In “The Conspirator,” a new film by Robert Redford that dramatizes the trial of a woman executed for allegedly participating in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, there are some notable missing characters. Lincoln himself is seen, but not heard, and then not even seen whole: The camera focuses on his head, the target for the assassin’s bullet, and his feet, when he was laid out to die on a bed across the street from Ford’s Theatre. There are also no African American roles, except for a doorman outside an exclusive Washington club. Scrubbed from the film is the man who articulated the evolving purpose of the Civil War, first preservation of the Union and then liberation of the slaves, and the former slaves whose freedom has redefined the United States unto the present day.
The film, which opens April 15, uses the Civil War as an excuse to tell a different story, about what the director sees as the injustice of contemporary military tribunals, indefinite detention and the legal ambiguities of prosecuting the war on terror. The movie’s archfiend, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, even looks a bit like former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But Redford’s opus, which argues passionately that a Southern-sympathizing woman was unjustly convicted of involvement in the Lincoln conspiracy, asks viewers to do something that has become almost a cliche of art and literature of the Civil War: to set aside judgment on the war itself, to rise above sectional sympathies or thoughts about the causes and purpose of the war and participate in a long history of forgetting and oblivion. And this in a film by a director known for his liberal politics.
That history of oblivion has taken many forms, and it continues today. When Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) announced Confederate History Month last year, he not only forgot to mention slavery but also forgot that earlier governors hadn’t always been so forgetful. When one predecessor, James S. Gilmore III (R), issued a Confederate History Month proclamation, he acknowledged that “the practice of slavery was an affront to man’s natural dignity, deprived African-Americans of their God-given inalienable rights, degraded the human spirit and is abhorred and condemned by Virginians, and likewise that had there been no slavery there would have been no war.”
McDonnell apologized, but the damage was done, because for a state governor to forget something as elemental as the manifest cause of the Civil War isn’t like forgetting one’s keys, or blanking on the name of a book you once read. In the symbolic landscape of Civil War memory, selective amnesia is an act of rebellion, a rear-guard repetition of ritualistic forgetting that keeps the war alive in all its ambiguity, distorted meaning and misapprehension.
A passion for reconciliation (often premature) and selective forgetting have gone hand in hand, even from before the end of the war. Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York displayed a painting called “The Consecration” by George Cochran Lambdin, part of the exhibition “American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life.” For most of Lambdin’s career, the popular and successful Philadelphia artist painted trivia, little girls with dolls, dogs and kitties, and some decorative but insignificant images of flowers. But during the Civil War, he rose from polished mediocrity to paint several strikingly powerful images, including “The Consecration,” which shows a woman in gray kissing the sword of a handsome young Union soldier. The standard reading is one of farewell, a maiden reenacting an ancient gesture of fidelity to her beloved as he heads off to war.
Margaret C. Conrads, who wrote about the painting in the exhibition catalogue, suggests that there may be more going on, however. With its woman in gray and soldier in blue, it was, perhaps, also an image of potential reconciliation between North and South. “The reconciliation of the two sides was commonly equated with the institution of marriage, in which the North was the husband and the South the wife.” If Conrad’s reading is plausible, then Lambdin was already participating in an industry of reconciliation even before the war was over.
Reconstruction blunted the language of reconciliation for a decade, but it, too, fell victim to what historian Eric Foner has called “the rush to forget.” By 1877, when a former Confederate brigadier general spoke to an audience in New York, the war and its causes had been subjected to radical revisionism, and it was almost entirely a revisionism that favored the Southern view of things. Roger A. Pryor, who in the years before the Civil War was a representative from Virginia and a passionate advocate of secession, appeared at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to deliver a speech titled “The Union: A Plea for Reconciliation.” His argument in favor of new comity between the North and South placed the blame for the war on mid-level bureaucrats and military leaders, absolved soldiers on both sides from any blame for the war and transferred the question of slavery from man to God: “No, people of the North, impartial history will record that slavery fell not by any effort of man’s will but by the immediate intervention and act of the Almighty himself.” If the war brought forth atrocities or other stains upon the national conscience, it “behooves both [sides] to drop the veil of oblivion” on them.
