I was a child of the Confederacy. My great aunt Vivien, doyenne of the Winnie Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the “heritage” group responsible for putting up many of those now-disputed monuments to the rebellion of 1861, signed me up when I was eight years old. We used to make an annual pilgrimage to the site of Florida’s Battle of Natural Bridge, possibly the most insignificant skirmish in the American Civil War. In March 1865, Brigadier General John Newton and his expedition force tried to cross the St Marks River, just south of Tallahassee. Confederate boy-soldiers, including my great-great-grandfather Luther Tucker, held the bridge. Union troops retreated and Florida’s capital was “saved.” Not that it mattered: the war was all but over. Nevertheless, in 1921, the state of Florida, aided and abetted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Daughters of the Confederacy, honoured the Confederate dead with a gigantic marble monument still standing that is inscribed “Lest We Forget.”
The exhortation from Kipling was unnecessary: America has never got over its bloodiest war, and in many ways we’re still fighting it. Yes, Robert E Lee surrendered at Appomattox in 1865. The 13th amendment to the constitution ended slavery. The 14th and 15th amendments guaranteed equal protection under the law and proclaimed “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Yet we still don’t agree on the causes of the catastrophe that killed 750,000—my great aunt called it “the War of Northern Aggression”—and many Americans still deny that the country suffers from systemic racism. At least 20 states have recently passed laws restricting access to the ballot box, a measure many believe is aimed at African Americans; 147 elected members of Congress refused to accept that Joe Biden won in 2020; and, inflamed by the sociopath-in-chief bellowing “stop the steal,” thousands of insurrectionists broke down the doors of the Capitol in Washington on 6th January 2021, determined to overturn the election result.
In The Wrath to Come: “Gone with the Wind” and the Lies America Tells, Sarah Churchwell argues that Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of white victimhood illuminates the racist roots of January 6th. The novel, Churchwell says, teaches that America is a “white man’s country,” that slavery was benign and that the real tragedy was the postbellum Reconstruction—when black men were given the vote. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), America’s bestselling novel until Gone with the Wind, inspired abolitionism in the North with its account of plantation cruelty. But no book (other than the Bible) and no film have had a greater impact on American society than Gone with the Wind. Churchwell, an American literary scholar and cultural critic, shows how white Americans are willing captives to their own myths. The US, she says, is “especially prone to cognitive dissonance as a society, because the brutal realities of American life are so perpetually in conflict with its exalted ideals.” Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara are much beloved characters. They are also, as Churchwell says, “homicidal white supremacists with profoundly fascistic worldviews.”
Like their creator Mitchell, a Georgia debutante whose grandparents owned slaves, Scarlett and Rhett believe power is best wielded by the white upper classes. Even now, some 21st-century Americans remain unwilling to see people different from themselves as human beings deserving of equal treatment. Some of us naively thought that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was evidence of a nation throwing off its historic racism. It’s now clear that a black president shocked the system, provoking fear and paranoia and ultimately the election of Trump. But America, obstreperous stepchild of the British Empire, born out of a hunger for religious liberty and a craving for money, still wants to claim it’s building the New Jerusalem in the New World, a nation great because it is good.
The US, especially the white majority, energetically denies the uncomfortable parts of its history. The 1619 Project, a collection of essays, poems and short stories initiated by the New York Times exploring race since the first slaves came ashore in Virginia 400 years ago, was greeted with praise but also plenty of outrage. Trump mandated a response called the 1776 Project, designed to “promote patriotism.” Conservative governors with presidential ambitions, including Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, have signed laws forbidding state schools from teaching that racism was ever systemic. The ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and enslavement of kidnapped Africans were the acts of individual racists, they argue, not the result of an embedded belief in white supremacy. The Texas State Board of Education recently struck a welcome blow for truth, however, ruling that slavery in new textbooks should not be referred to as “involuntary relocation.”
Gone with the Wind gave white people permission to be racist, assuring us that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery, but because “money-grubbing Yankees” couldn’t stand to leave the virtuous, orderly and rich South alone. Churchwell dismantles this long-cherished nonsense. Gone with the Wind is not a harmless romance of bygone days, but “a thousand-page novel about enslavers busily pretending that slavery doesn’t matter—which is pretty much the story of American history.” After the Civil War, America temporarily experimented with living up to its founding documents, asserting the radical notion that black men (no woman of any colour was covered by the 15th amendment) were citizens. Around 2,000 black people held elected office during Reconstruction. This was intolerable to the white establishment. White vigilantes attacked what they called “Negro Rule,” enacting Jim Crow laws and lynching “uppity” blacks. In 1898, whites forced the biracial city government of Wilmington, North Carolina to resign, destroyed black businesses and massacred scores of black men, women and children. DW Griffiths’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation (based on the “Klan romances” of Thomas Dixon, one of Mitchell’s favourite writers) presented “ape-like” black rapists preying on white Southern virgins who must be rescued by cross-burning domestic terrorists in sheets. Churchwell explains how a group of early 20th-century historians known as the Dunning School (after the Columbia University professor William Archibald Dunning) presented Reconstruction as actively evil, “to be remembered, shuddered at, and execrated” as they promoted the myth of the lost cause. As Ashley Wilkes—plantation aristocrat, Ku Klux Klan member and object of O’Hara’s misplaced desire—describes it: “The South was being treated as a conquered province.”
Gone with the Wind is not a harmless romance of bygone days, but “a thousand-page novel about enslavers busily pretending that slavery doesn’t matter”
The conspiracy-addled January 6th insurrectionists and their enablers in Congress and the White House also apparently feel like inhabitants of a “conquered land.” Their America has been taken from them by black people, Latinos, women, gay people, elites and other agents of woke. The orderly, white, straight, Christian (and entirely fictional) America of their youth, or their parents’ youth, is slipping away. Churchwell uncovers the unnerving ideological connections between the Lost Cause and the deadenders who attacked the capitol chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”, waving the Confederate battle flag and subjecting black police officers to racist invective, including the word Churchwell pointedly spells “nxxxxr.”
More than 150 years after General Lee told his soldiers, “Furl the flag, boys,” many still refuse to do so. Modern white nationalist groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys seem to have been among the architects of January 6th. After a neo-Confederate murdered nine black congregants at a South Carolina church in 2015, the Republican governor Nikki Haley said the killer had “hijacked” the flag, calling it a symbol of “service and sacrifice and heritage.” Several popular American college fraternities, founded by ex-Confederate soldiers, keep the flame burning, harking back to what they see as a romantic past. As a clueless 18-year-old, I attended the “Old South Ball,” put on by a fraternity that claims Lee as their “spiritual founder.” I wore a ruffled crinoline O’Hara might have envied, while the boys wore Confederate grey complete with feathered hats and ceremonial swords. These days, the fraternity bans Confederate uniforms, but the ball goes on, hoopskirts and all.
The congressional hearings into the January 6th attacks continue to reveal how close we came to losing our democracy—and how close we still are. Members of Donald Trump’s administration—and possibly Trump himself—conspired to overthrow the government. Churchwell warns the “conflict between freedom and power, democracy and fascism, is at the heart of the plot of America. And it is yet to be resolved.” What the hell happened to America, she asks. Too many white people have decided that they are oppressed. Only one thing is certain: we cannot endure as a free country if we continue to cling to a racist fantasy of the Good Old Days that never were.