My Top Ten “Spook Movies” of all time!


As many of you may know, I am a big fan of ghost stories. I enjoy them as folktale, and for what they say about the culture and time from which they emerged. But, I’ll admit I also love them simply because they are fun. Last Halloween I discovered Colin Dickey’s Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (winner of a Best Book of the Year Award from NPR).  It was so good that I read it again over the last few nights to get in the Halloween spirit. Dickey is a fine writer with a healthy cynicism about ghosts. He explores many of the more famous American ghost stories that are a product of particular moments in American history, and he effectively roots the tales within solid historical context (such as the rise of spiritualism in the 19th century). He is less interested in the alleged ghosts than he is how these stories came about and how true events help to explain their creation. I cannot recommend the book highly enough.

But for today’s blog I wanted to do something different than I normally do. Besides ghost folklore, I am also a big fan of what I call “spook movies.” These are films about ghosts, and are not horror movies filled with shock and gore. They’re more subtly scary stories about what may or may not be paranormal.  I am most impressed with films that do not utilize a ton of over-the-top special effects, as I am a big believer that nothing has the potential to scare you more than your own mind. With the right lighting, camera angles, sounds, and intelligent storylines, ghost movies can produce a lot of eery fun without cheap shocks or gross visuals.

Every Halloween I enjoy watching such films. They create the perfect mood, staying with you long after the lights go out and you crawl into bed. So in very carefully considered descending order, let me present my top 10 spook movies—all from an historian’s perspective.

10. The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Scared Stiff (1953) ghostbreakers1940.76190_080820140135.jpg

-Why not start with a little comedy before we descend into darkness? The Ghost Breakers is a Bob Hope film which was remade by the legendary comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as Scared Stiff. I have a fondness for both films because at a young age they introduced me to the joys of ghost movies. Both are played for laughs, but there are some truly creepy moments involving both “zombies” and ghosts. Of the two, Ghost Breakers is superior, with Hope playing a radio show host during the Golden Age of radio broadcasting. It was made at a time when celebrities like him did double-duty as both radio and film stars. (Whenever I teach my classes about the American home-front during WWII, I am dismayed by the increasing number of students who have never even heard of Bob Hope, much less the role he played in entertaining our troops during so many of the 20th century’s wars).  The film also provides a glimpse of how zombies were portrayed in films before George Romero changed the rules with Night of the Living Dead (1968). Prior to that groundbreaking film, zombies were creepy, but essentially harmlessly catatonic and tied to voodoo practices. The film is also set in Cuba before the Cuban revolution, when it was a fashionable tourist destination for wealthy Americans. Shamefully, it features a comedically stereotypical black character such as Hollywood was prone to depicting in the Jim Crow era, reinforcing white America’s racist assumptions. Willie Best’s performance in the major role is laudatory, however. Meanwhile, Paulette Goddard plays a spunky woman who shows much less fear than Hope or Best, and it is her bravery that fuels most of the action. For you that may not know, Goddard was married to Charlie Chaplin and was a finalist for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. (I believe she would have been perhaps equally as stunning in the role as was Vivien Leigh). This one is great to pop in before the kids go to bed.

9. The Innocents (1961). innocents-the-1961-004-miss-giddens-in-the-dark.jpg

Starring the magnificent Deborah Kerr, this film is based on Henry James’s classic novel, The Turn of the Screw. I love it because like most of the movies on this list, it is more psychological drama than horror. A governess in charge of two young children, Kerr becomes convinced that their house is haunted, and/or that the children are possessed. But are they? Or is she just slowly losing her mind? Everything about how to make a truly creepy movie without shock and special effects is on display in this intriguing character study.

8. The Sixth Sense (1999). the-sixth-sense-4.jpg

No real reason to say much about this movie because I am sure that most of you are familiar with it.  I like that it is set in Philadelphia, where colonial ghosts abound. And while I was one of those that sensed the surprise twist ending coming, it still carried quite a jolt. The best thing about it, however, is that in an age when CGI special effects could have really sent this movie over the top, director M. Night Shyamalan opted for restraint and traditional special effects. The film is all the more effectively creepy because of it.

7. The Innkeepers (2011)


Okay, here is one that many of you may not have seen even though it is a more recent film. I am not a big fan of most current horror movies because I feel that they rely too much on shock and CGI special effects. Director Ti West’s The Innkeepers is an exception—for the most part. Set in an old New England hotel (filmed in Connecticut’s real-life Yankee Pedlar Inn, founded in 1891), the film is purposely slow at delivering its story and relies mostly on character development. We come to really like the two protagonists, and are fascinated by their interest in capturing proof of the paranormal in a hotel with a ton of history.  The film builds its suspense in the old-fashioned way and, like the hotel itself, seems a product of a bygone era.  There is no use of CGI in it at all! Sadly, I feel that it goes over-the-top in its climatic finale, but like any truly great spook movie, the biggest chills come from what you do not see rather than what you do. (FYI: The cast and crew claims to have had some paranormal experiences while filming the movie at the historic inn).

6. The Shining (1980).


Again there is probably not much to say here about a movie that most have seen.  To me the power in this film is that like The Innocents, it leaves you wondering if the protagonist is simply losing his mind. Some 1920s Jazz-era spooks are truly and clearly haunting the deserted hotel, but the real terror comes from Jack Nicholson’s slow-burn dissent into madness. If you ever get a chance to see this film on the big screen, take it. It is a much different experience than on TV. Trust me. Danny’s big-wheel rides and the pursuit through the maze are stunningly more effective and terrifying on the big screen.

