Just a quick note to all of our readers who live in the Sharpsburg area of Maryland, and to any fan of Gods and Generals who may be visiting the Antietam battlefield: I forgot to mention this a few days ago in my vacation journal, but available for sale in the gift shop in the Visitor’s Center are back-issues of North & South Magazine from October 2002. What caught my eye was the big title on the top of the cover that read “The Making of Gods and Generals“. Though I had read probably everything there is to read on the making of this film, the 99 cent price tag prompted me to purchase a copy, and I was glad I did. The lengthy article written by historical consultant Dennis Frye sheds some behind-the-scenes light on the production, including many little stories that I had never read, involving casting and filming issues, as well as the immense process in sitting down with the script (Frye, assistant director Donald Eaton, and Maxwell literally locked themselves in a room for seven hours with Ron’s dogs to do a final read through of the script, making sure it was perfect).
The one thing I wanted to buy more than anything else on this trip is a bobblehead doll of John Wilkes Booth. Sure, I could purchase this novelty on Ebay, but I wanted to get it here because of the special location. There was much controversy surrounding the sale of these dolls, which I wrote about several months ago, and it seems that they are nearly impossible to get here. Most of these stores are selling the dolls of Grant, Lee, and Lincoln, and when I ask about Booth, they seem to get very narrow-eyed: “Oh…yeah…that. We used to sell ‘em. Not anymore, though. Sorry.” As I browsed around more and more, I was met with someone who said, “I wish we could sell those! You’re the third person who came in today asking about it.” Even one of the stores that boasts selling more than 200 different bobbleheads, including many in the same set as Booth, does not carry the item, the worker telling me, “We used to sell Aaron Burr, and nobody saw a problem with that. But this Booth one, after that newspaper article came out, there was such an uproar that most stores yanked them.” Poor Alexander Hamilton…what a schmuck! He then eluded that there may be one store in town that carries it, but did not say where, or with any confidence. I will continue tomorrow before we leave to spend a few days in Lancaster.
Well, we’re back at the hotel after a fantastic first day in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I have been here at all different times of year, but this may have been the best weather I have ever experienced. There were overcast skies with temperatures in the low 60′s—it was almost chilly outside. For June, there really were not that many tourists walking around the battlefield, which is great when trying to take pictures. I admit, I did not snap as many as I normally do, because there are not that many places on the battlefield that I have not photographed before. However, I did finally find the Lutheran Seminary, where Union General John Buford spotted John Reynolds and his reinforcements after fighting opened up on the first day against Harry Heth’s Confederates. How it took me this long it is beyond me. I guess I have passed it multiple times and just never turned in for a better look. There was some extensive renovation going on there, as well as to the Pennsylvania Monument near the Angle (presumably sandblasting). It was also great seeing so many children’s’ groups and scout troops touring the battlefield, as they are the future of Civil War interest. However, would it kill them and their leaders/counselors to show some respect, as in not jumping from rock to rock in Devil’s Den, or breaking out blankets for a picnic right on top of those same boulders? Not to be picky here, but there is just something about that which bothers me.
After much deliberation, we decided that we are going to make our annual vacation to Gettysburg next week, and will be there from June 18-20, before moving on to Lancaster and “Amish Country” for the three days after that. As I have said many times before on this blog, I first visited there when I was ten, back in 2001, a vacation prompted by my many viewings (which completely obliterated my first VHS copy) of the film Gettysburg. I have since been there seven or eight times now, and annually for what seems to be at least the fifth year. It just is not summer without a trip to where the most important battle of the Civil War occurred, the second day of the fighting happening on my birthday. While I was there on the anniversary the first time I went, I vowed never again to go during that week, a promise that has held up with both family trips and ventures with friends, because of the amount of tourists that invade the town, due to the anniversary and the reenactment, which usually takes place a few days before or after. The entire summer sees a spike in pilgrimages there, and my work schedule usually relegates me to having to trek out there in late August. With yet another crazy schedule that has me doing hockey or history camps for most of July and August (though I have the week of my birthday off due to the 4th), we decided that mid-June would be best. No insanity can trump the insanity of Gettysburg in July!
Just to wet everyone’s appetites just a little bit more! We have all seen various snippets and brief synopses of what Copperhead is about, but below is the full one, which can be found on the film’s official website. As we begin to really follow this film, because production began today, now would be a good time to check it out. In the next few days, I’ll be posting my thoughts on the casting selections of Jason Patric, who will star as Abner Beech, as well as Angus Macfadyen. It should be a lot of fun! Hop on and enjoy the ride!
What exactly constitutes someone being considered an “expert”? There are many qualities you can contrive in order to define the word, but I am pretty sure, that at the end of the day, no matter what you think of, historian and author J. David Petruzzi would always be considered one when it comes to the American Civil War. He is the author of five books on the subject, including the freshly released New Gettysburg Campaign Handbook, which has been described as a must-read for diehards and newbies alike. With another trip to Gettysburg coming up in the next couple of weeks for me (have not yet decided on the dates), I think I am going to pick up a copy and take it along with me, because it seems to be the real deal according to the reviews.
