How Confederate History Was Weaponized by the Culture Wars

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If you were writing a movie about the United States’ second Civil War, there would be a few stumbles you’d be careful not to make: It would be tone deaf, for instance, to center the action on a well-meaning white bystander’s terror, and a waste of a good premise to gloss over how, logistically speaking, the modern-day South would rise again.


While you were at it, you’d probably be very careful to minimize scenes in which young men of color riot and brutally stab the defenseless, white elderly. Unfortunately the guys behind Bushwick, a new indie-thriller about a mercenary army of young men from Texas and Louisiana invading Brooklyn, did none of those things. The setting for their movie is a civil war the way a video game might imagine it, with long tracking shots and sweet panoramas of bodegas in flames—a civil war movie made by people who seem to think the conflict of 1861 was about multiculturalism and who, being American boys, have never thought much about other wars.

In interviews, its creators have taken pains to connect their film to the current political climate: “[T]he way the country has become so separated,” lead Dave Bautista told the Hollywood Reporter, “it’s like, man, is this really that farfetched?”


The national pastime of predicting a Neo-Confederate uprising—or a series of secessions—came back into fashion when Donald Trump took to the campaign trail. It’s been reinvigorated after Charlottesville, when white supremacists held a violent rally ostensibly to protect the legacy of Robert E. Lee and a KKK grand wizard shot a gun into the crowd. In January, the National Review predicted “America’s Second Civil War” would be fought between liberals and the right; a month later, The Nation interviewed a Civil War historian who claimed to have written “a handbook for our times.” The left, too, has its favored Civil War figures: Redneck Revolt, by far the most visible armed anti-racist group to attend protests since Trump took office, also refers to itself as the John Brown Gun Club, named after the famed abolitionist who roved the country mowing down racists with his numerous sons.

Meanwhile, half of American teenagers can’t tell you when the Civil War started, and the president has a plaque on one of his golf courses commemorating a Union-Confederate skirmish that’s entirely made up. Civil War books are being read at a less ravenous rate by young people, and popular documentaries like Ken Burns’ Civil War series have given way to literal rewritings of history: Days after HBO announced its ill-considered “slavery fan-fic” show Confederate, Amazon countered with its own forthcoming post-war interpretation, Black America, where freed slaves have been granted the states of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama as part of a reparations deal.

The generation that devoured Civil War history is aging. Symbols of the Confederacy are being appropriated by a coalition of neo-Nazis, Trump supporters, and white nationalists. And the once-regional memory of an imagined white ethnostate has mutated—and gone country-wide.

“The Civil War is the new hot-button issue in the culture wars,” Lawrence Kreiser, a professor at the historically black Stillman College in Alabama, tells me. Most of his students see the war, flatly, as a struggle over “power,” he says; they want to know that the Union was good and the Confederacy bad. Complex pictures of the war tend to make people “uncomfortable,” he says: “For example, that many white southerners used Christianity to uphold slavery, and that some northerners fought more to preserve the Union.” He thinks The Kids get a lot of their information about the war from the internet; they don’t even watch Glory anymore.


Since the scrubbing of the KKK from Gone With the Wind’s script, popular representations of the Civil War have been quietly reframing history. (Even Burns’s series renders Lee an anti-slavery figure.) As Jim Cullen, editor of Reusable Past, a collection of essays about Civil War ephemera, told me, most fictions about the war since the ‘70s—for example, Mercy Street, a short-lived TV show—have focused on personal identity over politics. “It’s anti-ideological,” he says. “It’s about corruption on both sides, the landscape of mindless violence.” But even in the last few years, historians tell me, the habit of masking “politics” under play-by-play breakdowns of the battle of Gettysburg has waned. For a younger generation, more likely to stumble on weaponized histories pitting states rights against slavery, the Civil War is ideological first, the history of the conflict scraped out. Even Civil War buffs, once a demographic market large enough to fuel entire book imprints, are abandoning the cause to their fringier cohorts.

The individual figures and battles of the Civil War spawned entire book imprints for the generation now in their 40s and 50s. More than 15,000 biographies have been written on Lincoln alone. In the ‘90s, journalist and historian Tony Horwitz returned from living abroad to find his peers obsessed with Ken Burns and Confederate re-enactors restaging battles in the thousands. In the 2000s Ta-Nehisi Coates read a James McPherson book that he says transformed him into a veritable Civil War buff—a person “who pores over the books chronicling the battles, then walks the parks where the battles were fought.”


Horwitz has been in the South again recently, researching a new book, and since Charlottesville he’s been contacting his old subjects: the curator of the Confederate museum in Richmond, a black park guide at Fort Sumter, a woman who plays Scarlett O’Hara at parties and corporate functions. It all feels very different, he tells me: In the ‘90s there was a “critical mass of white Southerners raised with a memory of the Civil War,” people with direct family ties to a Confederate identity. Two decades later, the combination of higher immigrant populations in the South and a lack of interest among younger people has erased a “reflexive allegiance” to that memory. Even some re-enactors, wary of the messaging, says Horwitz, have been canceling their events.

Between the lines, it sounds like the only people clinging to Confederate symbols are the ones who aren’t that concerned with history. The vocal American movement for a white ethnostate, for generations focused around Southern nationalists like League of the South, has gone nationwide. White nationalist Chris Cantwell, who told a Vice reporter in Charlottesville that a lot more people are going to die before we’re done here,” grew up in Long Island, after all.


Recently the New Yorker published a widely shared story that asked, “Is America headed for a new kind of civil war?” in which it quoted a national security expert who’s worked in the UN and the State Department. He calculated the likelihood of the event at somewhere around 60%.

Kreiser, the professor in Alabama, says talk of a second Civil War is overblown: “It’s the access of some crackpots to social media, where they espouse secession and the reestablishment of a white, Christian South.” But Horwitz thinks that since Dylann Roof, the Southern landscape he once spent years researching has changed dramatically; younger people are less engaged in “honoring the Confederate side of the war.” And in the ‘90s, while he heard some terrifying speeches, those guys weren’t “coming out to the rally with a riot shield.” And as our popular interpretations of the war are trending toward speculative instead of semi-historical fictions, it’s clear if this ever had to do with “heritage,” it sure doesn’t now.

Molly Osberg is a Senior Reporter with G/O Media.