One hundred and fifty years ago this week the American Civil War drew to a close. On April 9, 1865 Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, and four long years of bloodshed reached their conclusion. The sesquicentennial of this epochal event in U.S. history is worthy of commemoration, and the History channel would seem like the appropriate place to mark such an event. So how is a cable channel devoted to history paying homage to these honored dead? Did they explore, for example, the incomplete peace that followed the war, or the legacy of political and racial tensions left in its wake—something highly relevant given current events? Of course not. They told viewers that space aliens were behind the whole endeavor! It’s the perfect encapsulation of the utter worthlessness of cable television. (If you’re wondering, on April 9 itself they devoted the evening to Pawn Stars, that paragon of scholarly contemplation.)
Ancient Aliens S07E14 “Aliens and the Civil War” marks a change in strategy for the History channel, which moved the program to its smaller sister station H2 in 2012 as part of an effort to take the show’s audience of 1.5 million weekly viewers and use it to build H2’s viewership. Three years later, and amid myriad complaints that the show most closely identified with History’s brand of schlock wasn’t regularly available to the tens of millions of Americans homes that lack access to H2, the new head of programming for History has returned Ancient Aliens to its original home. Along with fellow H2 UFO program Hangar 1: The UFO Files, Ancient Aliens presents the network’s return to out-and-out conspiracy drivel in the wake of the wild success of Templar conspiracy hour Curse of Oak Island and the ratings disappointment that was Search for the Lost Giants, which failed to reach the audience reruns of Ancient Aliens drew when sharing the same timeslot in a tryout after Curse. The long and short of it is that History wanted a show with higher ratings and a younger-skewing audience, and aliens beat Bible giants every time.
Special note: Sometime after season 7 began, the production company retroactively renumbered some of the season 7 episodes as season 6 episodes (the season for which they were produced), so this episode, while the fourteenth since H2 announced the “premiere” of season 7 is also listed as S07E09 because it was the ninth episode produced for the seventh season.
This episode is notable for being one of the few not to feature Giorgio Tsoukalos at all, making it a very odd choice for the first episode of the show on its new network, especially since Tsoukalos was literally the only thing in the promos the network ran. Viewers mist have been very disappointed.
Oh well, the aliens: We start by rehearsing the claim that Joseph Smith’s vision of the angel Moroni was actually a visit from a space alien. This occurred decades before the Civil War, but because in 1832 Smith prophesied that South Carolina would spark a Civil War of North against South this is somehow relevant. However, the “prophecy” wasn’t actually about the Civil War; Smith was reflecting on the 1832 South Carolina rebellion and using that as a pretext for imagining that the state’s actions would spark a wider war. If Smith were a prophet, so too were half the newspaper editors in America. William Henry relates this to George Washington’s vision of an angel at Valley Forge who delivered a prophecy of the Civil War, a story Ancient Aliens told in “Aliens and the Founding Fathers” back in season 3 and now both times has failed to reveal is a known Civil War era hoax written by a known person at a known date—during the Civil War.
Nick Redfern claims that people in Delaware saw a “rocket” in the sky in the 1860s, and other talking heads describe various lights in the sky that similarly resemble what we might think of as meteors (and in some cases hoaxes). No one at the time called them craft, and there is no reason to relate lights in the sky to spacecraft. The newspaper description of the Shreveport, Louisiana sighting of 1860, paraphrased on the show, ought to make clear that there are natural explanations we can apply to these sightings:
Our attention was called to a strange light in the heavens. On going out into the gallery we had a magnificent view of it. It appeared to the naked eye, about 300 yards in length, extending from North to West appearing just above the tallest trees. Its color was that of a red hot stove from the center beautiful rays resembling those of the sun drawing water would ascend to a considerable height, the whole presenting a very beautiful and sublime appearance. We watched it for about an hour without perceiving it to change any.
Men described as historians who have written books about the Civil War (though not scholarly or bestselling ones) embarrass themselves by lending their names to drivel about space aliens as they describe the horrors of war. We then hear then some soldiers saw lights around the moon on April 19, 1861, which our heroes think must be spacecraft. Following this, we hear talk of “bizarre dreams” which were sometimes “prophetic.” The show is almost cute in its acceptance of hoaxes and propaganda as legitimate. Gen. McClellan claimed that the ghost of George Washington told him to make a wise decision, but such stories are par for the course in Victorian times. David Childress tells us that space aliens are “most interested” in the United States and have worked to protect and guide America. It should be rather clear that the aliens are simply standing in for what Fox News pundit Sean Hannity famously credited to God. America, Hannity once said, “is the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the earth.” The aliens, serving as God’s green-skinned heavenly chorus, sing similar praises of rapture at the wonders of the United States. American exceptionalism is writ in the stars, and sung by the angels in their sparkling airships.
