The historian and a film look back
by Judy Elliott
March 09, 2014 04:00 AM | 1077 views | 0 0 comments | 34 34 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Recently, in a packed auditorium at the Atlanta History Center, I took notes as Dr. James McPherson, author of “Battle Cry of Freedom,” was interviewed by Professor Stephen Berry from the University of Georgia. It was a Civil War question-and-answer hour.

Dr. McPherson’s book is considered a defining voice on the Civil War era, on campaigns and battles, social issues of the time and the impact of slavery on the 750,000 square miles of the South during the war. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his work and has a shelf filled with other books, written and tethered to his research and insight.

He is in his 70s now, sharp of mind, his memory fresh on dates and his humor, contagious.

He laughed as he quoted one of the South’s favorite sons, writer Robert Penn Warren, who pegged the ongoing disease over North vs. South as: “Both sides using the Civil War to lay blame for everything.”

“In fact,” author McPherson reminded his audience, “we take for granted ours was a country thriving before 1865, when there was a real question of whether this nation would survive. The Civil War was our crisis point.”

Professor Berry asked, “Would you say the American people have a healthy interest in the Civil War today?”

McPherson pondered the word, “healthy.” If the Civil War, its losses and lessons are used on the side of history, to foster learning and respect, the conversation goes on, he countered, (and I’m paraphrasing here), but if the symbols of the war from uniforms to flags are tools for divisiveness, that is not a healthy reality.

As for human beings bought and sold by land owners, this from “Battle Cry of Freedom”: “The fate of slavery, the very survival of the United States — rested on the shoulders of those weary men in blue and gray who fought it out during four years of ferocity.”

I thought of McPherson as the cast of “12 Years a Slave” gathered on the stage to celebrate their work on the film, named best picture of the year at the Academy Awards presentations.

I wondered what he would make of a critic’s reflection on the movie as a deeply American story…” (with no)paternalistic gentry with their pretty plantations, their genteel manners and all the fiddle-dee-dee (that were) the background for an outrage.”

“12 Years A Slave,” Solomon Northup’s witness to being kidnapped and sold into slavery as a free black man, adapted for the screen, is no “Gone With the Wind” with spirituals sung in cotton fields and house servants devoted to their mistresses.

It is the story of ownership of lives, those with no rights. A slave could not protect her children. A black man could be sold and separated from his wife. A slip of a girl had no power to save herself from a whip striking her back.

Too often, survival for a slave meant years spent as little more than a beast of burden, the threat of a hanging or exhaustion from field work, from sickness, untreated, or hunger, ignored, ever-present.

That was day-to-day slavery, not as an economic engine of the agrarian South, but as inhumane treatment of those who had no way out but death.

“12 Years a Slave” is a film with a future. The director, Steve McQueen, a man of color, has expressed hope Northup’s story will be read in high school classes as the history of slavery is taught in our time when the law of the land no longer allows lives to be treated as property.

“Chronicling the Civil War,” Dr. McPherson writes, “and reckoning its consequences began immediately and has never ceased. More than 620,000 soldiers lost their lives in four years of conflict. The cost in American lives was as great as in all of the nation’s wars combined through Vietnam. The Union was preserved and four million slaves were liberated.”

The long journey toward equal rights had begun.

Judy Elliott lives and writes in Marietta.
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