There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields called the Old South … here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave … Look for it only in books for it is no more than a dream remembered … A Civilization gone with the wind …
The preceding is the title card screen prologue to a 1939 epic film that was so tightly woven into the fabric of popular culture that no American of my generation, or the two generations that preceded it, could be unfamiliar with it. Its musical score was as imprinted upon our DNA as were any number of snippets of dialog, such as the frightened slave Prissy screeching “De Yankees is comin!,” the antihero Rhett Butler uttering the scornful retort, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and the manipulative vixen Scarlett herself, in the final scene, voicing an irrepressible optimism with “Tara! Home. I’ll go home … After all … tomorrow is another day.” Tara. That was the storybook plantation home of Scarlett O’Hara, the locus for the romantic legend in the novel by Margaret Mitchell and its movie adaptation, that title card writ large in an imaginary dimension where gallant giants walked the earth and dutiful slaves like Mammy and Prissy lived in terror of invading Yankees instead of in gleeful anticipation of fleeing to freedom in their lines. And much more than a classic movie, Gone with the Wind served as the most successful paean to the myth of the “Lost Cause” since Birth of a Nation, with less malevolence and a much larger and more enduring audience.
In her highly original, thought-provocative study, Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend, Catherine Clinton walks back from the Tara of that iconic spectacle to its historical roots in an antebellum era erased by war that then spawned a revisionism that has not only stubbornly persisted but has seen a disturbing late renaissance as a similarly fanciful emergent heritage claimed by present-day right-wingers wrapped in Confederate flags. The current generation of the latter not only promotes the justice of rebellion, but even imagines tens of thousands of African-Americans garbed in gray and willingly wielding carbines to defend the Confederacy!
The scholarly consensus is that a narrow slice of elite planters committed to an expansion of slavery brought on the secession crisis and subsequent Civil War that resulted in the deaths of more than six hundred thousand Americans. The north at first put men at arms only to preserve the union, although emancipation later became a war aim. The south lost the war but in some sense won the peace. As Reconstruction gave way to “Redemption,” former Confederates regained control of the south and the freed African-Americans – who had enjoyed a brief period of near equal protection under the law – were terrorized, murdered and reduced to a second class status that persisted into the 1960s and beyond. The defeated promulgated a myth of the “Lost Cause” that rewrote history to claim that the conflict was about states’ rights rather than slavery, focused upon the depredations of Northern carpetbaggers, and especially upon the imagined threats of black men preying upon helpless white women. The “Lost Cause” was the creation mythology of this post-war south, and its vast success can be measured by the fact that its tissue of lies managed to convert much of the north in the decades to come, as reconciliation turned into a universal goal and the institutionalized abuse of African-Americans was rarely even acknowledged.
In Tara Revisited, Clinton focuses upon the plantation legend that is integral to central elements of the “Lost Cause” myth and turns it on its head. While she acknowledges there were indeed women like Scarlett O’Hara from families of extreme wealth who lived on large plantations with many slaves and busied themselves with social dalliances, her cohort comprised the tiniest minority of antebellum southern women. In fact, plantation life typically meant hard work and much responsibility even for affluent women. More critically, three-quarters of southerners owned no slaves at all and nearly ninety per cent of the remainder owned twenty or fewer. Plantations like Tara probably accounted for less than ten percent of the total, which is why its persistence in Lost Cause plantation legend is so notable. As such, Clinton takes us on a tour of the real antebellum south and the real white women who inhabited it: typically wives and daughters with no slaves who had very modest means, deprived of husbands and fathers away at war while they struggled to survive. Some worked in manufacturing to support the war effort, some volunteered to care for the wounded, some served as spies – for both sides – but most focused simply on keeping themselves and their families alive in a time of little food and great deprivation. She also reveals those who are often invisible to history, enslaved African-American women who lived hand-to-mouth in lean and dangerous times, most of whom were unable to escape to Union lines yet eagerly anticipated a northern victory that would ensure their liberation. Masters tried to instill fear in their slaves about the coming blue marauders, but most blacks saw right through this; if there was a cry of “De Yankees is comin!” it was more likely to be in celebration than distress.
Clinton also traces the growth of the legend of “rose colored plantation life” from its roots in a kind of forbidden literary tradition dubbed “Confederate porn” [p203-04] that glorified whites while demeaning blacks, to its central public role within “Lost Cause” theology from Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind and beyond. The living breathing cheerleaders of this fantasy are the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), an organization founded in 1894 to celebrate Confederate culture that continues to thrive today. It is no coincidence that there was both a rebirth of the “Lost Cause” and a resurgence of Confederate heritage during the Dixiecrat resistance to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The controversial Stars & Bars that was recently removed from the South Carolina statehouse was only first raised in 1962 by the then governor to protest desegregation. Since 1965, the UDC has coordinated an annual “Massing of the Flag” ceremony in Richmond on Jefferson Davis’s birthday in which the participants pledge “I salute the Confederate flag, with affection, reverence and undying remembrance.” [p186] There is of course for us in 2016 something both disturbing and surreal about this event, which seems to lionize the forces of rebellion while dishonoring the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of soldiers in blue who died to preserve the United States, not to mention the millions of African-Americans who were first enslaved beneath this flag and then terrorized and degraded by it for a century afterward.
Catherine Clinton, who is currently the Denman Professor of American History at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has a long resume as a historian that goes back to the PhD from Princeton that she earned with the completion of her dissertation under the direction of eminent Civil War scholar James M. McPherson. She wrote Tara Revisited in 1995, and I cannot help but wonder if she is at all surprised by yet another generational resurgence of the “Lost Cause” as an element of contemporary right-wing politics.
I recently screened Gone with the Wind on DVD. In retrospect, it is not really a very good film and it does not stand up well over time; the acting is often histrionic, the dialogue overwrought. It is dwarfed by other notable films of the same era. Unlike those of my generation, most millennials have probably never seen it. Yet, there remains a stubborn resilience in the notion of Tara, as underscored by the ongoing popularity of pilgrimage weeks in the south, “in which plantations recreate the Old South with costumes and other trappings,” and, as the author articulately observes, “in many ways embalm a departed south that perhaps never lived outside Confederate imaginations.” [p187] As such, the central theme of this well-written and eclectic work retains its relevance today. I highly recommend it.