A Southerner’s Movie Guide, Part VI

8. The War for Southern Independence (continued): Fantasy and Fraud

Scorcese’s Gangs of New York (2002)

Martin Scorcese, in an interview, candidly described his Gangsof New York, as an “opera.”  He had been asked whether the event s portrayed were true to history.  I took his reply to mean that the events of the movie were selected and organized for dramatic emphasis and were not to be taken as literal factual record.

And, indeed, as a historical record of 19th-century New York, the film has many failings.  Nevertheless, it has provoked some useful discussion of the historical context – specifically for the light it sheds on the Lincolnite mythology of the Civil War era.  It seems that the accepted idea of the gloriously united North trampling out the wrathful grapes of slavery and treason is not so sound a picture of the real thing after all.

For one thing, the film gives a glimpse of the rather nasty nativism among Northerners, a great many of whom hated Catholics and immigrants as much or more than they hated Southerners.  None of the above fit into the Yankee ideal of true Americanism.  Nativist gangs burned down convents in Philadelphia and Boston when such things were never dreamed of in the South. This window into the real history of the antebellum North becomes even more significant for three reasons.

1) Nativists of the American Party went en masse into Lincoln’s Republican Party and made up a strong element of his support. Though, of course, Lincoln cared nothing about religion and he and other leading Republicans were too savvy politicians to embrace overt nativism.  Republicans did not generally like immigrants, but they loved the militaristic German centralisers who flooded into the Midwest after the failed revolutions of 1848. Confederate General Richard Taylor recorded in his memoirs that when he surrendered at the end of the war, a German Union general lectured him on how Southerners were now to be taught true Americanism.  Taylor was the grandson of a Revolutionary officer and the son of a President. (Does this maybe give you a little hint of where Straussians and Neocons are coming from when they claim exclusive monopoly on the meaning of America?)  These Germans made the most solid core of Lincoln’s support, with the possible exception of tariff-protected manufacturers and New England “intellectuals.”

2) The film can open the door on another dirty little secret.  We have heard a lot about immigrant criminal gangs. The fact that vigilante law prevailed over much of the North before and during the war has been conveniently forgotten.  Besides the tens of thousands of his critics Lincoln jailed without due process, thousands more were killed, injured, intimidated, and run out of town by proto-fascist gangs of Republican bully boys called “Wide Awakes.”  They played a major role in making sure Northern elections turned out right, i.e., Republicans won.  And you thought ugly mob violence was something that only happened in the South!

3) Although the film does not give a satisfactory view of the New York City draft riots, it lets us in on at least part of the secret when the draft rioters point out the $300 men who had bought exemption from conscription. The fact is that no affluent Northerner fought in the war if he didn’t want to – certainly not Rockefeller, Morgan, Gould, Swift, Armor, Goodyear, and the others who were making fortunes out of government contracts.  Nor most of the patricians – only one of five military age Adamses served                      and Teddy Roosevelt’s father bought an exemption. Lincoln’s worthless son Robert spent most of the war at Harvard.  Sherman once complained that men of wealth were found in the ranks of the Southern army and lamented that Northerners were not like that.

But that is not all the story. The “riots” did not start out as race pogroms, though they degenerated into that. They started out as ` organised civic resistance to the draft, encouraged by the Democratic state government. Everyone knew very well that the Lincolnites enforced the draft at a much higher rate in areas that opposed them than they did in Republican areas – according to studies by the New York playwright and historian John Chodes, the draft was imposed in New York City at four times the rate for Massachusetts.  And the conscripts were well aware that they stood a good chance of being used up as cannon fodder by Republicans who knew if they lost four men for every Southerner killed they would still end up on top, as long as the immigrant flow kept up. About a fourth of the total enrollment of Lincoln’s armies were immigrants, many of whom were brought over and paid bounties for enlisting. The situation was so bad that the Pope sent persuasive priestly orators to Ireland to warn the people about being used up for Union cannon fodder.

Perhaps we can begin to recognize the historical fact that millions of Northern citizens did not willingly go along with Lincoln’s war. And the opponents were not limited to the New York City draft rioters.  Who opposed the war: free traders who were on to the Republican tariff game; traditional Jeffersonians and descendants of Revolutionary families (outside of New England) who understood that killing Southerners and overthrowing legitimate state governments, as well as suppressing freedom of speech and press, were not exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind; Irish and German Catholics, though that history has been suppressed as one of the fruits of Lincoln’s victory.

The truth is that Lincoln’s party did not save the Union and the Constitution.  It was a Jacobin party that seized power and revolutionized the North as well as conquering the South. Gangs of New York can perhaps open a window that will encourage further historical discovery along these lines.

Alas, the wrong lesson is drawn by one of the usually fine writers at vdare.com, Steve Sailer, who sees the movie as Scorcese  making points for immigrants against the natives.  According to Sailer: “When the Civil War came, many Irish and other immigrants in New York City refused to fight for the Union that had given them refuge.”

Wait a minute. That was a civil war going on here. Can a newcomer really be faulted for not wanting to take sides in a civil war?  I think rather it shows real patriotism and good sense. And how about that “refuge.”  Here is a Dublin paper commenting in 1861: “We cannot but recollect that in the South our countrymen were safe from insult and persecution, while ‘Nativeism’ and ‘Know-Nothingism’ assailed them in the North.”   Sailer is a well-known advocate of immigration restriction, but immigrants are OK, it seems, when they kill Southerners.

