The History Channel in late May produced a mostly laudable documentary series on Ulysses S. Grant, rightly hailing the legacy of the victorious Union general and the president who fought for civil rights. However, the series contained what’s become a recurring problem in some historical reflections on the Civil War. Throughout the three part series, the production repeatedly showed the slave-holding Confederates as red states and the Union north as blue states. In reality, it's the reverse.
As anyone familiar with history knows, the Confederates were Democrats. It was Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party that fought the war to preserve the union and ultimately to end slavery. As Marine and retired U.S. Army War College professor Daniel Douds astutely explained Grant’s strategy to defeat the Confederates, the on-screen graphic showcased the (incorrect) blue state/red state dynamic.
DANIEL DOUDS (Colonel USMC Retired, Professor, U.S. Army War College): Grant's idea when he becomes commanding general is to get all of the Union forces to act in harmony. He wants to move on Mobile Bay, one of the last Confederate ports. He wants Sherman to advance on Atlanta. He wants Franz Sigel to go down the Shenandoah Valley, the breadbasket of the Confederacy in the east. Benjamin Butler will come up the James River and get at Richmond from the south, hopefully dividing some of Lee's attention. And then finally, the Army of the Potomac will head at Robert E. Lee in Richmond. It's those five pieces acting in concert that is his original vision for how this war should come to a close.
Now, a charitable person might say the choices were unintentional and not meant to associate modern red states with slavery. But if so, why not just use blue and gray, the actual colors of Civil War uniforms?
This isn’t the first time such a historical revisionism has occurred. CBS Sunday Morning on April 7, 2019 featured a story on the Reconstruction era after the Civil War and former slaves who entered Congress in the 1870s. The visuals for the CBS segment used the political “red and blue” state graphics.
Inconvenient or not, the slave-defending Confederacy was run by Democrats. Documentaries should reflect that fact.