All of Petruzzi’s hard work has led him to be selected as a historical adviser to the highly anticipated television miniseries To Appomattox (2013), which has been mentioned a few times on this blog. With many fans out there wanting to learn more about it, and his role, I asked him to shed some light on that, as well as his general opinion on various aspects of the Civil War and films made about it. He is also the author of other related works, including walking and driving tours of Gettysburg, One Continuous Fight, which details Lee’s retreat, and finally, Plenty of Blame to Go Around, which currently holds distinction as the only book dedicated entirely to Confederate cavalry General J.E.B Stuart’s famous, and controversial ride, from Virginia to Gettysburg. Mr. “Call Me J.D” Petruzzi also maintains a blog called “Hoofbeats and Cold Steel”, which I discovered after stumbling upon his review of the History Channel Gettysburg documentary from late May—both of us had choice words to say about that one, while his expertise took it even further! Below is our interview, which we conducted by email this afternoon:
GC:You are serving as a historical adviser to the upcoming mini-series To Appomattox. What exactly will your job entail?
JDP: First, I’m really humbled and honored to be a part of this, which I truly believe will be the media event of the Sesquicentennial. It’s all been very exciting, because I’ve never been involved in something of this scope and magnitude. My initial duties a few months back entailed two things: First, I was asked to read the entire script and offer historical accuracy suggestions. As an aside, I was hooked after the first few pages. From the very first scene in the first episode to the last scene of the last episode, it is an amazing story. Writer Michael Frost Beckner is a life-long student of history (he also has ancestors who fought in the war) and his research went extremely deep, so the writing was already very accurate from a historian’s point of view. I just caught some things here and there and helped Michael do a few rewrites and modifications. Second, I assisted in assembling a world-class team of consultants, each of them with a particular specialty. We have a uniform expert, a flag expert, personality experts, battle/campaign experts, and so forth. We’re all experienced enough to know that some historical boo-boos will creep in here and there, but our team is comprised of the finest in their fields. Viewers will have the confidence knowing that in each scene, within the context of the dramatic storytelling, every word uttered by every character – every item in the shot – every military action portrayed – will be historically accurate and plausible. My primary duty now is to bind the script of each episode, and begin making a collection of them with all of my historical notes and supporting material with them. For example, each episode, page-wise, runs about 65-70 pages. By the time I’m done, each of my episode binders will consist of about 200 or more pages. I’ll also be collating the material of the consultants. Therefore, as each and every scene is being blocked and prepared, we’ll have information at hand which gives us all of the historical accuracy details ready and available. If there’s a flag or flags in a scene, we’ll have the right ones. If Robert E. Lee, during the Mexican War, is in a scene, it will list what he looked like at the time, and exactly what his uniform should look like. When U.S. Grant’s home, “Hardscrabble,” appears in an exterior shot, there’s a photograph of it. Michael and I speak just about every day, often several times a day. He has me participate in just about everything having to do with the historical environment of the series, and that means assisting with things like enlisting corporations that provided consumer goods during the war to be sponsors and/or advertisers. I’ve assisted in preparing printed presentations submitted to many entities having connections with the series. It’s been great fun, and I enjoy helping any way I can. Once pre-production begins in the spring of next year, my full-time work begins. From pre-production through the end of filming, I’ll be full-time on the set. I very much anticipate that, and it’ll be a lot of hard, long work but a great deal of fun. As Historical Adviser, I’ll be working personally with the actors and actresses, helping them understand their characters and hopefully in some small way to help them give a believable performance. Michael has written into this story no caricatures, no icons up on pedestals – these historical figures are shown as exactly who I believe them to have been in real life… human, fallible, successful, and failures. Angels didn’t sing when Lee walked into a room, but his men loved him and his enemies respected him. Grant wasn’t a slosh who spent all his time on the floor passed out (though some would have you believe that). He had only periodic struggles with alcohol, and that because he was often very lonely – he dearly loved and often ached for his wife and family – and his internal conflicts with his failures in life. I think when folks are finished watching this series, they will come away feeling that they understand Grant and all of these men and women much more clearly. On the set I’ll also be coordinating, as the head of the Historical Department, the efforts of consultants and the crew assembling sets, reenactor/extra coordinators, battle scenes, etc. Basically, any way that I can assist the producers, director, and all departments regarding history and accuracy. When I don’t know an answer, I have to find it. But as I mentioned earlier, Michael has written such a wonderful script that my job won’t be nearly as difficult as it otherwise could be. Once filming and editing is complete, I hope to continue to be involved as Michael’s ambitious list of “extras” are worked on. We plan to include, in the resulting DVD boxed set that will be released, to have a “Behind the Scenes” documentary, mini historical documentaries, educational tools, etc. We really want the entire To Appomattox experience to be just that – an experience. We don’t want it to be over for the audience once the final episode begins. Truly, it is then that the real learning and teaching begins.
