Romanticizing Myths: the Role of Pop Culture in Civil War History

As a historian, I’ve always wondered how far our criticisms should extend to entertainment media. Are films, books, and theatrical productions that do not claim historical accuracy but simply seek to amuse fair game? This may seem like an obvious question, but we all know historians can be exceptionally nit-picky sometimes and I wonder whether or not that moves us forward when applied to that which does not make any particular claim on truth. About a month ago I attended Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede in Gatlinburg, TN - fully expecting to be horrified by what might ensue. But after I left I was hesitant to apply too much criticism to something that advertises itself simply as a dinner show and is very clearly meant to exist in the realm of imagination and exaggeration.

Recent events, however, have convinced me that ending the myths that endure from the Civil War is not simply the job of historians. We are all responsible for not perpetuating the lies and misconceptions that have devolved into the conflict that now litters our newspapers and social media networks.

Walk into the monolith that houses Dixie Stampede and you are immediately confused. Conflicting historical contexts are thrown around like confetti. Before entering the arena where the main show will take place, visitors are transported into a fictional Western saloon...but serenaded by a stereotypical Appalachian band. Once you are seated for dinner you are provided food but no silverware, supposedly because no one used such newfangled conveniences in Appalachia in the 19th century. The show is based entirely on a competition between “North,” and “South,” the competitors decked out in sparkly, tasseled spandex that vaguely resemble Civil War soldiers’ uniforms.

 A sign welcoming guests in the parking lot of Dixie Stampede.

A sign welcoming guests in the parking lot of Dixie Stampede.

Theatrics (and a rather offensive depiction of glow-in-the-dark Cherokee) aside, most of the show is fairly innocuous. It is simply a competition between two teams who happen to be named for the North and the South. Or so it would seem. The reality, of course, is that conveniently failing to mention the Civil War specifically does not mean it is not there.

Before the struggle begins, an announcer sets up the rivalry with which we are all (apparently) already familiar: The North and the South have always been at odds. They were two different societies, doomed to conflict. Interestingly, war itself is not really the center of this competition, merely the same Lost Cause tropes associated with the war’s memory. As Southern belles descend in a suspended gazebo, the announcer explains that the South was once a bucolic place. A La Scarlett O’Hara, it was full of beautiful women, mint juleps, and a more content way of life. The North on the other hand was always rushing about, industrializing and eager to get ahead. There is no mention of slavery - or whether the slaves were among those contented Southerners - and no mention of the ways in which the system of slavery was a just as brutal an industry as anything the North had to offer.

 Southern belles descend on a lit stage as the program's narrator reminisces about mint juleps.

Southern belles descend on a lit stage as the program's narrator reminisces about mint juleps.

 

When the night’s events end nobody really wins or loses. There is certainly an underlying assumption that the South really is better, stronger, faster, more robust and a better competitor, but total defeat does not sell so neither side actually loses. The host opines that this is all just fun and games and of course, we are all Americans aren’t we? Participants walk away with a reconciliationism hidden beneath the guise of friendly demeanors and finger-licking fun.

It is so familiar it almost does not offend, because what did we really expect? One might scoff but blow it off because it is just so...predictable.

 Competitors from both sides - North and South - end the night's events carrying American flags.

Competitors from both sides - North and South - end the night's events carrying American flags.

But that’s the problem. These myths are old, familiar, and tired, yet they are as destructive as ever before. What motivates a person to cling so tightly to the Confederate flag, or declare, “heritage not hate,” except this ingrained belief that the South, slavery, and the deadly conflict that ensued as a result were not destructive? It may seem like innocent fun, but it perpetuates a myth that is directly related to the violence that haunts our modern headlines. A myth that spurs groups to threaten anyone perceived as an advocate for the flag’s removal. A myth that seems to justify radical action because those who question it must be anti-democracy and anti-freedom. Clad in twinkling Christmas lights and pastel dresses it seems less menacing, but it is not.

I would argue that it is not about social commentary or “just fun.” Perpetuating these myths also perpetuates the violence, resistance, and strife that polarizes opinions to the point that we can no longer have productive conversations about the Civil War’s legacies. Moreover, it turns the United States’ most deadly conflict into a series of silly games rather than a series of bloody battles that left the country maimed, traumatized, and lacking 750,000 men who marched off to war, never to return.

Yes, we are all Americans. But we remain so because the Union army triumphed in the most devastating conflict this country has ever known. It is not just the responsibility of historians to remember, but for everyone to remember history as it was, not as we might like it to have been.

Becca Capobianco is an education technician at Great Smoky Mountains National Park and an adjunct faculty member at Germanna Community College.