The Lost Cause in the Children’s Room: Toys and Memory

The Lost Cause in the Children’s Room: Toys and Memory

My first conscious exposure to the American Civil War came sometime in the seventh grade when Kabel 1 showed Gettysburg on May Day. As a child, whose parents had watched many Western movies, this film created a fascination with the conflict in North America. In the following week, I tried to recreate Gettysburg battle scenes with LEGO minifigures and forgot my earlier play sessions with Playmobil Confederate and Revell Union Artillery sets stored in another box. During the 1990s, toy companies produced a significant number of Civil War era toy sets. While many of these have disappeared from the shelves, the second-hand market is buzzing with these items. Toy enthusiasts continue to perpetuate some of the outdated and even Lost Cause assumptions about the Civil War. As Trae Welborn and Patrick Lewis start to solicit essays for a book on Civil War era related video games, we might also want to think about toys and their impact on children and adults[1]. As historians, we constantly craft narratives of the past. Perhaps, we should also consider crafting in other mediums, for example, interlocking plastic bricks or plaster. Combining our narrative and artistic creations, we can reach a younger audience and work against the perpetuation of Lost Cause narratives.

By the early 1990s, children and collectors could find a wide array of Civil War-era related toys. I certainly had a few of these without understanding the meaning or even most basic narrative of the conflict in question. For children, toys are primarily about fun and play. However, these toys also become avenues for inquiry and learning about what the toy represents, be that a knight, pirate, or Civil War soldier. In those formative moments, children may encounter the many falsified narratives of the Civil War and embrace them as truth. Toymakers have used the Civil War for inspiration to make a wide variety of different toys.

In 1995, Revell, producer of plastic scale models and model kits both in the United States and Germany, produced the following figure sets: Union Infantry, Union Artillery, Confederate Infantry, Confederate Engineers. Collectors had to do some assembly but for the most part their work was limited to painting the figures.

One year earlier, Playmobil, a German toy company, released four play sets: two mounted rebel soldiers, a single rebel infantryman, a three-figure artillery piece, and finally the three-figure covered wagon of the “Virginian Mountain Boys,” transporting weapons and gold bags. These four sets remained in the lineup until the early 2000s. The sets were part of the Western series, which also included U.S. soldiers, a stereotypical movie-influenced U.S. fort, Western town sets, and even Native American figures.[2]

LEGO Soldiers and ArtilleryLEGO, a Danish company, marketed a similar but much shorter-lived and less extensive Western theme in 1996. The otherwise pacifist company’s unusual foray into the violent West included gun-wearing bandits, Native villages, a few town structures, and finally U.S. military sets.[3] The LEGO series neither included Confederates nor did its brief follow-up set promoting the Lone Ranger movie. However, considering the massive adult fan community, third party sellers are today selling Confederate soldiers and even Gatling guns, among other items.[4] These items are available directly on the producers’ websites, such as,, or, eBay, and even

The adult fan community has used the wide variety and availability of toys to produce stop motion videos and displays recreating historic moments to encourage children’s fantasy, creativity, and learning.[5] With a viewership far exceeding many of the documentaries available, this is not just about toys, but also about learning history in fun and creative ways. However, many of these videos present an outdated, oversimplified, or even falsified interpretation of the Civil War. Historians should deeply care about the narratives presented in these recreations.

The Playmobil community is relatively small, but has nevertheless produced some interesting Civil War-era history videos. For example, Timpo Toys Land uploaded a six-minute battle stop motion film that clearly was influenced by Gettysburg. Using the soundtrack of John Buford’s scenes in Gettysburg, the video opens with the Playmobil western fort where U.S. forces prepare for a battle the following morning. Set on a green plain with two fence lines, the battle pitches rebel and U.S. forces against each other. The battle ends with a U.S. victory, derogatorily referring to U.S. forces as Yankees.[6]

Similarly, AciesFilms attempted a full battle of Gettysburg stop motion film. Inspired by Gettysburg, the first forty seconds feel very much like the narrated section at the start of the movie. AciesFilms never completed the entire battle, leaving viewer with only the first day’s fighting. While entertaining, the film is clearly designed to teach history as there are explanations and even a map of the battlefield for reference.[7]

The few Playmobil Confederates on YouTube does not speak to the popularity of the toy or the success of Playmobil’s Western theme but reflects in large part to the popularity among adult fan community. There are no large conventions bringing together Playmobil fans, especially not in the United States. In contrast, LEGO has a massive adult fanbase, websites devoted to the resale of LEGO pieces and sets, websites focused on MOC displays (LEGO fan jargon for My Own Creation), and officially supported LUGs (LEGO User Groups). Ironically, LEGO never produced Confederate soldiers, but there are a large number of LEGO Civil War era creations and fan films often designed to teach history.

For example, at BrickFair Alabama 2020, a father-son duo, Bob and Boston Sharp, presented an elaborate slice of the Battle of Fredericksburg in front of Marye’s Heights. Within the first minute of the interview, they mention that their inspiration came from Gods and Generals, an epic pro-Confederate Lost Cause biopic of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. In addition, regarding the sources used, the builders mention a map in a heritage book. That supposedly was their entire research.[8]

The builders incorporated a number of Lost Cause-influenced film scenes, such as a slave protected her master’s home in Fredericksburg from looting U.S. soldiers. Even more, they also explained correctly that the 69th New York constituted the Irish Brigade and incorrectly that the 24th Georgia constituted the Confederate Irish Brigade. The clash of Irish Brigades has been eloquently refuted by historians but remains alive in Lost Cause narratives.[9]

Despite the lack of official LEGO Confederates, there are a number of figures visible throughout the video that look like the CSA equivalent of the official LEGO U.S. soldiers from the Western theme, likely a homemade print or one of the purchasable custom figures. In the interview, Bob Sharp claims to have a history degree, to be a historian, history teacher, and owner of a vast library. His son also lauded Gods in General as a great depiction of the battle. Such a vast display of the Battle of Fredericksburg will create awe for a young viewer who might then hear these problematic stories from individuals who claim historical authority and accept what they saw and heard as accurate history.

