Valley Voices

Romancing the Civil War: Madera school’s ‘ball’ troubles Fresno State scholars

Vivien Leigh (left) and Hattie McDaniel starred in the film version of "Gone with the Wind" in 1939.
Vivien Leigh (left) and Hattie McDaniel starred in the film version of "Gone with the Wind" in 1939.

Friday night, Ranchos Middle School in Madera County, held its annual Civil War Ball, the capstone to the school’s unit on the conflict.

Judging by teacher guidelines for the ball and photos from last year’s affair, the popular re-enactment doubtless featured students decked out in formal and period attire, including hoop skirts and Union and Confederate uniforms. Participants could earn extra credit by singing Civil War songs or dancing a waltz.

If Vicki Snowden-Jackson has her way, however, this will be Ranchos Middle School’s last Civil War Ball. The African-American mother of a sixth-grader headed to the school next year, Snowden-Jackson has called on Golden Valley Unified School District to scrap the ball because it gives a false impression of Civil War history.

“They’re not holding celebrations when they teach World War II, and the Nazis threw parties then,” she told The Bee. “Why do it with one of the darkest times in American history?”

Snowden-Jackson has a point. We know that Ranchos Middle School teachers care about their students and believe that the ball serves their educational interests. And we realize that historical re-enactments can help the past come alive.

Still, as scholars of the Civil War and slavery, we find the use of a costume ball to mark the end of a unit on the war – the most divisive, destructive and revolutionary moment in American history – to be troubling.

Sadly, we do not find it terribly surprising.

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Blain Roberts

As we chronicle in our new book, “Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy,” much of the country remains in the thrall of a propaganda campaign that dates back to the end of the Civil War. According to Lost Cause mythology:

1) Slavery did not start the Civil War.

2) Confederates seceded, instead, in defense of noble ideals, such as states’ rights and low tariffs.

3) Even though slavery didn’t cause the war, it was a benevolent and civilizing institution.

This Lost Cause tradition was forged in the South, but its influence ultimately extended across the country – and persists to this day. Despite the fact that modern historians have thoroughly debunked Lost Cause claims – painting slavery as a brutal institution that did, in fact, provoke the Civil War – their arguments often do not make their way into classrooms.

A new Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report, for example, shows that just 8 percent of high school seniors correctly identify slavery as the war’s cause.

To stage a Civil War ball today is to perpetuate Lost Cause falsehoods. Like hoop skirts and hanging moss, such an affair evokes the moonlight-and-magnolia myths of the Old South.

Transporting participants back into an idealized past awash in grandeur, frivolity and “Gone with the Wind” romance, a ball leaves little room for understanding the perspective of non-elites, not to mention the enslaved.

Even the school district’s response to Snowden-Jackson’s complaints – a Facebook statement intended to set the record straight about the goal of the ball – betrays the tenacious grip of the Lost Cause. The district called the event “an opportunity to celebrate the end of the war and the saving of our great union at the hands of all the brave men and women…who suffered and sacrificed for a greater future.”

Yet this claim fundamentally misrepresents the ends for which many of those brave men and women suffered and sacrificed. Confederates did not go to war to save the Union or in the service of a greater future.

Rather, they fought to break up the country and found a new nation dedicated to maintaining slavery. It is ahistorical – nonsensical – to frame the war as a joint, North-South effort to create a new and better America.

The district contends that critics of the ball do not want students to learn about “certain parts of our past, just because they are unpleasant.” Quite the opposite is true, at least for us. As historians and parents of school-aged children, we believe students must confront the uncomfortable truths of our history.

But a costume ball is hardly an apt vehicle for an honest reckoning with the pain of slavery, the destruction of the war, and the sectional bitterness that lingered for decades. Years from now, what will be the main takeaway from the ball? Surely not slavery’s centrality to the conflict.

Indeed, it is revealing that in its nearly 500-word statement, the district could not bring itself to say explicitly what was “unpleasant” about this topic, or to even use the word “slavery.”

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss our concerns in person with district staff and Ranchos Middle School teachers. And we encourage educators and parents who are interested in how best to teach the history of slavery and the Civil War to consult the SPLC’s new report.

As it acknowledges, this is “hard history,” but armed with accurate information and appropriate pedagogical strategies, teachers can ensure their students see it clearly.

Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle are professors of history at Fresno State. Their book “Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy” was published by The New Press earlier this month. Connect with them at broberts@csufresno.edu or ekytle@csufresno.edu .

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