The theories proposed by Civil War interpretations from 1900 to 1950 prepared the way for modern viewpoints which emerged in the late twentieth century.  First of all, the Civil Rights Movement provided a monumental shift in how the Civil War was viewed by professionals, amateurs, and the general public.  Secondly, history took on a specialized focus towards social, political, and military ideologies.  Lastly, the increased popularity of films shaped the opinions of the public as new “historical” Civil War movies came out; so the historical fallacy of this modern era was to believe history as presented by Hollywood.

Since the 1950s, Hollywood has promoted four basic interpretations of the Civil War:  the Lost Cause, the Union Cause, the Reconciliation Cause, and the Emancipation Cause.  The Union and Reconciliation Causes have played minor roles throughout the multitude of Civil War movies while the Lost Cause and the Emancipation Cause have had entire films dedicated to spreading their viewpoints.

The Union Cause themes are found sprinkled throughout several Civil War movies, but no one film has ever been given to it.  The Union Cause viewpoint advocated the need to maintain the democratic-republic passed down by the Founders.  The idea of the secessionist scare during the Civil War expanded to include the potential future of democracies world-wide.

The Reconciliation Cause mirrored the peaceful views of earlier historians who desired to bring closure to the Civil War attitudes and beliefs.  Slavery was ignored in favor of pointing out the virtues of people on both sides in order to commend American values as a restored nation.  The only film which came close to advocating the idea of reconciliation was Gettysburg.  The title of the movie, “Same Land, Same God, Different Dream,” suggested that Americans had fewer differences than originally portrayed by history.  The poignant message of the film cover was clear:  Americans were trapped on different sides and had no choice but to swear allegiance based on their upbringing.

The Lost Cause mirrored the “Vindication of the South” belief.  The movies including the Lost Cause approach portrayed a gallant South which fought in vain against innumerable odds to save its way of life.  Slavery was down-played, if addressed at all.  While the Lost Cause held a glorious career in the early 1900s with The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the masterpiece Gone with the Wind (1939), only one movie since the 1950s embraced the hopelessness of the South:  Gods and Generals (2003) (Gallagher Causes, 11).  The movie Gods and Generals followed the life of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from the outbreak of the war to his death after being accidently shot at Chancellorsville.  The sentimental poignancy of the Lost Cause was seen in the defiant courage of the Confederate soldiers, the emotionalism of losing loved ones on and off the battlefield, the passing of Southern culture, and the dying words of Jackson as he told his men to press on regardless of what the future held.

The Emancipation Cause was found in a multitude of the Civil War movies made since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  The Emancipation Cause viewed the Civil War as a fight to free the slaves with no other economic or political causes.  The two most recent movies which included the Emancipation Cause were Glory (1989) and Little Women (1994).  Glory, for the first time in film history, focused a Civil War story on black Union soldiers.  According to the movie, the black soldiers fought for the emancipation of their brothers in the South.  Glory’s only negative point was a “post-Vietnam attitude” about no good results after the war is over (Gallagher Causes, 100).  The remade classic, Little Women, approached the topic of emancipation through subtle bits of conversation throughout the movie.  The March girls refused to purchase silk because they had views on slavery, and Jo wished to fight against the “lions of injustice” like her father did as a Union soldier (Gallagher Causes, 101).  Because America currently focuses on social issues, the Emancipation Cause will doubtless continue as a popular Hollywood theme for many generations to come.

The inclusion of films in the study of Civil War interpretations is essential, because the modern American society lives in a visual civilization which must include films in order to understand history better.  Every film must be analyzed and interpreted according to historical context and accuracy since film makers edit the video footage to make their viewpoint clear to their target audience.  Yet for all the considerations which must be kept in mind when watching a historical movie, the visualization, the script, and the inclusion of primary and secondary resources make movies a valuable asset to modern historians.

Since the 1950s, the interpretations of the Civil War have transitioned into three specialized areas:  military history, political history, and social history.  Military history focused primarily on the technology of the Civil War and battlefield tactics.  Political history analyzed the decisions of Lincoln and the political events leading up to the war.  Social history, impacted largely by the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, reviewed individual lives with a particular emphasis on African Americans and women.

The military interpretation of war in general has boomed since the 1950s.  With high public interest in the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf Wars, a cable channel even emerged devoted solely to military history.  A military interpretation of the Civil War answered the questions of how and why the North won by analyzing military leadership, tactics, strategy, and the actual battle campaigns.  The key military historians include Gary Gallagher, Emory Thomas, Joseph Glatthaar, and Brooks Simpson.

