Here’s John Sergeant Wise (Luke Benward) in the opening voiceover of Sean McNamara’s new Civil War drama Field Of Lost Shoes, describing how his father took him to a slave auction in 1858 to teach him a lesson about the evils of slavery:
My father’s heart had long since changed on the topic, and one night, he took me to a place that would forever change my own.
Here’s the actual John Sergeant Wise describing the same incident, in his 1899 memoir The End Of An Era:
Among my Northern kinsfolk was a young uncle, a handsome, witty fellow, much younger than my mother… He asked if I had ever seen a slave sale.
That uncle, erased from the film to make John Sergeant Wise’s father look more enlightened than he was, died fighting for the Union.
Here’s John’s father Henry in his own words, in an 1838 letter recounted in The Life Of Henry A. Wise Of Virginia, 1806–1876, a biography written by his grandson:
I have often been struck with the thought which justifies slavery itself in the abstract, and which has made me wonder and adore a gracious special Providence… I as firmly believe that slavery on this continent is the gift of Heaven to Africa.
Here he is again in February of 1861:
I am confident there are a number who would vote for abject submission and abolition of slavery tomorrow… I now see that the fate of slavery is doomed in Virginia and we have no hope but in actual Revolution.
Here’s a line from Field Of Lost Shoes, spoken by a fellow Virginia Military Institute cadet before a shoving match that ends when John Sergeant Wise punches him in the face:
Wasn’t it your father, the governor, who opposed secession? The old fool.
Here is a record of the Virginia Convention, showing that Henry A. Wise voted for secession each time he was given the opportunity, on April 4 and April 17, 1861. And here is an account of his announcement to the Convention that he secretly, illegally sent troops to seize the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, in an attempt to force the issue:
…armed forces are now moving upon Harper’s Ferry to capture the arms there in the arsenal for the public defence, and there will be a fight or a foot-race between volunteers of Virginia and Federal troops before the sun sets this day!
As governor, Wise presided over John Brown’s execution for doing the same thing, albeit for very different reasons. But his heart did finally change on the topic of slavery, just as the film alleges. Here he is in an 1867 speech, explaining why he has come to the conclusion that the end of the plantation system was good for the South:
It was… to give the land its greatest pride, a solid Caucasian yeomanry, instead of being filled by ignorant, lazy slaves of a degraded race!
And yet in Field Of Lost Shoes, he’s practically William Lloyd Garrison. There are as many examples of this sort of bullshit in the film as the screenplay has words. Its subject is the Battle Of New Market, in which Confederate general John C. Breckinridge fed a battalion of Virginia Military Institute cadets—children, really—into the thresher, killing 10 of them and wounding 45 more. Just like kindly old abolitionist Henry A. Wise, the film’s cadets were a remarkably progressive bunch for the children of elite Virginians of the 1860s. For example, there’s a sequence in which they save VMI’s slave cook “Old Judge” (Keith David) from hanging by volunteering to be hung in his place. There’s also a scene in which they stop their march to save an African-American trapped under a wagon, so she can flee the approaching Union forces for some reason. And the racial harmony goes both ways; at the end, Old Judge weeps on the battlefield over the corpses of men who died to keep him in chains. The film is adequately directed, well-photographed, and competently acted. But it’s rotten at its core.
Here’s Ta-Nehisi Coates on the long, sorry tradition Field Of Lost Shoes exemplifies:
The Lost Cause is necromancy—it summons the dead and enslaves them to the need of their vainglorious, self-styled descendants. Its greatest crime is how it denies, even in death, the humanity of the very people it claims to venerate. This isn’t about “honoring” the past—it’s about an inability to cope with the present…
This is about a lancing shame, about that gaping wound in the soul that comes when confronted with the appalling deeds of our forebears. Lost Causers worship their ancestors, in the manner of the abandoned child who brags that his dead-beat father is actually an astronaut, away on a mission of cosmic importance.
When we’ve been in the ground for a century, our own injustices and iniquities, our own blind spots, real and feigned, will doubtless be as uncomfortable to our descendants as the white-supremacist ideals the VMI cadets died for are to us. We should be judged by the times we live in, and so should those dead boys—but that means not lying about what we’ve done, or why. Field Of Lost Shoes judges the VMI cadets by making them more modern, more tolerant, more like us than they were: It judges them unworthy.
McNamara and his collaborators can dig up the skeletons of long-dead rebels and clatter their dry jawbones against their skulls. They can make them plea for clemency in words that would have horrified them while they were alive. But it’s not the dead men’s voices we hear, and everyone can see whose lips are moving.