On Robert E. Lee’s “lost orders” & HBO’s upcoming “Confederate.”


Photo Illustration from The Daily Beast, depicting Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss

Please allow me to weigh-in on a suddenly hot topic:

Like many of you, I am a huge fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones. So the news about its creators working on a new series called Confederate caught my attention, as it did many others. When the news broke that this is what they are working on, a backlash of reactions appeared on social media.

The new show will create an alternate timeline/universe in which the South successfully seceded, and thus slavery has survived into our current time-period.

HBO says:

The story will follow “a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.”

Put me down on the side of the people who are outraged about this ridiculousness.

Of course the controversy probably has the creators and producers all the more excited about the project, and in their response to the criticisms one producer called the show’s content “weapons-grade material.”

I think a lot of the criticism of the show is a knee-jerk response. Games of Thrones has had a lot of sexual violence, needlessly gratuitous sex and nude scenes, and a lack of diversity. So, many people immediately felt the show’s premise would create an offensive “wish fulfillment” for Alt-right crackpots and/or Neo-Confederates.

I don’t buy that.

It is clear these guys intend to show why it was important that the United States won the war, ended slavery, and preserved the Union. It actually will probably only anger Neo-Confederates to see it theorized that had the South won, slavery would have continued to thrive—as we know that one of the Lost Cause’s main contentions is that not only did the South not secede to defend slavery, but that they would have gotten rid of it on their own. Hogwash

Lord knows I don’t mind anything that annoys the people that still buy the Lost Cause myth.

I further suspect that the show will theorize that had the Union not been preserved, the colossus the United States became in the 20th century would not have been around to turn the tide of two world wars, and triumph in the Cold War (or did we? Hmm).  I’m guessing in this alternate history, Germany wins WWII, and/or that Russian communism has gone global.

And lastly, it is clear that the show’s creators hope that by creating this alternate world, they will be able to explore racial issues in an open and honest way, making it clear how the legacy of slavery in the US still permeates and defines our society. Surely, Neo-Confederates and Alt-right folks won’t find comfort in that.

So I don’t think these guys have in mind some kind of Harry Turtledove-like nonsense. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt on that.

Yet I am still mad about this, in fact, a bit enraged.

Because this is HBO, and because it’s the creators of Game of Thrones, this show is likely to be pretty good TV, if not great. The studio has enormous resources and a track-record of producing amazing shows. Further, because of the controversy, the audience is likely to be huge.

And THAT is what makes me mad.

Why not use those resources, those talents, and that built-in audience to tell a REAL story about “freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall” to mass audiences in a quality way?

History has enough amazing, untold stories out there, that I simply cannot understand why we need to create an alternate universe to make the point that it is a good thing that the Confederacy lost, that the Union was preserved, that slavery was ended, and yet that its legacy still shapes and defines the political, social, and cultural fabric of modern America.

As you all know, I am a big champion of Mercy Street, and to a lesser degree Underground. Neither show was cancelled because of a lack of audiences, and in the case of Mercy Street, the funding woes of PBS was the primary culprit.

Keep in mind, we still live in an America in which large numbers of people (probably a majority) still have no clue as to what really caused the Civil War (and/or actively deny the facts) and of what went on during slavery. Doesn’t the current national debate over Rebel monuments and flags tell us that we still need more mass education about what the Confederacy stood for? Why explain that to people within the context of a fantasy world?

Imagine if you can, an alternate realm in which HBO uses its creative talents and resources to produce shows like Mercy Street and Underground, telling stories that are all the more compelling and impactful because they are true, reaching far larger audiences than PBS and WGN combined.

It isn’t like HBO does not already have a very fine track record of producing powerfully engaging history movies and mini-series, and in fact have a much anticipated project in the works based on Harriet Tubman. (What’s taking so long on that?)

Further, the Game of Thrones show-runners admit to being “history nerds” that came up with the idea for this new show after reading Shelby Foote’s description of the “lost orders” before the Battle of Antietam. It got them to thinking about the importance of contingency in historical events, and that led to the show’s concept.

But guess what guys, historians have long been arguing for the importance of contingency, and they do it in the context of solid historical facts. So could you. The “lost orders” story was compelling to you BECAUSE IT REALLY HAPPENED.

In fact, I just talked about the lost orders in my Civil War course this summer, and the class all agreed that you just can’t make stuff like that up. I’m guessing the vast majority of Americans have no clue about it.

So here’s what I am saying: Give us a show set in the late 1850s or during the Civil War, filled with real-life characters—or perhaps even better, in the 1870s during Reconstruction. Do your research and you’ll find a treasure-trove of real life events that you could fictionalize into truly compelling and thought-provoking TV, accomplishing all the goals you have in mind for Confederate, and yet it would be all the more powerful because it’s all so true.

All good historians know that the 19th century is filled with “weapons-grade material” still waiting to be told to mass audiences.

PLEASE go mine those stories and drop this inane idea.

Now I am going to the theater to see the new hit movie,  Dunkirk . . . you know, a true story.



One thought on “On Robert E. Lee’s “lost orders” & HBO’s upcoming “Confederate.”

  1. Pingback: Recent history-based TV shows; Time travel, Gilded Age New York, and the really, really, Wild West | History Headlines

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