Gary Gallagher described how the North had two levels of strategy for defeating the South.  The national strategy was broad in nature and included “deciding just what political goals the United States hoped to achieve from the war” (Gallagher “Blueprint,” 9).  The actual military strategy determined how the North would deploy its troops.  Gallagher lamented the heavy emphasis on the army’s role in the Civil War, and he pointed out that no scholar has written an interpretation of the role the Union navy played which ultimately brought the northern victory.  The brilliant strategy of the Northern navy and army, according to Gallagher, crushed the institution of slavery and restored the union to what it should have been.

Emory Thomas strove as a military historian to answer the question of why the South lost the Civil War.  Thomas argued against the theory that the South lost because of superior numbers by pointing to other historical military tactics which were victorious over great odds, particularly the American Revolution.  He believed if the Confederacy had been willing to embrace guerilla warfare, the outcome of the war might have been completely different.  Although the South did embrace daring tactics like blockade-running, it did not do enough to defeat their superior foes.

Joseph Glatthaar approached a military interpretation of the Civil War by analyzing the technological innovations in weaponry.  He postulated that the percussion cap and the minié ball completely altered the effectiveness of the gun which resulted in an elevation of war casualties.  Glatthaar emphasized the important role of the combined arms concept:  artillery, infantry, and cavalry.  To ignore the military innovations of the Civil War was to misunderstand that “these tactics determined how troops trained and fought, prescribed the sorts of experiences that Civil War soldiers encountered, and to a large extent dictated the astounding losses in America’s costliest conflict” (Glatthaar, 80).

Brooks Simpson approached the Civil War by arguing against the popular opinion of it being a modern war.  Simpson believed the Civil War was one of several world conflicts that provided a period of evolution in war history.  He proposed that the Confederate troops fought to protect slavery and preserve states’ rights while the Union soldiers fought to reunify the country.  Simpson concluded his military arguments by saying the North won because “its leadership, civil and military, proved better equipped to meet the challenges of the war it waged” (Simpson, 214).

Political interpretations of the Civil War increased after the 1950s with an explosion of interest in the politics of Abraham Lincoln.  Many scholars attributed this interest in Lincoln’s power because of the power displayed by Ronald Reagan during the 1980s.  The political historians—Mark Neely, Jr., Michael Holt, George Rable, and Michael Les Benedict—also considered the role of political parties, Congressional decisions, and the constitutional issues which contributed to the start of the Civil War.

With the rise of Lincoln literature, Mark Neely, Jr. called for a systematic comparison of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, a subject which had never been analyzed in previous history.  Neely argued that Lincoln was not the “Great Emancipator” that everyone had painted him as.  The idea of emancipation was a purely military action, a desire to get blacks to fight for the North; emancipation then became a political move to ensure Lincoln’s success.  An analysis of the motives, habits, and beliefs of the two Civil War presidents, Lincoln and Davis, might prove insightful in lieu of modern presidents who have governed powerfully during war time.

Michael Holt stepped away from the presidential analysis of Neely in order to propose a synthesis of the Congress and political culture to see how the political system functioned in the North during the Civil War.  While many of his contemporary historians would analyze pieces of political history, Holt advocated the general analysis of politics as a way to track the causes of the Civil War to the starting point of the political controversies.  The policies of Congress and the politics debated on the Congressional floor played key roles in causing the Civil War.  Holt firmly believed that a synthesis of politics would “link them … to the chronological course of the war,” thus providing a new outlook on interpreting the Civil War (Holt, 114).

George Rable supported Holt’s belief in a general synthesis of politics, but he applied the idea to Southern politics.  Confederate nationalism, state policy, and political behavior dominated Confederate thought prior to their defeat (Rable, 136).  Rable believed that an evaluation of Southern politics would prove that the idea of states’ rights was key in causing the Civil War.

Michael Les Benedict set aside the issues of North and South in order to analyze the effects of Civil War constitutional history.  Since three of the most powerful constitutional amendments resulted from the Civil War, Les Benedict argued that an analysis of constitutional policy prior to the war would prove insightful.  The whole problem of which new territories would be free or slave states was a constitutional issue.  How did the balance of powers, or lack of balance, affect the United States prior to the Civil War?  Did constitutional problems actually cause the Civil War?  The South’s interpretation of the Constitution led to its secession.  Les Benedict believed that “understanding the constitutional conflicts of the Civil War era remains essential to understanding the subject as a whole” (Les Benedict, 173).

The social interpretations of the Civil War escalated in the 1960s because the Civil Rights Movement increased interest in slavery and gender studies.  Historians finally stopped analyzing broad themes like politics, economics, and leadership in order to focus on the common civilian and slave.  Social history since the 1960s has been “the most vigorous and innovative sphere of American historian scholarship” with special focuses on women and slaves (McPherson, 6).  The new social historians—Reid Mitchell, Drew Faust, Peter Kolchin, and Richard Sewell—brought to life the stories of slaves, women, children, and the common soldier in their own new interpretation of the Civil War.