This segment begins by retelling an apocryphal story about Lincoln seeing a vision of himself doubled in a mirror, anticipating his death in his second term. The story, which Ancient Aliens considers a vision from space aliens, was told only after Lincoln’s death, in Harper’s Magazine for July 1865, where someone claimed to have heard Lincoln tell the story in 1864. Other claims about Lincoln and Spiritualism follow, and the conceit seems to be that the psychics who counseled the president on the advice of his gullible wife Mary Todd Lincoln had “direct contact” (as David Wilcock claims) with “otherworldly beings” who had been guiding Lincoln to save the Union and issue the Emancipation Proclamation. This, I suppose, is a matter of philosophy, depending on the stock you put in psychics. Personally, I put none and cannot see anything in these claims that smacks of the supernatural, or anything but anodyne advice. But I can say this for Ancient Aliens: At least they say that the aliens came down on the side of the Union and freeing the slaves, unlike America Unearthed, its sister show that famously told viewers they “have to admire” the Confederate extremists who wanted to conquer Mexico and the Caribbean in the name of creating a continent-wide slave empire.
David Childress asks if aliens disguised themselves as George Washington to lead the Union forces to victory at Gettysburg since some reported seeing Washington’s ghost at the battle. The narrator asks if this is the “ultimate proof” that aliens are in charge of America’s fate. But since the show can’t fill out a full hour with the Civil War, it injects colonial-era material about the multiple-worlds hypothesis from “Aliens and the Founding Fathers” and recaps Washington’s apocryphal angelic vision for a second time. Note: It remains a hoax. Several talking heads assert that Lincoln dreamed his own death before it occurred, but even the History channel itself admits that the story wasn’t reported until the 1880s. It’s likely apocryphal, but Lincoln did have dreams of sailing across water that he interpreted as predicting great changes or decisions in his life.
Ambrose Bierce is one of my favorite authors; his short horror stories are models of storytelling efficiency. His Devil’s Dictionary is a monument to cynicism and sarcasm that nevertheless makes quite plain its author’s complete lack of credulity in the supernatural. He famously asked how it was that ghosts seem to come dressed in clothes. How, he asked, do “textile fabrics” have the power to “make themselves visible after there is nothing left of them”? But Ancient Aliens feels that Bierce’s fiction doesn’t come from careful plotting and cleverness; instead, they assert that when he was shot in the head, this activated his latent alien-signal receptors, allowing him to access imagination. They retell the plot of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” and—fuck you!—they claim that in the story Bierce was purposely trying to tell us that “alternate worlds” exist. It’s FICTION, people! Let me share some of Bierce’s actual thoughts about psychic powers. To be psychic powers, he wrote, were “the art and practice of selling one’s credibility for future delivery.” Bierce allegedly met with F. A. Mitchell-Hedges, the fraud who invented the crystal skull myth, and we hear that when Bierce disappeared in Mexico he really went to the cave where Mitchell-Hedges pretended to find the crystal skull and was raptured into the aliens’ dimension. Fuck you, Ancient Aliens. If you’re interested in the facts, the occultist Sibley S. Morrill invented the story for the book Ambrose Bierce, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges and the Crystal Skull (1973). The claim derives from the assertion that Mitchell-Hedges (who never mentioned Bierce in his letters or journals) visited Pancho Villa at the same time as Bierce in 1913 and 1914.
In the last segment we look at the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol building in Washington, and the ancient astronaut theorists claim she is a space alien. That would be news to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who, as Mississippi senator before the Civil War, personally approved the design as a compromise that would avoid looking too much like it was supporting the idea of “freedom” for those, you know, black people. A liberty cap was replaced with a headdress to avoid suggesting manumission. The ancient astronaut theorists, though, see the use of stars—drawn from the American flag (duh!)—as symbolizing nothing. They are space stars and the goddess is therefore a space alien who lives among the stars.
The show concludes with a recapitulation of American exceptionalism, and David Wilcock tells us that space aliens promote democracy and freedom (a laugh considering he told Russian TV last year that they’re working with American leaders to plan global genocide). If their love of democracy were the case, then they seem to have failed miserably in that regard. The aliens seem much more like Zecharia Sitchin’s gold-hungry aliens in favoring plutocracy, if we were to judge from current conditions.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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