The Centennial & The Twilight Zone

Wearing a black suit and pencil tie, a man strolls into the frame. With a Chesterfield cigarette smoldering between his fingers, he turns, squints at the camera, and breaks the fourth wall:

Imagine, if you will, a country marking the hundred-year anniversary of a thwarted rebellion. Yet there is something highly irregular about this centennial celebration: The men who tried to destroy the nation have become heroes and the all-consuming political issue that necessitated the conflict has been intentionally forgotten.

You assume the signpost up ahead will reveal your next stop is the twilight zone. But you’re wrong. The destination of tonight’s episode is the United States of America in the early 1960s.

CBS/PHOTOFEST

Rod Serling’s television show The Twilight Zone used the Civil Qar as a backdrop several times in the 1960s. Shown here (top to bottom) are scenes from three of these episodes: “The Passerby,” “Back There,” and “Still Valley.”

Rod Serling—the creator and iconic host of The Twilight Zone—never delivered such a narration, though he certainly could have. In the first half of the 1960s, Americans were indeed marking the hundred-year anniversary of a defeated rebellion. The Civil War had been triggered by the debate over slavery and the question of its expansion into the western territories. Fire-Eaters laid siege to Fort Sumter in 1861. The fighting raged for four long years, destroying untold property, claiming the souls of 750,000 men, and setting in motion the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. A century later, the Centennial sparked renewed interest in the conflict. That spawned myriad television shows, movies, and books and prompted non-academics to join historical roundtables to talk about them. Americans flocked to battlefield parks and monuments. For better or worse, they also began creating new statues.

Yet more than just being the observance of an important event long past, the tenor of the Civil War Centennial revealed as much about the United States of the 1960s as it did about the country in the 1860s. Now, too, was a turbulent moment in the American experience. Resistance to Brown v. Board of Education was massive. The Cold War was seeming less and less cold; worry abounded that Soviet warheads might come cruising overhead at any moment. And a stunned citizenry lost another president to an assassin’s bullet. Informed in part by these overlapping crises, Americans collectively remembered the Civil War through a reconciliatory lens—a commemorative perspective that underscored white unity and American exceptionalism at a time when the nation seemed to want both badly. Therein, the Centennial version of the conflict was a brothers’ war, a contest waged by two civilized cultures that seemed to just temporarily misunderstand each other. Chivalrous men fought bravely for both sides. The institution of slavery—its spread or abolition—was inconsequential.

Into this political and cultural maelstrom came The Twilight Zone. To be fair, it was only one of a number of shows that cashed in on Civil War-themed teleplays in the early 1960s. Among them, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Americans, Johnny Shiloh, and The Andy Griffith Show did too. But The Twilight Zone wasn’t your average drama or soap opera or sitcom—and Rod Serling not your average showrunner. From its inception in 1959, the series featured exceptional writing, much of it by Serling, and routinely forced viewers to confront their own worst attributes and behaviors. The show delivered stark warnings about antisemitism and

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