And now the top 5!

5. The Body Snatcher (1945). boris-karloff-body-snatcher.jpg

Here is another one that many of you may not have seen. The film was produced by legendary filmmaker Val Lewton, who was hired by RKO in the 1940s to tap into some of the success that Universal studios had with “creature feature” films like Dracula (1931) Frankenstein (1931),  The Mummy (1932), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and The Wolf Man  (1941). (All great movies–especially the Bride of Frankenstein— with an appeal all their own, but this list is about spook movies). Working with a very limited budget, Lewton and his team of directors and editors were masters at using lighting, music, camera angles, and sound to scare you with what they did not show rather than what they did. Lewton’s greatest masterpieces are Cat People (1941) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), but neither of those involve ghosts. The Body Snatcher is directed by Robert Wise, featuring Boris Karloff (who had played both Frankenstein and the Mummy for Universal) as a seedy early 19th century slum-dweller who makes a living producing freshly dead bodies and selling them to a prestigious doctor who uses them for anatomical research. Does Karloff dig them up, or murder them? Either way, the doctor is unconcerned. The plot is rooted in historical fact (and based loosely on a series of Scottish murders in 1828).  In the 1700 and 1800s, this sort of thing did indeed occur in the name of medical progress, and even Benjamin Franklin was probably somewhat involved in this nefarious trade when he lived in London. A ghost does not make an appearance in the film until the very last moments and it is a situation where we have to question whether or not it is supernatural, or if there is a more psychological explanation. This ambiguousness is its brilliance, and either way, the ending provides a powerful punch.

4. The Others (2001).


This is another one that many of you have probably have seen. It is heavily inspired by The Innocents (with the always brilliant Nicole Kidman), building its drama by forcing us to consider whether the events are paranormal or if there is a psychological explanation. It is set just after WWII, but one scene builds the plot and creates a very eerie mood by portraying the mourning photographs that were popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s (In which grieving families took photographs of their beloved dead, often propping them up and posing with them). It has a surprise twist ending, and to me the brilliance of it is that once you know the ending, watching the film again creates an almost completely different movie because you see events from a totally different perspective.

3. The Uninvited (1944).

the-uninvited.jpgNot to be confused with the 2009 film with the same title, this film broke the mold for how Hollywood dealt with ghosts. While Universal studio’s “creature feature” movies gave us real monsters in the 1930s, ghosts were almost always explained in the end with a natural explanation–usually involving some bad guy trying to fool people. (à la Scooby Doo).  But during the dark days of World War II when many films started exploring darker themes in almost every genre, The Uninvited played the ghosts straight. This makes it perhaps our first true spook movie. It features a haunted house with two spirits, and a mystery that our protagonists (including the ever-dapper Ray Milland) must solve in order to give rest to the restless dead. This storyline and many of its scenes seem clichéd now, but this is because this film created the clichés. For instance, a séance scene (that is very rooted in the practices of 19th century spiritualists like the Fox Sisters) harkens to almost every ghost movie you have seen that was made after 1944. And like all the other movies on this list, the film’s power derives from character development and eeriness generated from what you do not see rather than what you do. This one was a game-changer.

2. The Changeling (1980)


Again do not confuse this film with a more current one with the same title. This George C Scott film will truly freak you out. If you think The Shining is scary, I dare you to watch this one alone. The film is set in a Gilded Age mansion that carries a dark secret involving a quintessential robber baron magnet who was determined to pass his empire on to a son that could maintain the fortune and make it grow. Mourning the recent loss of his family in a car accident, George C. Scott’s character moves into the mansion during the present day, and while dealing with his own problems, discovers a spirit with much bigger emotional issues than his own. Like The Uninvited, the film also has a séance scene straight from the practices of 19th century spiritualists, and provides subtle moments of terror that will freak you out the more you think about them afterwards. The power of this film is that it will terrify you with simple images, such as a child’s ball rolling down the stairs.

And my #1 spook movie!

1. The Haunting (1963)


Please forget about the 1999 remake. It is crap.

The less I tell you about this film is probably for the better, because everyone deserves to watch this brilliant movie the first time without any preconceived notions. All I will say is this: if you’ve read all of my list so far, you’ve now got a good sense of what I feel creates the best spook movies. Simply put, The Haunting is the finest blend of all these elements, and regardless of genre is a true cinematic masterpiece. Produced and directed by a Val Lewton protégé, the legendary Robert Wise (who also directed The Body Snatcher, but also such classics as West Side Story, and The Sound of Music), the movie is an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Legend of Hill House. Honestly, I am still waiting for this film to be topped by a better spook movie, though I suspect it never will. Watch this one and then try not to dream about Hugh Crane as you drift off to sleep.

And remember, no one will hear you cry out for help.

“In the night.

In the dark.”




How long?

Maybe I’ll eventually have something cogent and worthwhile to say about the news from Las Vegas today. But as I watch the news I feel emotionally exhausted, and all I got is this:

Back in June, I was fortunate enough to have caught U2’s 30th anniversary tour of their Joshua Tree album. It was perhaps the greatest concert I have ever seen, and one that was very emotional for me, having grown up a huge fan. Many of the band’s songs have spoken to me at various moments in my life: first love, first lost love, good times shared in high school and college with close friends, distance from loved ones, 9/11, career uncertainty, my book’s publication, and the death of my father. Through it all, their music has been a constant in my life, in good and bad times, and often a source of emotional support.