Another clear example of a Lost Cause influenced LEGO display comes in an interview with Gary Brooks. Brooks had cooperated on a display of the Battle of the Wilderness for BrickFair Virginia 2014.[10] On his Flickr page, Brooks includes what looks like a cropped map from the American Battlefield Trust to outline the size and location of his Wilderness diorama.[11] Brooks explains his choice of location based on the importance of the first meeting between U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant and rebel leader Robert E. Lee. Considering the limitations of building with LEGO, Brooks acknowledges that the display is lacking in tree cover and thus not perfectly accurate. However, Brooks claims that there were fewer soldiers burning to death on the southern end of the battlefield and thus it was less terrible. While the display has many fascinating vignettes to offer the viewer, there are problems.

Brooks in the interview explains that the goal of his displays is to teach people about the Civil War. While starting off positively, he claims that one cannot understand the modern United States without understanding the Civil War. Instead of slavery or race, Brooks focuses on how the war turned the United States from “are” to “is,” and created an unified country. Worse, he points to Lee as a person for whom state identity came first and, embracing Lost Cause arguments, that Lee “did not like slavery at all.”[12] To illustrate the impact of his work, Brooks mentions a conversation about the Civil War with a child at another convention and how he communicated more in twenty minutes than public school supposedly had done. He does raise a point about giving children and even teenagers the opportunity to like and learn history by playing and building with LEGO toys.

Thankfully, Confederate toys are a rarity these days, at least when it comes to major toy companies. However, as historians, we should worry where our future students might get their first exposure to history. Imagine a young impressionable mind being told Civil War history by a seemingly knowledgeable adult at a LEGO convention in front of a massive and impressive looking Civil War-era battle scene, and that adult telling them that Lee was a benevolent slaveholder. It will leave a lasting impression.

As Civil War historians, we are constantly fighting battles about historic reality on social media, in public presentation, in print media, and of course in the books we write. However, for many of us, once students arrive in class, they have already formed opinions about the basic stories of the Civil War and it is difficult to unteach certain key tenants. Maybe toys are another way to counteract the Lost Cause.  We should consider to collaboratively build a Civil War-era LEGO display to take to conventions or make videos with which to present a counter narrative.


[1] Patrick A. Lewis, James Welborn, eds., Playing at War: Identity & Memory in American Civil War Era Video Games (Under Contract, Louisiana State University Press); Nick Sacco, “Interpreting Slavery Though Video Games: The Story of Freedom!” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, May 12, 2020,

[2] An inquiry to Playmobil about the series and its discontinuation went unanswered.







[9] David T. Gleeson, The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).



[12] Adam Serwer, “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee: The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed,” The Atlantic (June 4, 2017),

Niels Eichhorn

holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas and has taught history courses at Middle Georgia State University and Central Georgia Technical College. He has published Liberty and Slavery: European Separatists, Southern Secession, and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019) and Atlantic History in the Nineteenth Century: Migration, Trade, Conflict, and Ideas (Palgrave, 2019). He is currently working with Duncan Campbell on The Civil War in the Age of Nationalism. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History. You can find more information on his personal website, and he can be contacted at

5 Replies to “The Lost Cause in the Children’s Room: Toys and Memory”

  1. As a child in 1950s and early 1960s Virginia my Civil War soldiers set and play with neighbors reenforced the steady stream of Lost Cause education I got in school and via my church sponsored John S. Mosby Boy Scout troop (complete with Confederate colors). My damaged Union soldiers became “Bummers” as that was my notion of General Sherman and his men.

  2. Oh dear. Legos, is it? OK. Now I have to learn enough about Legos to recreate The Death of Ellsworth. At least the Confederates in that scenario were wearing civilian clothing. And I thought I had it tough when I tried to recreate the same scene with Peeps! Argh! So much to do.

    1. That sounds very interesting Meg. I have quite a collection of bricks if you need suggestions on what might be good pieces to use. I had considered battle collaborations, but this sounds interesting.

  3. Revell-style plastic soldiers were around for a long time. In the UK they were produced under the Airfix brand, and Donald Featherstone used them in one of his early books on wargaming. Possibly a significant reason was the ability to provide, with basic painting, infantry, cavalry, and artillery for both armies. I am not sure, nearly fifty years later, which book it was, but I don’t recall much mention of the history beyond the battlefield. It may not have even been specific to the American Civil War, that was more an accident of the available figures.

    Dates and figure availability, and a couple of reviews, leave me thinking it was most likely “Battles With Model Soldiers”

    About a decade later I was involved with a wargaming club, more of the moving toys/models over scenery models. Magazines such as “Miniature Wargames” still continue, and still give an idea of the effort that went into the painting. My recollection of those days is that some of the history was always questionable, even if you could excuse it by the need for an enemy. Of course people will be annoyed by the “toy” label, and there’s some of the same problem with the label of “toy trains” but the cost, and the retail paths, put these Airfix and Revell products, and others, firmly into the territory. The “toy trains” aimed a little higher.

    Today, the niche may be occupied by “Warhammer”, which is less obvious in raising any bad-history questions. But the idea of toys and games and war, and the general impressions made, are still there. Some aspects of this general sort of gaming, such as cause and effect, may be of value, and are found in so many other places. Is the main channel now the Playstation or XBox? I doubt the problems go away, even if there are graphic sprays of pixelated blood across our screens.

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