GC: As it stands in pre-production, what are your hopes for what this series will accomplish?
JDP: I touched on that a bit in my previous answer – I hope that viewers come to begin to understand just in what environment the war took place, and who these people were who fought it, planned it, and those who waited at home and worried. Today, we look at a picture of U.S. Grant and see a black and white, detached-from-us-today photograph. But what was he thinking at West Point? What was his relationship with James Longstreet? What were his struggles with civilian life failures, alcohol, and loneliness? What was it like to be in a room with George McClellan before or during the Civil War at particular times? How did all these main characters – Grant, Longstreet, Lee, William Sherman – and all of their mutual friends interact with each other over several decades? What did they laugh about? What did they worry over? What did the war do to their relationships? All of these and more are dramatic limbs among the dramatic spine of the series, which is Grant’s memoirs. I also hope that it will go a long way toward getting young people more involved and interested. It is they who will carry on the work of understand the war properly after us. We are, after all, within the Sesquicentennial and interest in everything about the war is at an all-time high. If one child turns to a parent and says “Let’s go visit Gettysburg – or Shiloh – or Chickamauga” then it’ll have all been worth it. Further, to be quite blunt, I believe the series and the portrayal within will knock a few pedestals out from under some “iconic” figures – as it SHOULD be. It’s not an intentional effort to make any of these historical figures any less than what they were… quite the opposite, in fact it is to portray them (most often in their very own words) as they really were. They laughed, they cried, they stumbled, they were successful, they failed. And many of them leashed Hell upon the earth and to each other. An enormous percentage of Civil War soldiers died on battlefields utterly alone. In the dirt. In their own blood. Perhaps clutching a picture of their wife or a child. And their everlasting legacy on Earth was to be tossed into a trench, their identity never to be known again. Many families didn’t have even a grave to mourn over. Thousands of soldiers today still lie in parts unknown, all but forgotten. Theirs and many like stories are another foundation of this series.
GC: What is your favorite Civil War movie of all-time, and why?
I love so many – The Horse Soldiers, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Glory, you name it. But probably my favorite is Gettysburg, based on the Michael Shaara novel The Killer Angels. Much of the dialogue is just plain silly, but it was Shaara’s interpretation of those characters and they’re simply wonderful. Admittedly, the movie has set standards by which many reenactors and living historians now do their craft. For instance, Longstreet never wore the huge hat (it should have been given its own zip code) that actor Tom Berenger wore in the movie. Longstreet typically wore a regular kepi. I’m told that while in the town of Gettysburg prior to filming, Berenger went into the store Dirty Billy’s Hats and asked for the biggest hat in the place. Folks tried to tell Berenger that it would be inaccurate for Longstreet, but he wore it anyway. Now, when you see one of the dozens of Longstreet portrayers around, they’re all wearing one of those huge hats for fear of not being “recognized.” Many of them know better, but it is “Longstreet pop culture” to wear a big hat even though it’s utterly silly and inaccurate. But if a Longstreet portrayer showed up at a reenactment wearing the correct kepi, no one would know who he was. And that’s understandable. But in our series, Longstreet wears the right clothes during the war, and none of the uniforms will look like they were just pulled off a Hollywood wardrobe rack. But all of that aside, every time the movie Gettysburg is on, I can’t take my eyes off it. All of the actors are simply fabulous and I utterly enjoy watching it. And if the pre-Pickett’s Charge bombardment and the Charge itself doesn’t touch your heart, then you need to check your pulse immediately.
GC: You recently just published another book, “The New Gettysburg Campaign Handbook”. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
JDP: Thanks for asking about that – folks who know me know that I never turn down an opportunity for shameless self-promotion! In the Savas Beatie “Handbook” series, it’s a neat little companion to The Complete Gettysburg Guide that I also did with master mapmaker Steven Stanley. It contains a lot of material that we couldn’t include in the Guide – things like Gettysburg Campaign facts, trivia, personalities, and even Medal of Honor awardees. There’s a photographic study of the entire five weeks of the campaign. There’s also a comprehensive Order of Battle that is the most accurate and up-to-date available. Steve designed the entire book for our publisher, did all of the maps (he’s the best in the business bar none) and it’s simply gorgeous to look at. Steve and I are working hard on many more books – such as a Maryland Campaign Guide and others – and I’m simply blessed to be partnering with him on these projects. Between the two of us, Steve has more talent in his little finger than I’ll ever have, period.
GC: Back in May you wrote a scathing review of the History Channel documentary on Gettysburg (as did I). How is it possible, with so much information out there, for a major production to be so misinformed and inaccurate?