During the show, lead singer Bono said that many of their songs seem to have taken on a new and more important meaning than when he first wrote them. Anyone that knows their work, knows this to be very true. In many ways, the whole concert was brilliantly structured to make that very point. It was U2 being U2 again.

Unfortunately, one of their first and greatest hits seems to have pretty the same message today as it did way back in 1983. The events are different, but the point remains the same.

So yet again, U2 perfectly speaks to what I am feeling.

And as Ken Burn’s Vietnam series just reminded us though its brilliant soundtrack, sometimes our music just says it better.

On R.E. Lee, slavery, hate mail, and “bias.”


WOW, has it really been so long since I last posted? It has been a busy start to the new semester, but I hope to get back to posting more regularly.

In the meantime, I have a piece that was recently posted by Daily Beast, in which I step lightly into the current discussion about Robert E. Lee and slavery. Big-time historians like Eric Foner have pitched into this conversation, as has Atlantic senior editor Adam Serwer. In both cases, they leaned on a letter by Lee to his wife in which he maintains that slavery is beneficial for African Americans and, ironically, bad for whites. They also make much of a primary source that reveals Lee once hired slavecatchers to retrieve some runaways, and then had the captured men brutally whipped. Both are good sources that tell us much about Lee the slaveholder.

Yet back when doing research for my book, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation, I discovered some primary sources that provide us a view of Lee and slavery from the perspective of peoples enslaved by him. The sources all found their way into my book, but I felt that in our current discussion about Lee’s legacy (because of the monument controversy), I needed to get the sources out there in the context of this debate. The Daily Beast was happy to oblige. I hope you’ll take a look and pass the link along.

In response to that piece, I have received some heated emails by those that feel the need to keep Lee’s reputation untarnished. None of them bear repeating here, but I can’t say that any of them shocked me. I have engaged with these folks enough in my life to know them very well, especially during my years as an NPS ranger at Richmond National Battlefield park. When you stand on the Cold Harbor battlefield and remind folks that Lee’s tactics killed a greater percentage of his men than did those of Grant “the butcher,” or when you discuss slavery as the cause of secession with folks more interested in giving a rebel yell during a tour of Malvern Hill, you get to know these modern defenders of the Confederacy really well.

In one discussion thread on Facebook (Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory page), I was accused of being “biased.” Public historian Nick Sacco responded to the postings (I responded to one of them that I felt most merited a response), and apparently it inspired him to blog about the problem of people dismissing an argument simply by declaring it “biased.” He nails it.

I’m guessing that many of the people who have angrily emailed me and responded to the article would be surprised to find that for the most part I am still not in favor of total removal of the monuments, especially in Richmond. My only point in writing the article was that when considering Lee and the fate of his memorials, the perspective of those that were enslaved by him needs to be part of the conversation.  I’m not sure how that can be considered a bias, unless favoring open mindedness and having fair and productive discussion qualifies as having a bias.


On another note, I hope you guys are watching the PBS Vietnam War series. It is mesmerizing. I’m sure I will have much to say about it once it wraps up. Stay tuned.

The rebel monument debate comes to my hometown (and another dear to my heart).


City workers covering up a Confederate memorial in Birmingham

We all know the debate over Confederate monuments has gone white-hot, especially after the events in Charlottesville.

I have weighed in on this debate several times in the last year (and have no stomach for the argument that removal is “erasing history,” as I argued here) and I am firmly on record as favoring contextualization rather than removal, either by placing them in a museum (as the University of Texas did), or leaving them where they are and putting up new signs that explain the reasons the monuments were put up in the first place (like the University of Mississippi did). I also favor counter-monuments that help diversify the history we choose to remember and memorialize.

But above all, I favor letting local communities decide for themselves what they choose or don’t choose to memorialize.

However the events of the last couple of days, and Trump’s stunning reaction to them, started pushing me closer to supporting full removal.

Last night, I emotionally felt pretty much exactly as did CNN’s Van Jones:

But because I have been asked,  I want to weigh-in again on this issue by focusing on part of what Trump said, and specifically on two cities that are very close to my heart: Richmond, Virginia, (where I got my masters degree, worked at its National Battlefield Park, and lived for eight years) and Birmingham, Alabama (my hometown).

Richmond of course, is famous for its beautiful Monument Avenue, featuring enormous and imposing statues of rebel leaders such as Jefferson Davis, JEB Stuart, and Stonewall Jackson.  This summer, city leaders formed a commission to discuss how to best contextualize, but not to remove, the statues.  They held a public hearing to discuss options, and what followed was predictable mass chaos.  The audience seemed to disregard the fact that removal was not on the table, as it turned into a fight over whether to remove the statues or not. Not surprisingly, it quickly turned into a fight over what caused the South to secede. It got ugly. 

I was not there, but I have a friend and fellow historian that was, and based on his emotional and mostly sensible Facebook posting that night, it was an unmitigated disaster that probably only hardened people’s hearts and opinions, frustrating everyone.

After the stunning events of the last few days, Richmond’s mayor has decided that removal IS now on the table, and has instructed the commission to add that option to its deliberations. He made it clear he personally now favors removal. Even more powerful, two great, great grandsons of Stonewall Jackson have called for removal in a powerful plea. 

I can’t say I blame any of them, as my emotional reaction to Charlottesville, as I said above, was also to take all these rebel monuments down.

Yet stepping back from those emotions causes me to feel that of all southern cities, Richmond is probably the one in which it is most important that they stay up.

