- This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America by Nina Silber
This War Ain't Over provides a fascinating exploration of "how Americans used a troubled past," not just the Civil War but also slavery and Reconstruction, "to navigate a complicated present," the Great Depression and World War II (1). In the midst of the suffering of the Depression, Nina Silber shows, Americans turned their attention to the Civil War, an earlier national trial that foretold ultimate survival and "shaped a history that often spoke directly to their present-day political concerns" (2). Silber has done extensive research in a wide variety of sources and wisely and carefully shows how various groups viewed that troubled past differently and employed its memory for differing purposes. She looks at "conservative southern Democrats; anticommunists; New Dealers; civil rights activists; and the communists and Popular Fronters" (3). If any group gets less attention than it deserves, it may be white northerners, particularly the more conservative of them.
The book begins with a discussion of the state of Civil War memory on the eve of the Depression. The Lost Cause, with its utility in maintaining white supremacy, remained important in the South, Silber argues. A "more muted" and "diffused" vision of the war survived in the North, with African Americans doing the most to keep the memory of the war alive there, but even among them the importance of the war had declined (17). Nevertheless, "the story of the white family feud, now healed in defense of sectional reconciliation and white supremacy, had a strong presence in American culture" (21). With the Civil War generation having passed from the scene, however, Americans could and did reshape the war's meaning. They did so in "messages . . . less tethered to events and emotions of the 1860s and far more to the concerns, sensibilities, and structural imperatives of twentieth-century life" (36).
Silber then discusses the role of New Deal arts programs in exploring slavery and the Civil War and the shift of responsibility for Civil War battlefields from the War Department to the National Park Service. The Park Service deemphasized the war's bloodshed and instead put the war into [End Page 669] a longer sweep of history, often with a southern bias. She also makes a convincing case for the role of movies in shaping the new messages, and throughout the book they serve as important sources for understanding memory.
During the Depression, Silber shows, factory workers, sharecroppers, labor leaders, and many other Americans came to see themselves as slaves, most prominently whites. Some portrayed whites and blacks as united in slavery, but a "key argument of this book," and a compelling one, is that "slavery was increasingly portrayed, in speeches, novels, and films, as a problem with particular applicability to white suffering." White Americans, in other words, "appropriated the legacy of black enslavement" (5). At the same time, the federal arts programs tended to treat the African American experience of slavery as "either quaint, inconsequential, or a subject best left unexplored" (85).
Along with its fascinating analysis of whites' appropriation of slavery, the book provides an equally insightful discussion of the changing image of Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe "underwent," Silber convincingly demonstrates, "a series of remarkable transformations: no longer a bland symbol of reconciliation, he emerged as a figure more firmly associated with federal power and racial justice, although the racial message was often tempered by an appreciation of Lincoln's racially neutral 'humanitarianism'" (100).
Silber then turns to the South and the role of the Lost Cause. The white South had always had a special tie to its Civil War past, she argues, but its interest in the war intensified and the Lost Cause became more conservative in response to the New Deal, particularly in the late 1930s after the Democrats and the federal government displayed a new interest in intervening in southern race relations. Even before that, the white South blamed its poverty...