Frank Underwood Confronts His Civil War Heritage


Netflix’s premier series House of Cards is a political drama that is raw, exhilarating and downright devious. The lead character, Democratic Party politician Frank Underwood of South Carolina, is easily the most diabolical character I think I’ve ever witnessed on television. Kevin Spacey’s tremendous portrayal of Frank pushes the show to the limit, making it a thrill ride to watch. Each episode features the nastiness of politics that lubricates the gears of the American government. In “Chapter 18” (season 2, episode 5) politics meets history when Frank confronts the past, coming face to face with his own Civil War heritage…you can imagine my excitement. I should take this opportunity to say that I will make efforts not to reveal any of the overarching plot of the series. However, parts of this particular episode, as well as the emphasis on the Civil War are fair game. Consider that your spoiler alert. “Chapter 18”, begins with the main character Frank, viewing  the 150th anniversary of the Overland Campaign battle re-enactment with a crowd of spectators. Although many in the crowd look entertained, there are quite a few who look bored. Frank himself is extremely bored. As far as re-enactments go, this one is well done. The re-enactors are fit, the scenario is presentable, and there are some pyrotechnics for fun. I say that because as soon as you start to think these things, someone ‘takes a hit’ [re-enactor talk for dying], and goes down in a humorous manner. Frank looks at the camera, breaking the “4th Wall” as he so often does in the series. Viewers agree with him, “How…ridiculous.” After the battle, Frank addresses the crowd. He thanks the re-enactors, local politicians, etc. and then walks away from the podium, breaking the “4th Wall” again and telling the audience exactly what he thinks.

In Gaffney people called it the ‘War of Northern Aggression.”  I personally take no pride in the Confederacy. Avoid wars you can’t win and never raise your flag for an asinine cause like slavery.

Frank obviously makes no qualms or appeals to the Lost Cause. At least we don’t have to deal with a romanticized version of the South and their hypocritical fight for freedom. Yet this episode does not deal with that big sweeping issue of slavery. It focuses on Frank’s personal history. When the episode comes back to the battlefield, Frank is touring the Muleshoe at Spotsylvania battlefield with a National Park Service Ranger. Unbeknownst to Frank, the NPS Ranger had arranged a surprise for Frank. As they walk through the “Bloody Angle”, the Ranger  introduces Frank to Cpl. Augustus Elijah Underwood, 12th Regiment of McGowan’s Brigade (Confederate), Frank’s Great-Great-Great Grandfather. The re-enactor portraying him is a progressive re-enactor (aka Hardcore, he never breaks character). He shakes Frank’s hand, and says “I died here in this battle.” Frank is taken aback, telling the Ranger there has been a mistake. “My grandfather never mentioned any Underwoods in the war.” Like so many others, family stories and heritage shaped Frank’s understanding of his own Civil War past. The Ranger confronts him with the facts, there is no mistake. According to the episode, Augustus died in that battle at 24 years old. Like so many others, he perished leaving behind a wife and a son he never met. This scene goes on, the re-enactor tells him about the brutality of the battle and the vicious hand to hand fighting that ultimately claimed his life. It’s quite convincing. Frank takes a picture with the re-enactor, it is obvious that he is troubled. From what, we don’t know; Frank never tells us. He thanks the re-enactor, and continues the tour. Constantly looking back at the young man…looking back, at the past.

As the episode marches on, Frank pours over Civil War history books and visits the battlefield. He seems to be searching. Searching for information on his recently discovered family history. In one scene, Frank is reading when his Chief of Staff Doug Stamper walks in. Frank asks him, “Did you know that General Longstreet was shot here, by his own men.” Doug had not, Frank reflects on this later by breaking the “4th Wall” and telling viewers that “We must learn from Longstreet. He rode too high in the saddle.” A reference to dodging metaphorical bullets in the battle of politics.

Towards the end of the episode, we see Frank standing in front of re-enactors and a crowd of spectators. Frank, as a senior political official, is breaking ground on a new visitor center. So, as Frank puts it, “that generations to come, will fully absorb the importance of this hallow ground, the Wilderness, where the campaign commenced. ” He’s handed a shovel, but before plunging it into the Earth, he looks at the re-enactor portraying his ancestor and asks him to do it. He does. Frank then asks the crowd for “a moment of silence and prayer…for the dead.” As the audience and crowd bow their heads, Frank removes his class ring from “The Sentinel,” a fictionalized version of The Citadel. Frank kneels down, places his ring in the dirt, and covers it up. He pauses for a moment to reflect. Stands. Gives thanks. Turns and salutes the re-enactors. Roll credits.

As the season progresses, remembering the Civil War becomes an obsessive past time of Frank’s and a normality in the show. You can find Frank looking over numerous Civil War history books. Brooks Simpson notes such a scene on his blog. You can also find Frank working on his large scale model of a Civil War battle; hand painting each individual figure and carefully placing them on the landscape in his office. The reasons for using such a back plot are pretty clear, it fits perfectly within the prominent narrative of the entire series. Frank is an almost psychopathic politician who is waging a political Civil War. Yet at the same time, it encompasses the personal stories of so many Americans who confront their own personal history. Those ardent defenses of the Lost Cause narrative. The protests against the removal of Confederate Flags from public places, names from public parks, or even memorials and statues from public locations. Some confront that history by protesting all of the aforementioned Confederate symbols. Those are all examples of the confrontation between a perception and the reality of the past.  It can seem like many people not only confront history, they go to war with it.

Perhaps there is something we can learn from Frank, which is hard to say considering how diabolical he truly is. Frank embraces his past. He uses it as a learning opportunity, a point of interest, and even a hobby. It is unlikely that Frank changes his initial stance on why the war was fought. Regardless, Frank comes to terms with that past and in the end, he lays it to rest.






  1. Except it wasn’t Longstreet who was killed by his own men in the dark. It was Stonewall Jackson. Get the History part right at least, please!

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