As the Capital of the Confederacy, (sitting within easy driving distance of some of the war’s most important and preserved battlefields), the city is perhaps the only one that people actually travel to just to see the monuments. (No one is going to New Orleans, or Baltimore, or Nashville, JUST to see rebel memorials).

And from an educational and public history perspective that is a GOOD THING. The city has done an exceptional job over the last decade to create institutions, memorials, and other public education endeavors, telling the WHOLE and diverse story of the Civil War and the Confederacy, and the connection of both to the institution of slavery.

The monuments not only draw people to these educational opportunities, but they themselves are important educational tools for demonstrating how previous generations chose to interpret the Civil War in an effort to promote the “Lost Cause.”

Most rebel monuments were originally placed as means of denying that the South had seceded in order to preserve slavery.  Their purpose was to glorify and distort the causes of the Confederacy’s attempt to break from the United States, painting it as an effort to defend “States Rights.” (Just how successful that effort was has been made all the more clear lately—-that Richmond public hearing, for example).

At the same time, they are monuments to white supremacy and resistance to efforts at racial justice. This chart detailing when most of these monumnts and memorials went up, demonstrates this very effectively. Thus, the erection of the monuments has a history and purpose all their own.

If you want the perfect classroom for exploring the Lost Cause, its meanings, and its successes, there is no better one than standing at the base of the Lee monument, or especially the one of Jefferson Davis. Contextualization in those spots could be a powerful way to educate the public about the white supremacist movements that for so long successfully distorted America’s understanding of the Civil War for their own political agenda. (And which has once again reared its ugly and violent head).

So I favor contextualization in Richmond, and the addition of more monuments that tell a more inclusive story (how about one to the African American troops that played a large role in reclaiming the city for the United States, for example?). Of course the problem is that most people view the monuments as they ride quickly by in cars or tourist buses, and thus I’m not sure how much contextualization signs would be visible and/or effective. This is definitely a problem.

Still, I think this is the right solution for Richmond, and they, above probably all other cities, have the ability to set the model for how these rebel monuments can be used to educate the public about how and why so many people are misinformed about the causes of the Civil War, and how those efforts were tied to resistance to black progress and racial justice.

I hope they get it right.

And then there is my hometown.  I took a lot of pride when it was announced in January that Birmingham’s Civil Rights district was being turned into a national park. The Confederate memorial near this area creates a strong contrast to the newer (and increasing) memorials and interpretive signage marking the pivotal events that occurred in Birmingham, especially those in 1963 that played a prominent role in pushing President Kennedy into proposing the Civil Rights Act. Make no mistake, the new park is preserving an American battlefield for racial justice:

The events in Charlottesville had me feeling that rebel monuments in Birmingham should come down, as they are an insult and black-eye on this historic district. Yet, a local news story may have pushed me back the other way again.

In the wake of what happened in New Orleans, the state of Alabama passed a ridiculous law making it illegal for local communities to remove rebel monuments. The hypocrisy here is amazing, considering that Republicans stand on the principle of power resting in the hands of localized government (a concept I have been mostly sympathetic to most of my life). Of course this is akin to the hypocrisy of Republicans calling for a small federal government that does not involve itself in our lives, and yet wanting one that legislates morality. If there is one thing the Republican party needs right now, it is consistency of principle.

Anyway, the city of Birmingham’s mayor and city council has decided to figure out some way to challenge this law, maybe by removing the statues and fighting it in the courts (I think they would win in the higher courts), or just paying the fine. In the meantime, they have opted for covering up the monuments, first with a tarp, and now with some plywood.

As a result, the state’s attorney general is suing Birmingham for violating “the spirit” of the law. So the battle has been joined. 

What struck me in a local news story, however, was a reporter mentioning that the monument is in the shadow of the places dear to the Civil Rights movement. For instance, the A.G. Gaston motel where Martin Luther King stayed during “Project C” is within a rock’s throw of the rebel monument. Here he and other heroes coordinated their assault on Birmingham’s white supremacist laws and racial injustices, right near a monument to the very forces they sought to destroy. And it was here that dynamite was thrown into the building in an effort to kill these Civil Rights leaders.

Does not the presence of this Lost Cause monument make what King and the hundreds of Civil Rights footsoldiers did in Birmingham even more profound?  Would we not lose part of the story if we move the Confederate monument? Is it not a perfect symbol of everything that the Civil Rights movement fought against and brought to its knees in Birmingham?

Properly interpret that monument, in the context of its purposes and also within the Civil Rights movement, and you’ve got a powerful public education tool. Removal takes that away.

So I stand for leaving it up.

ON THE OTHER HAND, you should read this op-ed by Mississippi State University Professor Anne E. Marshall, who argues that she once stood for contextualization, but has changed her mind after seeing its failure in Louisville, Ky. I can’t say she doesn’t make a lot of sense. Yet I still  think Richmond, as well as Birmingham, are different cases than Louisville—Which only reinforces my conviction that this is best left to case-by-case decisions from within the effected communities.

And then there’s Trump. I am not going to comment on how sad I was to hear our president say that there were good people in a crowd organized by white nationalists. Honestly, I can’t add anything to the outrage that has already been expressed.

Screen Shot 2017-08-17 at 2.36.22 AM.png

Yet I have been asked by past and present students, as well as friends, about my thoughts on one aspect of what he said. So I’ll comment briefly on that.

Trump, echoing many others, insisted that if we take down a monument to Lee and Jackson because they were slaveholders, this logically would lead us to take down monuments to other slaveholders, many of which were our founding fathers. Where would it end? There goes the Washington Memorial in DC!