JDP: Oh yeah, I ripped that show and to think of the thing still makes me ill today. It was that bad. How something like that can air? I think much of it has to do with marketing and trying to appeal to an audience which today is pretty inflicted with ADD. And I also know that the writers and producers didn’t consult with the historical advisers and consultants beyond just their few minutes of speaking throughout the episode. If they had – consulted with knowledgeable folks like Garry Adelman and such – most or all of the garbage that aired wouldn’t have seen the light of day. It was filmed in South Africa literally on the cheap, so the terrain looked nothing like Gettysburg (unless Gettysburg is comprised mainly of acres and acres of sand and pine stands and I’ve somehow missed that). If you read my review of the show, you’ll see that I point out an error committed just about every minute, and I actually didn’t include most of them. The show was very, very hard to watch, and my wife kept running into the room thinking that I was screaming in physical pain rather than mental. I’ve seen only a couple positive comments about that show, and universally everyone trashed it. All the CGI and graphics done by the Scott Brothers studio – which was brought onto the project only at the very last second in order to do the CGI and attach their names to it – couldn’t save that show from making everyone’s eyes bleed. The History channel can only do the right thing by burning all copies of that program and never allowing it to see the light of day ever again. It also bears mentioning that such historically deficient tripe places even more expectations on us and our series, and we plan to rise to it. Glaring historical inaccuracies in personalities and the set will only distract viewers, and we don’t want that. We want everyone – student and scholars of history to those who know very little about it – to enjoy it and learn from it. The demographics of our expected audience are enormously broad. Not only will Civil War folks watch this, but, for instance, fans of Rascal Flatts (who is doing the music score and acting in it), fans of NASCAR drivers participating, and fans of the particular actors and actresses. We have a heavy responsiblity to each of them to do this right and honorably.
GC: Lastly, aside from Gettysburg which you have invested so much time in, which is your favorite battle? Who is your favorite general? And why?
JDP: I dearly love Antietam. It’s so quiet and non-commercial there, a stark contract to many things about Gettysburg. Watching the sun set from Little Round Top is always awesome, but watch the sun come UP from the area of Burnside’s Bridge, and now you’re talking my language. The area of the Cornfield there always gives me goosebumps, and I can’t help when walking the length of the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane) and just nearly tearing up as I look around an envision all those dead young boys of both sides that were in and around that. Because of my interest in the cavalry, another favorite field is Brandy Station. For us “Cav” folks, Brandy is the Motherload. There, the cavalry of both sides brought “Thunder on the Plains.” When I’m standing up on Buford’s Knoll or near Fleetwood Heights, nothing else in the world matters at that moment. If you asked others about my favorite general, they’d all probably assume John Buford. And they’re probably right. I admire the guy. Soft-spoken and reserved, but he’d dangle you from the nearest locust tree if he suspected you just didn’t smell right. I’d have loved to have been on a battlefield with him. I also like Winfield Hancock. Guy always had a clean white shirt on no matter what, and he could swear a blue streak said to have made flower wilt at his feet, and if any ladies had been present they’d have fainted dead away. His men felt invincible near him, and that fella would have been one to have shared a wee nip with. I bet he had stories. I also like to study the cads, the scoundrels. Speaking of having a whiskey with someone, Dan Sickles would probably be the ultimate party dude. And a fellow like Judson Kilpatrick fascinates me. Snarky, shrill, but hell-bent-for-leather. It’s why Sherman wound him up and turned him lose. Kilpatrick had a habit of getting just about everyone and everything around him send to Providence, but his personal traits are both confusing and fascinating. Truly, I like ‘em all. Everytime I discover an officer or common soldier with an interesting story, I just have to know more. That’s what keeps this so exciting and endless – there are quite literally millions of stories out there, and millions more to find. Among those millions of stories, our To Appomattox series will bring some of them to people’s living rooms – and hopefully their hearts. It is there that the seed of curiosity is born.
I would like to thank J.D for an absolutely enlightening interview! Reading and digesting this really makes me excited for 2013, when we will see this television series released. I had been trying to keep up with it, but with different updates being posted daily from their Facebook Page, I figured one day, I would just sit down and browse through all of it. This interview has given me just-cause to do that, because I don’t think I have felt this much excitement since 2003, when as a 12 year old, I waited with anticipation for my favorite Civil War film, Gods and Generals, to reach theaters. I cannot promise to provide as much coverage for To Appomattox as I did with G & G, but this is as good a place as any to start. Many thanks again to J. David for taking the time to type all of this out and send it over—this could have been a book in itself!