Even in 1877, you can hear a strategy take form: The heroism of the common soldier compelled speakers to rhetorical circumspection. In 1913, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech that included a common trope of forgetting, and one that echoed in perverse ways Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “In their presence,” Wilson said of the dead buried around him, “it were an impertinence to discourse upon how the battle went, how it ended, what it signified.”
It was, paradoxically, white America’s duty to forget and remember at the same time, which led to the odd coexistence of a language of reconciliation and an industry of monument-making that kept the war alive. By the time Wilson, the first president elected from the South since the war, gave his Gettysburg speech, Southern states, primarily led by women’s Confederate groups, were in the middle of a frenzied campaign to clutter the landscape with memorial statuary in celebration of the humble foot soldier. Between 1900 and 1913, by one accounting, the South was unveiling Civil War statues at twice the rate of the North. And these statues had become more, rather than less, bellicose in posture, with a once popular image of a soldier at “parade rest” yielding to more aggressive and animated statues, depicting troops with guns at the ready.
Monument makers and other cultural producers were also memorializing a sentimentalized view of reconciliation between African Americans and whites, a vision that banished any trace of the reality of relations between the races. Paralleling the literary efforts of popular hack writers who wrote nostalgic “plantation” stories in the 1880s and ’90s, there was a proposal in the 1920s for a monument to “the black mammy” in Washington. It wasn’t built, but other monuments to “faithful slaves” were, including one underwritten by a Confederate veteran, Samuel White, in Fort Mill, S.C. In his history of post-war iconography, author Kirk Savage describes the unveiling, in 1896: “Ex-slaves pulled the cord to unveil the shaft, spoke in gratitude to Captain White, and sang an ‘old plantation song.’ ” African Americans were often enlisted in the pageantry of nostalgia for an era of white dominance, including at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where the state of Virginia erected a full-scale reproduction of Mount Vernon and hired black actors to “staff” it. And just last year, a group near Charlotte petitioned the Union County commission to install a memorial plaque to honor slaves who may have fought (supposedly and willingly) for the Confederacy, although the county’s historic preservation commission rejected the request.
Reconciliation images, in particular, often seemed designed, consciously or not, to perpetuate antagonism. If it seems farfetched to consider Lambdin’s “The Consecration” as a reconciliation image — with its suggestion of wifely Southern submission to the masculine North — consider a novel by John William De Forest called “Miss Ravenel’s Conversion,” finished in 1865. It follows the courtship of a proper Southern belle from New Orleans by two Northern men. “Portraying the South as a woman to be courted and won to loyalty became a common figure in postwar fiction,” writes historian Reid Mitchell in “The Vacant Chair.” But could any figure be more insulting to the South than one that diminished its masculinity?
Lost in this strange history were genuine acts of reconciliation, encounters that look like what students of contemporary “truth and reconciliation” processes would recognize as authentic acts of healing. Paramount among these is one that has an operatic grandeur but little currency in American memory. In 1877, the abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass, who had been born into slavery, visited the man who had once owned him. By the time Douglass returned to St. Michaels, Md., the “scene of some of my saddest experiences of slave life,” he had served as an ambassador to Haiti and as a U.S. Marshal, and yet he accepted an invitation from a man who, Douglass said, “had subjected me to his will, made property of my body and soul, reduced me to a chattel, hired me out to a noted slave breaker to be worked like a beast and flogged into submission.”
Miraculously, Douglass held no personal grudge toward Captain Auld. He even considered “the conditions favorable for remembrance of all his good deeds, and generous extenuation of all his evil ones.” The two men, one a lion of abolition, the other an octogenarian close to death, met, shook hands and talked over the past. Douglass apologized for making a mistake in his memoirs that reflected poorly on the old man, and the former slave owner said of Douglass’s escape to the North: “Frederick, I always knew you were too smart to be a slave, and had I been in your place I should have done as you did.”
Douglass was mocked for making the gesture, even by allies in the abolition and civil rights movement. But it’s one of the rare moments in the history of Civil War memory in which one senses a spontaneous, honest reflection upon the past, and a movement toward reconciliation that isn’t formulaic or, worse, a thinly veiled furthering of antagonism. The memory of the event was entirely in Douglass’s control, committed to the public record by one of the most eloquent men of his age. But it was a memory of reconciliation from an African American man, and African Americans were being systematically excluded from the public process of memory. Which is why, perhaps, it has been mostly forgotten.