Make no mistake: This is a proverbial red-herring that gets repeated over and over again by those who oppose the removal, or even the contextualization, of these monuments.

So let us be clear, despite Trump’s (and Fox News’) claim, the rationale for taking down the monuments is NOT based on the fact that the Confederate leaders were slaveholders. The logic behind taking them down (or contextualizing them) is that these were people who committed an act of treason against the United States to defend the institution of slavery and white supremacy. (In the case of Lee and Jackson, they broke sacred oaths they took when they joined the US military).

Washington and Jefferson and other founding fathers were certainly flawed men, guilty of America’s original sin of slavery (among other things), but they did not commit acts of treason in the name of white supremacy.

Oh, but they were treasonous, you say, because they rebelled against their government by breaking from the British empire.

I have LONG been sick of this argument. Washington and Jefferson rebelled against a government in which they had no representation, which, you know, was kind of the whole point. Don’t we learn in grade school, “no taxation without representation!?” They believed that taxes could only come from institutions in which they were represented (specifically, their own colonial legislatures).

Robert E Lee, on the other hand,  rebelled against a government in which he had representation.  In fact, because of the 3/5ths clause of  the Constitution, southern white men like him were OVERLY represented in that government, which was pretty much the reason the Republican Party was formed in the first place—to bring down this overly-represented and overly-politically powerful “slave power.”

So there is a big difference between Washington and Lee. HUGE difference.

Please do not listen to Trump or anyone else when they insist that taking down rebel monuments would lead to pulling down all monuments to slaveholders or otherwise morally flawed leaders. It just isn’t so.

This is about the Confederacy and its causes. Insisting otherwise, or that the Civil War was not caused by a defense of slavery and white supremacy,  is FAKE NEWS.

Bottom line: I am still for contextualization in Birmingham and Richmond. But if locals in those places and in other cities decide to take them down, I’ll shed no tears for the Confederacy, (unlike the real ones I shed after our so-called president’s response to Charlottesville).



Missiles and race riots: It sure is looking a lot like 1962 around here


Oxford Mississippi, 1962

Ok, put this down as a “hot take,” but as I watch the news reports today from Charlottesville I can’t help recall that the riots in Oxford, Mississippi when James Meredith tried to register to attend the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962, took place just as Soviet missiles were arriving in Cuba.

History does not repeat itself, but it sure as heck does rhyme sometimes.

Of course one major difference between then and now is that in 1962 we had a president that took decisive action against the racist aggressors in Oxford without blaming “many sides,” or without using a moment when firm language against domestic terrorism was needed, to randomly tout the employment rate.  And we had a leader who stood firm against the Soviets, yet without issuing off-the-cuff school-house bully rhetoric that only inflamed the situation. (And he certainly did not need the Chinese President to tell him to tone it down).

I also can’t think of any klansmen in 1962 claiming they only wanted to fulfill the president’s agenda, as we do today.

And this is coming from someone that is not particularly a fan of the JFK presidency.

Partisanship is probably the wrong stance for any of us to take right now. Objectively, I believe that no matter who won the presidency these debates over the monuments was probably going to lead to this.

Yet, we must face facts. Less than a year into this presidency, we are on the brink of a nuclear war again, and we have Nazis and other white supremacists openly marching in the streets, touting the president’s agenda, and committing acts of domestic terrorism in the name of preserving the legacy of the Confederacy.

It seems like we are going backwards, and you can’t say that historians did not do everything we could to warn that this would happen.

Meanwhile, one of my colleagues at the University of Alabama, Charles P. Clark, made perhaps the best statement about today, simply by posting this picture on Facebook:


’nuff said.

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.


Update on the Shaw sword . . . and more questions

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Close-up of Shaw’s sword hilt on the Saint-Gaudens’ memorial (left), and the one newly discovered by the Massachusetts Historical Society (right)

Today the Boston Globe followed up their story of yesterday about Robert Gould Shaw’s sword by posting a time-line and some of the sources that were used to authenticate the relic.

It turns out that the sword Shaw had during the famous Boston parade was not the same one he carried into the Fort Wagner fight. This newly discovered sword was ordered when Shaw took command of the 54th, but did not arrive until the regiment was already in South Carolina—Too late to have been in the parade.

On July 4th, 1863, Shaw wrote to his father that he was sending home his “old sword” now that the new one had arrived. This old sword must have been the one he held during the parade depicted in the memorial standing today on Beacon Hill.

So this opens up new questions!

The Globe story today includes the line: “a replica of [the sword] can be seen on a bronze monument of Shaw and his infantry.” If that is true and not just an inaccurate statement by the paper, the creator of the monument, famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, would have had to have been working with the new sword, not the “old sword” that Shaw actually carried in the parade. Yet just a quick comparison (in the photos above) seems to dispel that.

So what happened to the parade sword? Might it be tucked away in some other family member’s attic?

Further, the Globe story says that in the summer of 1865,  the sword was “reportedly” in the hands of a certain Rebel officer. African American US troops were sent to his home to get the sword, and apparently ransacked the place and found it (the former reb officer wasn’t there). But who was this officer? How did he obtain it? Was he at Fort Wagner and took possession of it immediately off Shaw’s body, or did the thing get passed around?

And then there is the mystery of why the family let it get lost up in an attic. The time-line has a gap of over 150 years when its whereabout are unknown, although it might have hung on a family wall at some point. Who was the family member that relegated it to an attic only to be uncovered in 2017?

Perhaps we will never know the answers.

I’m saddened that this is not the sword Shaw carried in the parade and kissed while seeing his family and new bride for the last time. Now I really want to know where that one is!