Towards the end of the Extended Director’s Cut of Gods and Generals, is a very sophisticated scene, where Colonel Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) and his wife Fanny (Mira Sorvino) meet the acting troupe fresh off a performance of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in which world-renowned actor John Wilkes Booth plays the character of Brutus, who inserts the final sword thrust into the body of the slain tyrannical emperor. Co-actor Henry T. Harrison (Cooper Huckabee), exerts a mighty announcement upon the death of Caesar: “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead.” The scene is in no doubt a foreshadowing, but before it can be dwelled upon, the Chamberlains have been invited by one of the characters to meet Booth and Harrison after the play, and Mrs. Chamberlain asks Booth a very simple, yet thought-provoking question. She says, “Mr. Booth, tell me, do you think of your character as the hero or villain of the play?” Booth is at a loss for words, and consults Harrison before answering, “It is for the audience to decide who is hero and who is villain. We simply play the parts allotted to us.” This quote, however trivial to the naked ear, is the driving force behind the entire film.
The reason why G & G is so brilliant is because it portrays both sides as being right, despite the negative and not-so-truthful reviews stating that the sentiment is stilted towards the Confederacy. Though they indeed get more screen-time, both they and the Union Army are given equal treatment in regards to which cause is the just one in the disastrous struggle of war. The added subplot involving John Wilkes Booth only adds to a film which prompts the audience to think. Students grow up learning that the Confederacy was evil, essentially, and Booth was a psychopathic monster who murdered our 16th president. Because our education system is not at the caliber it should be, questions go unanswered. When I am in a classroom teaching, the point of my presence is not to just give facts, it is to give reasons behind them. You can only bring up the death of a person or group of people so many times and say that it is terrible before people, namely, the young men and women of America, become bored and ask, “So what?”. If you want to spark interest, you cannot go for the what, you have to go for the why.
Why did Booth assassinate Lincoln? Did he just wake up one morning, and on a whim, decide to load his pistol, sneak into the back of Ford’s Theater, and shoot the President in the back of the head? No, it was a slow build-up of events and ideas that lead to his thinking. But no one wants to know about this; no one wants to ask why. There is an American Heritage book on the Civil War that I own from the 1960′s, and the exact words used to describe Booth are “insane assassin”. That is all; one paragraph about the killing, and Booth is given his usual demonized and vilified, and always brief, treatment. The fact of the matter is, Booth was not insane, nor was he a monster, or a murdering robot as the minuscule paragraphs of biased history textbooks portray him. He was, in fact, a man, a famous one at that, who grew heated over Lincoln’s politics and decided to do something about it. While we can all agree that killing a president is far from being right, was Booth, at one point, the most photographed man in America, acting in a moment of insanity or patriotism? That is a question we can answer on our own, after thinking about it for a while, but the portrayal in this film is the most truthful one ever shown in any setting.
Right off the bat in his first scene, Booth is seen as a superstar when he is mobbed by a group of beautiful young ladies who ask for his autograph and quote lines from Richard III, pretending to be interested in Shakespeare, but Booth can tell all they really care about are his attractive looks. Booth has plenty of sex appeal, because he was, after all, the sex symbol of his day. It is hard to fathom, with anyone for that matter, being regarded as sexy when all we have are soon-to-be 150 year old grainy black-and-white photographs.
The acting put forth by Chris Conner in the role is nothing short of exhilarating. When you think about it, Conner is not just playing Booth in this film, he is playing Kings Hamlet and Macbeth as well, because of the advanced lines of dialogue in the two soliloquies he delivers. The first, is spoken overlaid with shots of dead bodies on the Antietam battlefield, where Hamlet’s character remarks that he can see a field of “twenty-thousand men” who “go to their graves like beds; fight for a plot.” It is only by extreme irony that in real life, he was giving this performance at McVicker’s Theater in Chicago on the same date as Antietam, the deadliest day in American history, September 17, 1862. Later on in the film, we get to meet Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, as Mary Todd is raving about Booth being in Washington City for the entire month of April, 1863. The Lincolns have heard how magnificent his plays are, and cannot wait to see his performance in Macbeth. This is an excellent scene, not just for the carriage ride where the Lincoln’s discuss Booth, but the ensuing stage scene. Before it cuts to the theater, Honest Abe says, “I hear Booth does the death scene spectacularly; very physical, wilder than his brother Edwin!” Then, in a classic instance of the tongue-in-cheek humor Lincoln was famous for, he adds, “But that is the one reproach I have of Shakespeare’s heroes.” “What reproach is that dear?” asks Mary Todd. “They all make long speeches when they are killed.”
Booth then is seen on stage, reciting the “Dagger of the Mind” soliloquy. There is a reason why this was chosen, of all parts of Macbeth to pick. It is again ironic, because it works both for historical and poetic reasons. This speech, talks about there being a threat living amongst them, and while Booth pulls out a dagger, his eyes lock with Lincoln’s, who is sitting up in a private box. The overall effect is dramatic, and haunting, with the beautiful and eerie music composed by John Frizzell building up in the background. This is enhanced when you realize that this is reported to have actually happened, and even the ensuing incident, when a stagehand comes to Booth’s dressing room after the performance and tells him that the President and First Lady enjoyed the show, and want to meet him. Rather than come up with an excuse, Booth blatantly tells the man, “You may tell that tyrant, that destroyer of civil liberties, that war monger, that I am in dispose,” before begrudgingly changing his mind to have the stagehand tell the President that he had already left for the evening.
