It would not surprise me to learn that John Wayne played more Confederate veterans in Westerns than he did US Cavalrymen. You understand that I have no interest in doing the research required to actually figure this out. I’m sure someone else has, but I’d have to figure out which of his movies were Westerns and then biographical details about all his characters and what with one thing and another, no. But it is a curious fact that more fictional characters in Westerns are Confederate veterans than actual prominent figures of the mythic era of the Old West.
Generally speaking, the average Western is set somewhere between about 1875 and 1885. Oh, what you see in summary tends to be “the latter half of the nineteenth century,” but let’s be real—if you can pin it to a specific date, it tends to be after the Transcontinental Railroad. The OK Corral is a popular setting, for example, and that particular gunfight was in 1881. The most recent Magnificent Seven takes place a couple of years earlier. Even most of the states that would remain territories until the twentieth century have some structure of law and order. Though I doubt most people think about it that way, even Little House on the Prairie fits into this structure, as the books Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote are set mostly in the 1870s and 1880s.
Wilder was younger than many of the leading figures of American Western Mythology, but not by as much as people seem to believe. She was born in 1867; that means she was about seven years younger than Billy the Kid and about nineteen years younger than Wyatt Earp. Her husband was between the two figures in age. Which of course means that what they all have in common is having been too young to have fought in the Civil War. Most prominent figures of the Old West were; the few that I’ve found who were old enough fought for the Union.
Oh, there are exceptions; there are certainly movies set before the Civil War, for example, often about Texas in some way. But of course most of the prominent people from that era were too old to have served in the Civil War; Davy Crockett would’ve been just shy of eighty when the war started, and Sam Houston died during the war at age seventy. There are vanishingly few figures prominent in the era in question who actually did fight for the Confederacy. I mean, if people know of any, I’m willing to be corrected. But there just aren’t that many. Newman Haynes Clanton, popularly known as “Old Man Clanton” and father of OK Corral figures Ike and Billy, served in the Texas Home Guard before being released for being too old, and I can’t find anyone else.
Fiction, though? Oh, that’s a deep well. The list is from here to Mars—literally, as John Carter is a Confederate veteran. You want someone a little more terrestrial? Try Ethan Edwards of The Searchers. Both Rooster Cogburn and LaBoeuf, and the only argument there is that Cogburn rode for Quantrill and therefore wasn’t a proper soldier. Ethan Hawke as Goodnight Robicheaux in the recent version of The Magnificent Seven. Jonah Hex, if DC is your style. Josey Wales, and my goodness but the plot of “duplicitous Union officers” seems to come up regularly in some of these things, doesn’t it?
So what’s the deal, here? Why so many in fiction; why so few in reality? The second question is actually easier to understand—important people in the West in that decade were young. I went through the Wikipedia article on the OK Corral, clicking on every name that was a link, and I’d estimate at least eighty percent of those people were born in the 1850s. Virgil Earp served in the Union army, but he was the youngest of the Earps to do so. Billy the Kid was literally a kid! After all, many of the places we think of when we think of the West were, obviously, frontiers. Farmers and shopkeepers may have been older people with families; gunslingers and lawmen were not.
Fiction is, obviously, partly society’s way of explaining itself to itself, and much of our society’s fiction has involved trying to puzzle out the Civil War. Though very little of the fiction I’ve seen talks about what several of the historical figures were actually doing in the Civil War—I’m not sure I’ve seen much of anything other than a few throwaway lines in How the West Was Won that even acknowledges that places like California existed during the war, much less that Californians were involved in it. And perhaps one aspect of the prevelance is that these people have a chance to start clean—Pat Garrett, for example, leaving his family in Louisiana after they lost their money in the war, though of course he himself was too young to have fought.
However, we’re also dealing with the prevailing American myths about the war, and I suppose it’s inevitable from the greatest myth machine in US history, possibly in world history. The first, here exemplified by John Carradine as Hatfield in Stagecoach, is the ever-popular “moonlight and magnolias.” The Southern gentleman, and how better to exemplify a Southern gentleman than making him fight for the Cause? Even on a stagecoach from nowhere to nowhere in New Mexico in 1880, a gentleman can have a silver folding cup with his family crest, right?
And of course there’s the Lost Cause, and I don’t even know where to begin with examples for that one. This is why you see Confederate veterans Standing Up For The Little Guy Because It’s Right, even when that doesn’t really fit with the actual realities of the actual war or even the actual characters at hand. I haven’t seen it in a long time, but I’m pretty sure Cole Thornton of El Dorado was a Confederate veteran—certainly James Caan’s character is called Mississippi, though he seems like one of those “children during the actual war” types—and he’s fighting the big, bullying Ed Asner as Bart Jason. And if he wasn’t, it won’t take much work to find similar characters fighting similar threats who fought to literally keep human beings as property, not that we’ll ever say that’s what they did.
Yes, I’m aware that quite a lot of Confederate soldiers didn’t think of themselves as doing that, but by letting the narrative be so driven by individual Confederate soldier characters like Morsman Carver (played by Liam Neeson of all people) and Frank “Stonewall” Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.), we miss out on the idea that, yes, this really was a war to keep humans as property. Letting LeBeouf argue that Quantrill was a thug misses the whole issue that, while individual Southerners may have thought of themselves as protecting their homes from invaders, there wouldn’t have been an invasion had the Southern states’ governments not been so all-fired determined to keep slaves.
Also, I know what you’re going to tell me—I’ve forgotten the James Brothers. And to be fair, yes, I actually did. They, like Cogburn, and probably like several other fictional characters as well, rode with Quantrill. And they were doubtless thought of as Westerners in their day. But that’s another reason to push the Western further in time, to around when Jesse died. Their first train robbery was in Iowa; their most famous bank robbery was in Minnesota. What was the West in 1865 would not be the West ten years later. And even in those days, West Virginia sure wasn’t the West.