Reid Mitchell interpreted the Civil War through the eyes of the common soldiers who fought for states’ rights, emancipation, and the preservation of the Union.  Mitchell believed that “ideology [was] the most significant reason for the enthusiastic volunteering at the start of the war” (Mitchell, 88).  This ideology shaped the northern soldier’s opinion of the South and the southern soldier.  The North’s pride and revulsion at the southern lifestyle of slavery greatly impacted the ways soldiers fought and the reasons why they fought.

Drew Faust focused her devotion to Civil War sociology by analyzing the lives of the women who lost their loved ones during that era.  The impact of the Civil War nurses shed new light on the sociological interpretations of the war but also brought up new questions which Faust attempted to answer.  Faust found that Southern women were fairly easy to analyze because of the fast amount of primary sources that were left behind.  Southern women lived in a war zone so their very lives were wrapped up in war and war only.  For all of the analysis which has been completed by historians, Faust pointed out that their understanding of the Civil War and the role that women played has only increased.  Future historians will have much to add to Faust’s work.

Peter Kolchin, an African American social historian, believed “that slavery and the fate of black Americans lay at the heart of the struggle between North and South” (Kolchin, 242).  Many African Americans obtained their own freedom long before emancipation.  After the war was over, slaves who had won their own freedom were more likely to fight for jobs and land rather than being willing to return to anything that resembled subservient labor.  Kolchin called for a true analysis of how emancipation affected the African American population in regards to living conditions after the war.  Kolchin maintained that “slavery’s impact on the war in some ways [was] as important as the war’s impact on slavery” (Kolchin, 259).  Future studies will increase the amount of knowledge that historians possess about the true influence of slavery upon the Civil War.

Richard Sewell also embraced the idea of slavery as the cause of the Civil War; however, his focus remained on how slavery was “the taproot of sectional discord and civil war” (Sewell, xi).  Sewell examined the Northern and Southern attitudes about slavery which led to issues over slave states in the West.  The North was willing to enlist former slaves into their armies, but only in special divisions, since the North was prejudiced in their own right.  The nativism of the South influenced their opinions of slavery and their dread over the war having become “a poor man’s fight” instead of “a rich man’s war” (Sewell, xi).  After reviewing the sectional conflicts and the regional pride of the United States, Sewell concluded that slavery instigated the Civil War because the Union found no common ground to stand on.

Since the 1950s, historians and films have interpreted the Civil War through political, social, and military methodologies.  When approaching an interpretation of the Civil War, a historian must remember that no single issue created this monumental division but rather a plethora of reasons, beliefs, and constructs.  Slavery and states’ rights remain the top issues which caused the Civil War.  Historians are supposed to be the interpreters of the past, but they should not be so biased as to believe that they know more about the past than the people who lived through those times.  Therefore, the true interpretation of the Civil War may never be made, because historians are bound in their interpretations by the surviving resources.  In the end, the historian must analyze the evidence and then make the best judgment he can when interpreting the causes of the Civil War.

– Hannah S. Bowers


Gallagher, Gary. “Blueprint for Victory: Northern Strategy and Military Policy.” Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand. Eds. James McPherson and William Cooper, Jr. Columbia, SC:  University of South Carolina, 1998.

Gallagher, Gary.  Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten:  How Hollywood & Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War.  Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Glatthaar, Joseph.  “Battlefield Tactics.” Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand.  Eds. James McPherson and William Cooper, Jr. Columbia, SC:  University of South Carolina, 1998.

Holt, Michael.  “An Elusive Synthesis: Northern Politics during the Civil War.” Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand. Eds. James McPherson and William Cooper, Jr. Columbia, SC:  University of South Carolina, 1998.

Kolchin, Peter.  “Slavery and Freedom in the Civil War South.” Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand.  Eds. James McPherson and William Cooper, Jr. Columbia, SC:  University of South Carolina, 1998.

Les Benedict, Michael.  “A Constitutional Crisis.” Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand.  Eds. James McPherson and William Cooper, Jr. Columbia, SC:  University of South Carolina, 1998.

McPherson, James and William Cooper, Jr., eds.  Writing the Civil War:  The Quest to Understand.  Columbia, SC:  University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

Reid Mitchell, Reid.  “Not the General but the Soldier: The Study of Civil War Soldiers.” Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand. Eds. James McPherson and William Cooper, Jr. Columbia, SC:  University of South Carolina, 1998.

Rable, George.  “Beyond State Rights: The Shadowy World of Confederate Politics.” Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand.  Eds. James McPherson and William Cooper, Jr. Columbia, SC:  University of South Carolina, 1998.

Sewell, Richard.  A House Divided:  Sectionalism and Civil War, 1848-1865. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.