Earlier in the film, Booth is there to give the audience a dose of reality. Well, not really him, per se, but a lady friend he is dining with after Hamlet. He calls Lincoln “mad” for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, because he believes it will incite a slave uprising, before he is reminded by the woman that the document will only free slaves in rebellious states, the same states that Lincoln had no jurisdiction over. This brief conversation is there to properly teach audiences that the famed Proclamation did not free all the slaves, as we incorrectly learned growing up. If that was the case, slave-holding Union states such as Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri might have seceded from the North, and Lincoln could not have taken that chance. Of course, critics will have something negative to say about this, but since it is actually the truth, I wonder what they will draw up this time.
No other film has ever portrayed Booth in this light, because whether or not you agree with his politics present in those certain scenes, you can tell that he is sincere, and there is no insanity present in his tone of voice; it is just his very strong opinion, which as an American citizen, he was allowed to have. It can be fully expected some people—in all likelihood, the same people who decried the film back in 2003 with overwhelmingly negative reviews—will attack the insertion of these scenes as yet another instance of pro-south propaganda, but it is far from that, because it is the truth. Had The Last Full Measure been made, it would have shown the culmination of the development of Booth’s transformation from angry actor to assassin, thus helping the audience to fully understand why he killed Abraham Lincoln. But unfortunately, the sequel to the trilogy will probably not be made, and we will just have to hope audiences can handle a man with such a diabolical persona being shown in a light that is inconvenient to them, because what do we do, as a society, when someone is a threat to the lies told in history books? We bury it from plain sight. Just as certain figures in Hollywood tried to bury Gods and Generals and see to a quick bow-out eight years ago, it will be brought up yet again as more audiences view this extended cut.
We can only hope that the brilliance of Chris Conner will not be overshadowed. We can only hope that audiences will embrace John Wilkes Booth, if only for four hours and forty minutes out of their entire lives. This film is not selling Booth the assassin, it is selling Booth the man. Sometimes, when hatred is built up against someone over the course of many generations, it is forgotten that they were human once. This movie has now given us the opportunity to absorb that, and catch a glimpse of what he really was like in the years leading up to his tragic final act in 1865.
For additional reading debunking the not-so-truthful history that we grew up learning, please read this article I wrote last year on the real meaning of the Confederate Flag.
Part One: Hell at the Bloody Lane
Part Two: Tent Flaps Stained Red
“Bullets from the West”
West Woods, near the Dunker Church
September 17, 1862
The fighting in the Miller Cornfield was beginning to calm down when General Joseph Hooker of the Union’s I corps was shot in the foot. Calling an end to the attack, fighting then moved into the West Woods, located near the small plateau where the battle began hours before, right in front of the Dunker Church. The establishment, which had been built to preach peace, bore witness to a dizzying array of death and destruction. Men charged into a cloud of smoke by the thousand, and returned, limping by the hundred. The morning sunlight had been blackened out by a thick cloud of smoke, that emerged after an artillery duel between Union and Confederate forces. Artillery pounded the cornfield, unleashing devastating canister shots, which could be compared to a tin coffee can filled with bullets and lead fragments. Upon fire, they would explode overhead, sending a torrential force of shrapnel against the kepi-covered heads of the soldiers, some of which were in their own army.
Eight thousand men had been killed or wounded in four hours of fighting in the cornfield. There was not one stalk of corn remaining in the forty acre killing zone. Any stalks that did remain had aptly been severed waist-high by the bullets that cut through them. Hooker described the image of the corn as being cut so closely, it looked as if a knife had done it. But the field was not dead, quite the contrary. The forty acres twisted and screamed in agony. Wounded Union soldiers lay atop dead Confederates, and vice versa. Men, who had mercilessly butchered each other just minutes earlier, shared canteens, and tried to help each other tie tourniquets around bullet wounds; and it was not even noon. A captain in the Union army would journal, “[It was] the most deadly fire of the war. Rifles are shot to pieces in the hands of the soldiers, canteens and haversacks are riddled with bullets, the dead and wounded go down in scores.”
One Union soldier, who had been shot in the leg, was crawling, eager to find his brother-in-law. The situation would not have been out of the norm, except that his brother was a rebel soldier. He found the bullet riddled body of his wife’s brother, and closed the still-open eyes. He looked down at his own leg, where a bullet hole gaped open, blood pouring out and puss beginning to form. There were hundreds of others in his immediate area, some trying to get up and walk away, others accepting their fate, which had been assigned to them by someone not of a worldly existence.
