CSA: The Confederate States of America, African-American filmmaker Kevin Willmott imagines the successful Confederate nation and its slave-based economy by drawing on the actual popular culture, replete with racist imagery, of twentieth-century America.   Willmott, in other words, explores how much American culture as a whole bears the stamp of Confederate thinking. In Underground Airlines, the white writer Ben Winters imagines Lincoln’s assassination occurring in 1861 and Congress subsequently agreeing to the Crittenden compromise. As a result, the nation avoids civil war and keeps slavery intact in four deep South states. Like Willmott, Winters contemplates the tenuousness of abolitionist sentiments and the relative ease with which white Northerners accept the perpetuation of racial bondage and a culture of white supremacy. In Winters’ telling, Confederate sensibilities, even if there was never an actual Confederacy, resonate throughout the United States.[6]

Although the HBO series seems, in some respects, to pursue some similar themes as Willmott and Winters, I fear this effort is already moving in a problematic direction, even in the title of the new production. In a world where Confederate flags continue to fly, where many Confederate monuments remain standing, where Confederate supporters feel emboldened by President Trump and many of his policies, it is hard not to sympathize with the growing counter-movement, for people to cry “enough” at this continued emphasis on all-things-Confederate, whether in flags or monuments or television shows.

Although efforts have been made recently to remove some prominent Confederate images, the U.S. has, historically, been awash with Confederate symbolism. In this climate, does HBO’s proposed series stoke the flames of the Confederate victory narrative? Photo by Evan Vucci, Associated Press.

The Confederate version of Civil War history has for years had more clout than a Unionist or Emancipationist account, especially in film and fiction. Think Gone With the Wind or Birth of a Nation or even, more recently, Gods and Generals. To recall how simple it is for Hollywood to erase slavery from the Civil War, think about this year’s cinematic offering, The Beguiled. Putting the word “Confederate” at the center of a prominent television series seems another way to give a discredited system yet more air-time, and not in a historical treatment but in something meant purely for entertainment. Kevin Willmott put CSA in his title, although that was in keeping with his mockumentary approach in which “CSA” was the title of a British-made educational documentary. Ben Winters may well have had the right instinct in Underground Airlines: to imagine a world where there never even was anything called the Confederacy, where there is no need to imagine a Confederate victory, but where American history has nonetheless followed a racially troubled, and all-too familiar, historical trajectory.[7]

Ultimately, perhaps the main problem with this HBO proposal is not just this reimagining of a Confederate victory, but the plan to put the Confederacy–supposedly replete with all its symbols and sensibilities–front and center at this very specific historical moment, a moment when so many people are actively engaged in diminishing the Confederacy’s power on our cultural landscape. I am certainly not calling for historical ignorance or for removing the whole Confederate experience from the history books. I would just urge a greater awareness of how much influence this treasonous movement has already exerted in American life and the increasingly sinister ways it has been and continues to be deployed.

[1] Jackson McHenry, “HBO Picks Up Game of Thrones Showrunners’ Alternate-History Civil War Drama Confederate,” Vulture, July 19, 2017, accessed July 26, 2017, http://www.vulture.com/2017/07/game-of-thrones-showrunners-hbo-confederate.html; Josef Adalian, “The Producers of HBO’s Confederate Respond to the Backlash and Explain Why They Wanted to Tell This Story,” Vulture, July 20, 2017, accessed July 25, 2017, http://www.vulture.com/2017/07/hbo-confederate-producers-exclusive-interview.html.

[2] Dave Itzkoff, “‘Confederate’ Poses Test Over Race for ‘Game of Thrones’ Creators and HBO,” New York Times, July 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/20/arts/television/confederate-hbo-game-of-thrones.html; Roxanne Gay, “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction,” New York Times, July 25, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/opinion/hbo-confederate-slavery-civil-war.html.

[3] Benioff quoted in “Producers of HBO’s Confederate Respond”; James McPherson, “If the Lost Order Hadn’t Been Lost: Robert E. Lee Humbles the Union, 1862,” in Robert Cowley, ed., What Ifs? Of American History: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (New York: Berkley Books, 2004).

[4] W. Fitzhugh Brundage, “Woman’s Hand and Heart and Deathless Love: White Women and the Commemorative Impulse in the New South,” in Cynthia Mills and Pamela Simpson, eds., Monuments to the Lost Cause: Women, Art, and the Landscapes of Southern Memory (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003), 71.

[5] Winston Churchill, “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History (Summer 1961; reprinted from Scribner’s Magazine, December 1930), 244; MacKinlay Kantor, “If the South Had Won the Civil War,” Look Magazine (November 22, 1960), 29-62.

[6] CSA: The Confederate States of America, Dir. Kevin Willmott, Hodcarrier Films, 2004; Ben Winters, Underground Airlines (New York: Mullholland Books, 2016).

Nina Silber

Nina Silber is Professor of History at Boston University where she teaches classes on the Civil War, women and gender, and the American South. Previous publications include: The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (University of North Carolina Press) and Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (Harvard University Press). Her new book, Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.

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