How about John Mitchel, the Irish patriot who had been exiled to Van Diemen’s land, from whence he escaped to the land of freedom, where he joined the Confederate cause of liberty, to which he gave the lives of two sons?  It is not true, by the way, that the Union General Burnside’s sacrifice of the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg was a great exhibit of Irish devotion to the Union cause? The so-called enthusiasm was political propaganda drummed up by Republican promotion of Gen. Meagher as an Irish leader, which he wasn’t.  Irish recruiting fell off sharply after Fredericksburg.

Let me recommend to those who want to use conditions in the War of Southern Independence for the otherwise worthy cause of immigration restriction a recent work: Clear the Confederate Way!  The Irish in the Army of Northern Virginia by Kelly J. O’Grady.  The book covers much more than the title suggests.  And while you are at it, take a look also at The Jewish Confederates by Robert N. Rosen.

The film bypasses yet another little secret, an unknown matter that is finally exposed in Dr. Samuel Mitcham’s The Greatest Lynching in American History:  New York, 1863 (Shotwell Publishing, 2020).   In response to the riots the city paid the $300 exemption fee for the conscripted men.  So much for Northern enthusiasm for Lincoln’s war.

Historical Fraud

No, I am not referring to (X)Roots or to Ken Burns’s pseudo-history.  My subject is the film Guns of Honor.   Most of the world knows of the Hollywood celebrity “Martin Sheen,” (born and baptized Ramon Antonio Gerardo Estevez).  Much of the world knows that he portrayed General Robert E. Lee in the film Gettysburg.  I am even on record mildly complimenting his performance.  Few people know that Sheen played an admirable Confederate officer in another movie.  It was known as Guns of Honor, released in 1994.  Here is the official description by the producing company: “A stellar cast, including Martin Sheen (Gettysburg), Christopher Atkins (The Blue Lagoon) and Jurgen Prochnow (Interceptor) star in this fast and furious adventure set across the Rio Grande just after the great Civil War.  Defeated Confederate soldiers, branded outlaws by their own government, are recruited for one final mission to restore their lost glory.  Aided by a beautiful former Southern spy, they are assigned to run guns to the Mexican government.  After blasting it out with the local rebels, these renegades must then pass through territory controlled by the invading French army.  With nothing to lose, they ride bravely into battle, determined to regain their honor and prepared for anything that lies ahead!” 

I once owned a VHS of this movie and it was not bad, Sheen being, of course, the admirably brave, honourable, and able Confederate commander.  Foolishly, I tossed out the VHS tape thinking that I would replace it with a DVD.   Well, I have the newly purchased DVD.  The cover of the disc container shows Sheen and Atkins, well-armed, before a very large waving Confederate flag, just as did the VHS container.  The back cover of the disc holder displays word for word the description cited above, as does the selling information on Amazon.  But, alas, an entirely different movie has been substituted on the DVD.  It is a film, from the same company the same year, formerly called Trigger Fast.  In what now is sold as Guns of Honor  there are no Mexicans, nothing taking place across the Rio Grande, no Confederate flags or uniforms, no beautiful Southern spy, no French army, no glory, lost or otherwise, and no General Sheridan (who  appears  as a character in the real Guns of Honor). Sheen and Prochnow barely appear, in the first few minutes of the substitute.  Trigger Fast is not bad and seems to be more or less about ex-Confederates suffering under Reconstruction in Texas.  This theme is so vaguely and faintly portrayed that most viewers will not understand that Sheen, Prochnow and other good people are ex-Confederates.  They will assume that this is just one more Western with an evil cattle baron against the small fry.

What can explain this deception other than as an attempt to delete the Confederacy from film history? This is certainly Orwellian as well as probably an actionable bit of fraudulent advertising.  Somewhere the real Guns of Honor still exists, perhaps in a foreign country or in cyberspace.  We ought to find it and make it available, even if we have to bootleg it.

More on Gods and Generals

A noted Southern writer sent this comment in response to our earlier discussion of **Gods and Generals:

“I was invited to preview the director’s cut of G&G in 2002 or 2003.  When several friends and I went out at the intermission, we were all streaming tears.  I was mostly deeply moved, and no less by the movie’s second half.  One scene that particularly moved me showed two slaves talking over a soldier’s coffin in camp.  One had been the slave of the now dead Confederate soldier.  The other asked him how he felt about freedom, did he plan to run away, etc.  The dialogue was precisely what you expect from slaves conflicted between love for the masters they had grown up with and desire for freedom.  Last line was the dead soldier’s slave saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do now, but I know this much [tapping on the coffin], this Rebel’s in heaven.’  I bawled.  Then the movie came out.  The scene that had so moved me nowhere appeared, but instead had been substituted by the wretched sequence with Donzalea Abernathy, the slave in Fredericksburg, quoting a long and not pertinent passage out of Esther.  Not possible to tell you how disappointed and disgusted I was.  Fear struck Maxwell, it appears, over the impact of that scene and its truthfulness.”

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of www.shotwellpublishing.com, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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