Yet this does not detract from the fact that it appears certain this newly discovered sword is the one he used during the Battle of Fort Wagner.

Isn’t this a cool story!??


Thinking about the sword of Robert Gould Shaw


Well, it looks like it is time for another trip to Boston.

The absolutely stunning history news today is that the Massachusetts Historical Society has acquired the sword of Robert Gould Shaw, the first Colonel of the Civil War’s 54th Massachusetts regiment. The institution claims it is the one he was carrying when he was shot down leading his men in their famous attack on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863.

Wow. Just, wow.

“Put it this way,” Anne Bentley, curator at the Massachusetts Historical Society, said, “as a curator, if you’re lucky, once in a lifetime something this significant crosses your desk. This is my once-in-a-lifetime [moment].”

That isn’t hyperbole, I am confident she means it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the history, the 54th is now perhaps one of the most famous Union regiments of the Civil War thanks to the movie Glory (1989). (Here’s a nice 4 minute video lesson on them from the Civil War Trust and historian Kevin Levin).  I’ve written about how that movie inspired my own career, and I’ve also authored a trilogy about the regiment for the New York Times “Disunion” series.  This article is about their recruitment, this one is on their attack on Fort Wagner (and is also published in this book), and this one details their participation in the Battle of Olustee.

Of course I am the least important of the many historians that have written about the 54th, which was the first African American regiment from a northern state and was recruited at a time when whites assumed that blacks could not be good soldiers. Douglas R. Egerton, for just the most recent example, has an excellent monograph about them and their sister regiment, the 55th Massachusetts.

Still, I can’t let them go and have actually been doing research lately on the immediate press coverage they received in the wake of their attack on Fort Wagner. This is for a book chapter I am currently working on, but it will probably find its way into a bigger project on down the road. The standard line on the 54th Massachusetts is that the men’s determination to prove the humanity of their race (and their rightful claim to citizenship), coupled with Shaw’s disciplined leadership, turned the unit into a particularly fine regiment.  They performed gloriously in the Wagner attack, dispelling the racial assumptions of the times, and thus leading to the recruitment and use of the other black regiments that Lincoln proclaimed to have collectively turned the tide of war.

But how much is that image a product of hindsight and/or selective research? I won’t give away the questions that are driving my research at the moment, but let’s just say I have been reading a lot of contemporary mass media reports of, and responses to, the attack on Fort Wagner and the death of Shaw. Our current bombshell headlines have been competing for my attention over the last two months with those of the summer and fall of 1863.

Which is why this news about Shaw’s sword is even more breathtaking to me at the moment. The story from the Boston Globe leaves so many unanswered questions! Shaw’s body was buried on the sandy battlefield of Morris Island, SC., in an area now underwater (although you can still visit Morris Island by boat from Charleston). The rebels that tossed him into a mass grave with his soldiers saw it as an insult, justified by his leading of black troops. Yet his family resisted all subsequent calls for efforts to find and reclaim his remains, insisting there was no more appropriate and holy burial site than where he lay with his men.

No doubt before he was tossed into the grave, some Reb took his sword as a trophy (and there is some documentation of that happening).  But where did it go from there? What documentation do we have for where it has been and how it wound up in a family attic? All we get from the article is this tantalizing info:

“Bentley said the precise whereabouts of the sword, stolen from Shaw’s body shortly after he was killed . . .  have long been a mystery to historians and Civil War buffs. But in March, three great-grandchildren of Susanna Shaw Minturn, Shaw’s sister, discovered the sword in an attic as they cleaned out the family home.” Further, “through meticulous research, headed by Bentley and staff from the society, they were able to piece together a detailed timeline of what happened to the sword and confirm its authenticity, tracing its roots all the way back to England, where it was forged.”

I cannot wait to discover the details of that story and to see the documentation. Let’s hope it comes out in an article or essay made publicly available online.

UPDATE: A local Boston TV news station aired a story that claims the sword was returned to the family in 1865. Still, I am curious as to what happened to it from the moment it was taken, to the time it was returned (who and how) and then why it was lost after that. Again, many questions to be answered.

All kinds of thoughts swirl in my head when I think about one day seeing that sword on display. Some are romanticized images in my mind’s eye of Shaw leading his men forward into the hellish maelstrom of death that they bravely faced in the name of saving the Union, destroying slavery, and establishing respect for their race.

But the image that is haunting me the most tonight is far away from the battlefield.

As they paraded through the streets of Boston just before embarking for the South, the regiment did so before a large throng of dignitaries, supporters, and curious onlookers. By all reports, the men were incredibly impressive that day, with Shaw striking a particularly fine and memorable figure as he pridefully rode at the head of his men on horseback.

This moment, of course, is the subject of the famous August St. Gaudens memorial which stands on the Boston Commons (you may recall that recently, a vandal broke the sword off the memorial):


Knowing exactly where his new wife and his family were watching, the young colonel paused before them just long enough to look to the sky . . .  and to raise up and kiss his sword.

It was apparently an awe-inspiring and emotional sight, but one of his sisters recalled that at the very moment he kissed his sword, she had a premonition of his death.

Indeed, Shaw himself had the same ominous forebodings, and his family and new bride never saw him again as he marched off to give his life for the Union, and to the important mission of the 54th Massachusetts.

Man, I can’t wait to see that sword.


Update on Jamestown and the new power lines

Update on the power lines that are soon to mar the Jamestown experience:

Dominion power has gotten final approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, and will soon begin construction. They still have one more small hurdle to jump over, but will probably clear it with ease.

