C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America
Article Written by: John C. Tibbetts
“Art is the lie that makes us realize the truth.”
Willmott’s “what if?” speculation joins a distinguished list of similar interrogations of the course of American post- Civil War history, notably Ward Moore’s novel Bring the Jubilee (1953), MacKinlay Kantor’s historical essay If the South Had Won the Civil War (1961), and Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South (1992). Such “counterfactuals,” as historian Niall Ferguson dubs them in his book Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997), only recently have acquired intellectual respectability as a viable way of approaching that elusive truth known as “history.”6
Precedents on a broader level also are plentiful. In 1825 Thomas Babington Macaulay defined history as the locus of reason and imagination, between a map and a landscape. Anthologies such as John Collings Squires’s pioneering If It Had Happened Otherwise: Lapses into Imaginary History (1932), Daniel Snowman’s If I Had Been. . . Ten Historical Fantasies (1979), and Geoffrey Hawthorn’s Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences (1991) have asked such questions as “What if Don John of Austria had married Mary Queen of Scots and the Reformation had never happened?”; “What if Napoleon had escaped across the Atlantic to America?” and “What if John Wilkes Booth’s Lincoln assassination had failed?”7 Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here (1937) postulated a Fascist takeover of America. And a cottage industry has grown around speculations concerning the Axis victory in World War II, including Noel Coward’s play Peace in Our Time (1948), Kevin Brownlow’s film It Happened Here (1965), and Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle (1962).
Ferguson suggests such speculations are not merely idle whimsies; imagining alternative histories can be a vital part of how we learn, opening up to the historian the basic method of the scientist by providing a means of testing hypotheses. Citing historian Isaiah Berlin’s critique of determinism, Ferguson says counterfactuals go wrong only when they provide implausible answers to improbable questions. “In short,” writes Ferguson,
Plausibility and probability underpin some of C.S.A.’s more outrageous propositions. In a February 21, 2003, Lawrence Journal–World interview, Willmott revealed that he loosely based his outline for an American Confederacy on the fact that the Confederacy had indeed drawn up advance plans for a “Tropical Empire” after its presumed victory over the North. “They had an actual plan,” Willmott said. “So I used that as a blueprint—I didn’t make that up.” Lincoln’s flight in blackface and capture by Confederate soldiers—one of C.S.A.’s more amusing sequences— acquires a kind of authenticity because it is told by way of a convincing pastiche of a D.W. Griffith Biograph short (and we are reminded that, in real life, Jefferson Davis purportedly tried to avoid capture by fleeing south dressed as a woman). Another film pastiche, an excerpt from a faux biopic The Jefferson Davis Story, captures perfectly the look and manner of a 1940s Hollywood film.
The Confederate government’s use of tax abatements to induce the Northern population into taking up slave ownership recalls similar techniques with which our government currently entices big business into desired actions. The organization of the NAACP takes on a dreadful alternative existence as the National Organization for the Advancement of Chattel People. The exploitation of the Chinese immigrant population on the West Coast and the subsequent expansion by the C.S.A. south to Mexico and South America seem disturbingly rational, given the circumstances depicted. The reasons advanced for the C.S.A.’s participation in Kennedy’s assassination—his support of the abolition of slavery—remind us that, in real life, one of the many conspiracy theories in circulation contends that anti-civil rights factions in our own government frowned on Kennedy’s pro-civil rights stance and may have played a part in his assassination.
Even the television commercials interspersed throughout have the ring of truth. We might think, for example, that the ads for “Nigger Hair Tobacco,” “Darkie Toothpaste,” and the “Coon Chicken Inn” restaurant chain take Willmott’s parody too far, until the end credits inform us that such products actually existed! Another commercial depicts a Home Shopping Network-type program that specializes in marketing slaves (“today we have forty Negroes right off the tarmac, waiting for you!”). Most painful to watch, perhaps, is a commercial for “The Shackle,” a device useful in tracking down runaway slaves (“made of a lightweight aluminum alloy so it won’t weigh your Tom down; perfect for children”).
The not-so-subtle conclusion of this film is that yes, indeed, the South really did win the Civil War, and a deeply entrenched racism still exists today. “The South may have lost on the battlefield,” argues Willmott, “but it won the fight for ideology. Look at Lawrence, a town founded on abolition but which later turned to segregation.” This is the racism that, in many quarters, still contends that “states’ rights,” not slavery, was the key issue in the Civil War.9 As Willmott argues: “There are a lot of people today who want to divorce slavery from their Southern heritage. My film restores slavery as the centerpiece of that conflict.”
Willmott began working on C.S.A. in 1997, while finishing up a previous project, Ninth Street (reviewed in the summer 2001 issue of Kansas History). By dint of a PBS-affiliated grant from the National Black Program Consortium, the assistance of cinematographer Matt Jacobson (also a professor in the University of Kansas film studies program), and the cooperation of many students, colleagues, and professional Kansas City actors, he has persevered through five years of changes and revisions. The film received its premiere at a benefit screening at Lawrence’s Liberty Hall on February 21, 2003.
John C. Tibbetts
(John C. Tibbetts wishes to acknowledge the assistance of
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