Union General Edwin Sumner decided to push the fighting into the nearby West Woods, and attack General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s II corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Gun shots were blazing away in the thickly wooded area as the two sides were slamming each other back and forth. The fighting was intense, made only worse by the underbrush that was beginning to catch fire. Every rifle shot added another risk of a tree being set ablaze. Because no breeze could penetrate the dense area, whatever smoke emerged from the thousands of rifles remained. As Sumner’s men entered, other Union men already present, thought they were Confederate soldiers and opened fire. The unsuspecting men began to drop like flies. One unit unleashed a volley so strong, that the entire first line of Sumner’s column was thrown backward into the air, one soldier becoming impaled by a bayonet. This was happening on their right side; to their left was the fire of a Confederate line. They had walked right into a double envelopment.
A half a mile away, the Confederates had accidentally done the same thing. Officers shouted orders and buglers blew calls, but they all fell on deaf ears in the thunderous heat of battle. The Confederate line, when they realized that they were receiving fire from two sides, both of which were Union, laid down simultaneously, prompting the next two barrages of fire to offer a decimating “Friendly Fire” for the Union. Hundreds of men were knocked to the ground in less than a second. The fighting would not relent. Men were firing at and killing anyone they set their sights on, not taking the time to risk thinking if they were friend or enemy. A union bugler began to blow retreat when a bullet ricocheted of the end of the horn and struck another man in the eye. The tune beginning to sound flat, he was hit in the throat shortly after, knocking into a thirteen year old drummer boy on his way down to the ground. The men in the line were in shock and began to run away in a fury. They could not even hear the gunshots, just the breeze of bullets that was flying past their heads. One man tripped on a log and fell down, spraining his ankle. As he began to stand up, a bullet bounced off his belt buckle and slammed into a tree. Adrenaline running through he body, he thought he was in the clear, but did not realize the impact send the brass buckle slicing into his stomach.
Some of the underbrush in the woods began to catch fire, though not as severe as during the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia, where wounded men on both sides were virtually cremated alive because no one could quell the immense blaze. The air was filled with screams, as the fighting began to see-saw back and forth. At the same time, Meagher’s Irish Brigade was being cut to pieces in their assault at the Sunken Road. The savage fighting around Sharpsburg and Antietam Creek had erupted into a frenzy that no one could have imagined the romance of war would ever bear.
Read part one and the back-story behind this series here.
“Tent Flaps Stained Red”
Field Hospital of the Union I Corps
“Mansfield’s gonna die, you know?” remarked a man in bloodied clothes acting as a surgeon’s assistant in a makeshift tent hospital that had quickly amassed an enormous quantity of wounded Union soldiers. The head surgeon, half-way through the leg of an injured corporal remarked, “Who?” to which the original man said, “General Mansfield, sir, of the twelfth corps. Just got word.” The surgeon, whose sweat was dripping off his forehead and onto the chest of a man who was shaking due to the immense pain of the ongoing amputation, did not even break stride, and answered, “Look behind you, son. There are a hundred men waiting for this saw. General, Colonel, Private…it doesn’t matter to me. They’re not even names once you’ve taken off twenty limbs before noon, just casualties to be entered into a book, which will be recited by a secretary to some politician in Washington as he sips his morning tea.”
The surgeon finished sawing off the leg, and the man had fallen unconscious. Ever so nonchalantly, the assistant grabbed the leg and threw it into a pile, which was now waist high. Every hour, another man came by with a cart, picked up the severed limbs, loaded it up, and pushed it outside the tent, the once creamy-white flaps of which were stained crimson red with the blood that had spurted out of arteries during surgeries. The limbs were stacked up into mountainous aggregates, reaching so high that they blocked out the setting sun for those lying on the ground nearby, who had already been operated on. Flies swarmed around the colossal steeps of rotting flesh.
If the screams in battle were spine chilling, those occurring in this tent were magnified. The quarters were small; the men were so close to each other that they could smell the gangrene that was forming in the affected areas. Unlike earlier in the day, there was no artillery or infantry fire to muddle out the horrific utterances coming from a man whose leg had been smashed off by a rolling solid-shot cannonball.
Outside, there was a line of two hundred wounded men laying on the ground, who had not been attended to. A doctor walked up and down with a group of three men. He would take a quick look at the wounds. If it was an injury to an extremity such as an arm, leg, foot, or hand, he would whisper, “Salvageable”. If the wound was to the head, chest, or stomach areas, he would very glumly say, “Dead.” Those that had no chance of survival were pulled out of the line to another area. Whiskey was administered earlier, but it had run out. Now, those who awaited death’s embrace would have to do so with every ounce of feeling in their bodies. Those that had a chance were lifted up on to a litter and carried to the exhausted surgeon.