I am glad to see from the map below, however, that you won’t actually be able to see the lines while on James Island at the site of the original fort (or at the nearby recreated fort). Nor will you see it while crossing the river on the ferry. This is a BIG relief.

However, the historic view at Carter’s Grove will be obliterated, and the now scenic drive along the James River to Jamestown will be forever changed.

If you have been to the area, you know that part of the charm of the experience of going to Jamestown is the drive to and from the site along the river. Based on the map below, once the Colonial Parkway meets the river, you’ll likely see the massive power lines (even though they will be nearly 4 miles away). And upon your return from Jamestown back to Williamsburg, it should be in view much longer.

Still, I have to say, I am very glad to see this map and wish I had well before now. It definitely mitigates some of the biggest fears I had about the project.

Make no mistake, however, this still stinks, and will be a major blight along the beautiful and historic Colonial Parkway.


The Beguiled (1971) vs. The Beguiled (2017). Which one is really a Civil War movie? Which one is better?


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Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in The Beguiled, 2017 (left), and Geraldine Page and Clint Eastwood in The Beguiled, 1971 (right).

Well, I saw Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled, and despite my skepticism about remakes, I really enjoyed it. Yet because it had been many years since I saw the 1971 original, I decided to watch it again to contrast with the new. Not surprising (at least to me) the original is somewhat better. What is surprising, however, is that I believe it is superior because it handles the Civil War and slavery more effectively than the remake.

Warning: I’m going to have as few spoilers as I can, and I will warn you when a big one is coming, but if you want to go into the movie completely fresh (especially if you have never seen the original) you should probably skip this until you have seen it.

The quick summary of both films (which are based on a 1966 novel) is pretty simple:  During the Civil War, a southern school for girls has been reduced to just five students, a teacher, and a headmistress that all have “no better (or safer) place to go” during the conflict. They take in a wounded Union soldier (Clint Eastwood in the original, Colin Farrell in the remake) discovered suffering in the woods nearby. Despite their initial disdain for the “blue-belly,” he slowly charms the women, igniting jealousies and the pent-up sexual frustrations of all the females of different ages living in the house. As a result, some pretty bad things happen.

Coppola’s remake is quite good, largely because of her undeniable directorial skill, the cinematography and perfect lighting, and the film’s hypnotic pacing.  As with other movies I tend to relish the most, it is not in a hurry to tell its story.  There are lingering shots of scenery, mostly slow, quite moments, and few quick edits. It tells its story with visuals that effectively situate the audience in its time and place.

Yet what I appreciated the most was its use of sound. It does not rely on a musical score to tell the audience how they should feel at any given moment, and this silence makes the film’s house and its inhabitants seem all the more authentic, isolated, and vulnerable. One minor exception is a scene when the movie reaches its dramatic shift in tone, featuring some low orchestral music. Yet even here the music is low volume, only adding to the “slow burn” effect of the film.

Instead, most of the music we hear is generated by the characters. There are two scenes featuring parlor music, the best of which has one of the girls playing the beautiful (and popular at the time) “Lorena” on the harpsichord while the others join in singing. (Hopefully Christian McWhirter, an antebellum and Civil War music scholar, will soon comment on the authenticity of these scenes).

Other than that, most of the sounds we hear come from real life: birds, crickets and frogs,  floorboards creaking in the antebellum mansion, and in one particularly important scene, the sound of buttons ripped off a dress and then skittering across the wooden floor (which is way more erotically intense than any musical score could have ever been).

On the other hand, the original film is weakened by a score that sounds like it came from one of those campy Hammer Studios horror films of the 1950s and 60s, or from an episode of Night Gallery. This does ratchet up the creep factor, but gives the movie a campy feel, playing like a surreal nightmare, or an erotic dream gone bad. Coppola’s soundtrack choices more realistically set her film in the real world.

Further, I went into the remake thinking it would probably just be a hyper-sexualized version for 2017 audiences (and the trailer helps create that impression), yet just the opposite actually turns out to be true. The 1971 film is much more vulgar and lurid,  featuring a partially nude sex scene, a dream sequence with a threesome, and an incestuous storyline told through flashbacks—not to mention much more suggestive dialogue.

Coppola commendably opts for a “less-is-more” approach, never exposing more skin than the soldier’s bare chest and quick shots of female outer thighs.  Yet it is still smoldering stuff (perhaps all the more so because of the restraint—Hollywood, please take note), and the pent-up sexual desires let loose by the soldier’s presence are still what drive the horrific things that happen.

And yet, as a history film, the original is superior. It makes clear it is set during the Vicksburg Campaign (although it is less clear whether the house is in Louisiana or Mississippi). Characters talk about General Grant commanding troops driving toward Vicksburg via Champion’s Hill, both armies are nearby and make appearances, and the ladies are stuck in-between. They keep an ever-watchful eye from the rooftop for troops,  expressing fears that at any moment soldiers might come, take what they have, and rape them.

(I was particularly pleased to hear one young girl indicate she thought Yankees had tails. It is a comical line, but an authentic allegation that Southerners used to demonize Union troops, mainly in an effort to make their enslaved population afraid to run to northern lines).

In the original, the women are clearly vulnerable to the lusts of both armies. In one scene, some Rebel soldiers show up at the house late at night, ostensibly to look in on the girls’ safety, but clearly they have more on their minds. The headmistress (Geraldine Page, in a fine performance) defiantly shoos them away to protect the Union soldier she is harboring, but also the young girls in her charge.  The younger girls don’t understand why they should be afraid of their own Rebel troops, and are told that there are bad men in both armies.

