“Days before President Trump proposed eliminating federal funds for public broadcasting, PBS cancelled “Mercy Street,” the ambitious period drama they debuted with high expectations in 2016. PBS stated that it could no longer afford the expensive production and high-caliber cast — especially after losing a major grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Sadly, this means we will forever have only 12 episodes of a show that was quickly becoming the most important pop cultural depiction of the American Civil War.
“Hollywood has a long history of inaccurate portrayals of the conflict, and of slavery. Starting with influential films like D.W. Griffith’s virulently racist The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and continuing with Gone with the Wind in 1939, films long embraced a “Lost Cause” Civil War interpretation, in which slavery had little to do with the war’s causes and both white and black Southerners fought valiantly against marauding, unprincipled northern invaders.
“Even as the Civil Rights Movement motivated scholars to correct such distortions, evil Yankee soldiers repeatedly appeared in 1960s and ’70s movies and television, perhaps reflecting Vietnam War-era cynicism about the use of military force to suppress a rebellious population. Further, the enslaved community continued to remain largely on the periphery of the Civil War on film.
“As social and cultural historians increasingly went beyond the war’s military aspects, popular 1980s TV miniseries like “The Blue and the Gray” and “North and South” were soap operas in period costume, focusing on the war’s impact on white families. Even the watershed miniseries “Roots” (1977) ignored African-American contributions to the war. The exceptional 1989 film Glory revealed that black men had fought for the Union—yet white Union soldiers were still mostly portrayed as unprincipled foils.”
The rest of Dr. Brasher’s review is available on the Smithsonian Magazine‘s website.