CW & Pop Culture: The North & South Miniseries

John Jakes’s North and South Books I and II became one of my favorite Civil War miniseries. Although they are a romantic adaptation of  historical fiction of the Civil War following two West Point cadets, it is a very good representation of the causes of the war. The two main characters—Orry Main from South Carolina and George Hazard from Pennsylvania—became best friends and remained best friends through the Mexican American War. During the period before the Civil War, they faced struggles in their friendship, mirror conflicts in the nation.  The conflicts of the United States are dramatically displayed, slavery in the South, industrial revolution in the North, the politics of war, states’ rights versus central government, and profiteering.  

This series joins my favorite movies of the Civil War:

  • Glory
  • Gettysburg
  • The Civil War (Ken Burns)
  • North and South, Book I and II
  • The Blue and the Gray
  • Lincoln
  • Gone with the Wind
  • Gods and Generals
  • The Red Badge of Courage
  • Horse Soldiers

As I reviewed portions of the North and South, I looked at those conflicts again, foremost among them, slavery. The thoughts about slavery became a problem between George and Orry, especially after visiting each other’s homes. After returning from West Point, Orry found out his father had hired a cruel overseer. Orry was stunned to see that their enslaved property (he called them property) were now whipped and treated badly. When his father died, he fired the overseer.  In another scene, an enslaved carriage driver for a cruel slave owner got an “upset” slave drunk. This enslaved man ruined a party full of slaveowners, and he was severely beaten. This scene is very important because it showd that all enslaved people did not treat each other well, especially in the case of house slaves and field hands. The slavery he witnessed at the Main plantation upset George, and his comments angered his friend, Orry.

However, when Orry visited George and toured the Hazard factory, he saw factory workers, working and living in less than ideal conditions.  Orry thought that his enslaved people were better off than the factory workers. George was upset about Orry’s comments, but also realized that the work standards had deteriorated under his brother’s leadership. The conditions led to an explosion at the factory, killing some of the workers. Eventually, George and Orry formed a partnership and brought a factory to South Carolina that proved to be very profitable. They found ways to overcome their difficulties by not speaking about them.

Virgilia and Grady

George’s sister, Virgilia, was an abolitionist and feminist, straining the families’ relationship with her speeches and actions. She publically embarrassed Orry, whom she persuaded to come and hear her speak.  She also helped a slave escape and then married him when he came to Pennsylvania.

One of Orry’s sisters, Ashton, was pro-slavery and a feminist in her own right, and she caused problems for her sister, Brett, and George’s brother, Billy, who ended up married to each other. This not only made Orry and George relatives, but each had a sister who did not like the bond between George and Orry.

As their families drew closer, the actions of the two women caused conflict between the families, although the remaining members of each family cared for each other. It also caused conflict during the war as George and Orry saved each other and received aid from other family members. This assistance aided both men and families to survive the war. Their bond also strengthened as they both aided each other in opposition to their own army. This type of tension and assistance, back and forth in their lives, reflected the struggles of the United States. It showed that this war divided and reunited brothers and friends!

Publicity photo for the series shows George and Orry as Civil War officers.

In some ways, it reminded me of General George Armstrong Custer, who took photographs with his Southern friends and even remained with Captain John Lea, to attend his wedding, in his Union dress uniform (description in The Most Desperate Acts of Gallantry written by my friend, Dan Davis, pages 27-29)

When I wrote my series on Black Confederates, I researched the Confederate Congress. The Congress repeatedly fought over states’ rights versus a central government. President Jefferson Davis knew that in order to fight a war, he needed a strong central government.  However, his Congress and some of his governors demanded their states’ rights. This was a major cause of the defeat of the Confederacy; they could not act as a unified force. In the miniseries, this was displayed in the heated argument between Davis and Orry’s brother-in-law, who fiercely argued that the states would not stand nor defend a strong central government. That declaration was very important because so many people, even today, do not know about this heated conflict within the Confederacy. Which is even more important when you consider that the Confederation constitution did not allow any state to secede from the Confederacy!

Profiteers!

Finally, the series brought up the issue of profiteering—on both sides.  Orry’s sister, Ashton, got involved with Orry’s and George’s enemy from West Point, Elkenah Bent, who wanted to make money by running the blockade and bringing in luxuries instead of food, medicines, and weapons for the Confederacy. Her husband, James Huntoon, had denied Bent financial support because Huntoon wanted to bring necessities for the Confederacy and not try to get rich by bringing in luxuries. In the north, George’s brother and sister-in-law made cheap cannons for the Union government at a substantial profit, which they used for elegant gifts. These cannons exploded and caused Union casualties. The sister-in-law had forged George’s name on the documents, trying to make him the object of the investigation. Neither party escaped retribution for their greed!

I really enjoy a good Civil War movie, especially when there are pieces of accurate history of the story. John Jakes’s trilogy made the Bestseller’s List.  Books I and II were very successful as television miniseries, III was not as popular. The North and South I and II were very entertaining and worth binging on time and time again!

About Steward T. Henderson

Civil War historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and living historian with the 23rd Regiment USCT and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Co. B. I am also a member of the Trail to Freedom Committee in the Fredericksburg, VA area and a member of the John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania, VA.
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2 Responses to CW & Pop Culture: The North & South Miniseries

  1. David Corbett says:

    For all the criticisms of the series it did explore the human factor of the characters and hey! When did you ever see the uniforms of the Hampton Legion before or again?

  2. Pingback: CW & Pop Culture: It’s A Wrap! | Emerging Civil War

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