That the film features this scene is all the more remarkable given that at the time it was made, Hollywood’s standard Civil War trope (established by movies like Gone With The Wind) was that of Union troops preying on white southern women while chivalric Rebel soldiers (and even their slaves) tried to protect them.

In contrast, Coppola’s movie is set in Virginia in 1864, which is established by an opening subtitle. The ladies also dutifully keep a rooftop eye out for approaching troops, yet the film never makes clear whether or not the events are playing out during the Overland Campaign. Some vague dialogue suggests this to be the case (you’d have to know your Civil War history to deduce it, however), and based on that assumption the school seems to be somewhere between Fredericksburg and Richmond. Yet this is not clear at all. The war’s specific events do not concern Coppola.

Further, the main armies are nowhere to be found (and besides the Union soldier, no other Yankees). This takes away the realistic dynamic that the isolated women are vulnerable to bad men from either army, and thus reverts us back to the old Hollywood trope of the straggling yankee soldier endangering innocent southern women. As in the original, a few Rebel troops come knocking on the door late one night, but they are not lusty men on the prowl, the headmistress (Nicole Kidman, in an Oscar nomination-worthy performance) provides them food, and they leave after having been a threat to just the hidden Union soldier. Coppola’s choice lessens the precarious situation into which the Civil War has placed these isolated women.

***Ok, this next paragraph has a bigger spoiler, skip it if you want to avoid that.

And while we are on Civil War movie tropes–the original features an amputation scene that is not particularly gory by today’s standards, except in how it brilliantly uses sound. Yes, this gives us the stereotypical amputation-without-complete-sedation scene that mars so many Civil War films, but given that the setting is a seminary with limited resources and not a hospital (or even field hospital), it comes across as realistic and carries the movie’s biggest horrific jolt. In contrast, Coppola skips the actual amputation and all we see is the burial of the limb. This is another choice I feel weakens the remake.

The most important distinction between how these two movies handle the Civil War, however, involves slavery. The 1971 version is far superior, if only because it does not ignore the “peculiar institution.” The only way the remake even acknowledges slavery is when early in the film the Union soldier is told the slaves have all run away. This is realistic, of course, especially since the film is set in 1864. But it robs us of all the racial dynamics of the time and place the story is set.

In the original, one of the well-to-do girls refuses to perform field labor because, she says, it is “nigger work,” openly using such language in front of an enslaved woman still with the seminary.  In Coppola’s movie, the young white girl just works poorly because she is bored, and the enslaved character is missing altogether.

True, the original film is not exactly a model of how to effectively interpret the lives of enslaved women.  However, in a scene between the black woman and the soldier, it is made clear she hides her disdain for slavery from her white owner. The film hints at the war’s bigger issues when the Union soldier tells her that the two of them should be natural allies, to which she expresses doubt that northern soldiers were fighting for blacks, one way or the other—a statement he does not challenge. The exchange rings true, (especially since he is a New York soldier, not an New Englander).

Further, we learn she was in love with a man enslaved on the same plantation, but lost him when he ran away after hearing the master intended to sell him.  Later in the film, we discover through flashback that she was being raped by her master.

Thus in just a few small scenes and moments, the 1971 film touches on the causes of the war, the debatable nature of soldier motivations in regards to slavery, the masks of the enslaved, and the rapes and slave sales that tormented enslaved African Americans and separated them from their loved ones. In a film filled with sinfulness, the antebellum South’s biggest sin of all is not totally ignored, as it is in the remake.

It really is a shame that Coppola took the black character and slavery completely out of her movie (especially since they were in the novel). In 2017, the scenes between the enslaved women and the Union soldier could have been written in a truly impactful way, only adding to the film’s strength. With an already strong female cast, a talented black actress would have taken things up another notch. That a 1971 movie did a better job of  dealing with slavery than a 2017 one is a discredit to Coppola’s film, and I have to agree it thus warrants the criticism it has received on this score.

Still, there was much I loved about Sofia Coppola’s reimagining of the The Beguiled (its atmospheric lighting and sound, beautiful cinematography, and less-is-more approach), and from a film-making point of view it is by far the superior film. Not to mention that this cast (Farrell, Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, and the rest of the young girls) is uniformly strong.

(And they don’t have exaggerated and ridiculous southern accents! Praise be! Oh, and unlike in the original they all wear shoes. Not sure why the girls are all running around barefoot in the 1971 version, unless the sight of ankles and feet are supposed to amp up the smoldering Victorian sexuality).

Yet despite the campy feel of the 1971 original, the motivations of every character are much more clear (and the headmistress in particular is a more complex and fleshed out character), slavery is handled better (if only because it is handled at all), and ultimately it is definitely a Civil War film, rather than just a film set during the Civil War. (Despite what historian Gary W. Gallagher maintains in his book, Causes, Won, Lost, and Forgotten).

Why? Well, the best way I can say it without giving too much away is this: In the remake, the Union soldier is ultimately the victim of his own bad decisions, yes, but mainly he falls victim to his emotional response to a traumatic event. In the original, he is definitely a victim of his even more dastardly behavior and reactions, but mainly he is the victim of the perilous position the women are placed into because of the location of troops during the Vicksburg Campaign.

(Oh, and Geraldine Page’s headmistress is one messed up lady. Nicole Kidman’s, not so much.)

See them both! (The original is streaming now on HBO-on-Demand and HBO Go, and is available on Amazon Video).