There was so much blood on the doctor’s face that he called for a rag. After waiting a minute, no one could locate a clean one. He looked over at a man who had been shot in the leg, sitting up against a tent stake. He yelled over, “That man has been shot in the leg. Remove his shirt and tear it into rags, then someone wipe off my face.” The order was carried out, as another man was plopped on to the operating table. The doctor went over to his table of tools which could have passed for a Medieval Inquisitor’s torture arsenal. As he stepped closer, his foot sank into the dirt that was so soaked in blood, it was as if a torrential downpour of rain had occurred.
He looked down at the face of a boy who could not have been more than seventeen. He placed the saw to the shoulder of the child, but just before he began to saw, he noticed a blood stain on his left side, near his waist. He gently turned the boy upright, and noticed that there was an additional wound. The surgeon stuck his finger into the bullet hole, and unfortunately found that there was no exit. He looked to his assistant, who read his eyes, and called for the team of stretcher bearers to remove him to the “death field” area of the hospital. The surgeon’s hands were shaking, but there was no time to waste.
Much like the rifles in the morning and afternoon, the saw, needle, and thread saw relentless action in the evening. An older man was placed down, writhing in agony. His wound was in the thigh. His pants were pulled down and incisions were made in his groin area, for the wound was so high up it forced them to cut there. The man was given a bullet to bite down on, the only way of alleviating pain at the present moment. He bit down so hard that his rotting molars cracked, and sent small shards of the teeth into the nerve endings in his gums. The scream he exerted made even the most severely wounded of men use as much energy as they had in them to turn their heads and look. Assistants poured sand onto the muddy swamp beneath the operating table as the doctor continued to saw.
Halfway through the thighbone, the saw stopped moving back and forth. Recognizing that the blade had been dulled, the surgeon withdrew it and grabbed a smaller one and finished the job. The soldier was then transported to another area to be sewed up. The needle went without being cleaned from soldier to soldier, and the same for all other medical instruments.
Watching this unfold were two privates, who could be considered lucky in amongst the group of men they sat. One was struck in the hand and was lucky enough to garner an exit wound, while one was shot in the foot. Neither required amputation at the present time, and both were healing. Not knowing each other beforehand, they discussed their situations. “Where did you get hit?” the black haired one named Jake asked of the blonde haired Ramsay. “Cornfield. What a bloody mess it was. We went back and forth fourteen times before our generals decided nothing was going to be gained. You?”
“Right after the fight started, up near the small church. Reb artillery shot us to pieces.”
“We were lined up, shoulder to shoulder, blasting away at each other. I saw a Confederate soldier struck in the throat. As his regiment fell back, one of the men must have recognized him, cause he ran to him. He grasped him in his arms before an artillery shot landed near them, sending them both flying backwards.”
“Could not tell you. Right after that, a canister shot from our own damn guns exploded over our heads. I was lucky, for it struck me in the hand. Our colonel, though, had his head split down the middle by a fragment.”
Another hour passed before the surgeon would be relieved. During his work there that day, he had personally amputated sixty arms, and thirty-three legs, not even counting hands and fingers. He sat down on a barrel outside with a tin cup of coffee, placed his head in his hands and cried. He took a walk, two miles away, to a crop of woods where more dead bodies could be found. Propped up against a tree was a man in his twenties, the flag of his regiment pressed against his chest. The emblem was not even decipherable because the material had been shredded in a hail of gunfire. The surgeon, thinking he was dead, began to walk away, when he heard a groan. He ran over to the man who was breathing, eyes fluttering. The man looked at him with sad eyes, “Please, return this flag to my commander. My regiment is gone. I will be dead soon, so this flag must tell our story. We fought like hell.” Before the surgeon could ask who his commander was, he died. Saddened, the surgeon walked closer, and realized it was a Confederate soldier. The light butternut uniform was so dark from blood, that it looked blue in the shade of the tree. The surgeon collapsed from exhaustion, falling feet away from the dead soldier. Though only one of the two was dead, it might as well have been both of them. Neither would be the same again.
Originally, I had no intentions of publishing this little story here on my blog. I posted it as a Facebook note yesterday afternoon and it was well recieved, so I figured I would give it a go here. It has long been my aspirations to write a novel on the battle of Antietam, or see a film made accurately conveying the horrors of war. Since I am too pressed for time for a book, and short of $50 million for a movie, I will just post these little snippets every once and a while, taking different parts of certain battles, and hopefully bringing them to life for you. I sent this to Patrick Gorman, who played Confederate General John Bell Hood in both Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, yesterday. He thanked me for sharing it with him and added, “The Bloody Lane is one of those hallowed ground sites; you always a definite vibe different from the rest of the battlefield.” The next time you think you are having a bad day, just think about this.
“Hell at the Bloody Lane”
The Sunken Road, near Sharpsburg, Maryland
September 17, 1862
As the Irish Brigade of the Union made their late morning assault against the Confederate position dug in on a sunken farm lane, chaplain Father William Corby rode up and down the line in the heat of gunfire giving absolution to the soldiers who were marching into the shadow of death. Bullets whizzed past his head as his right hand was raised high, blessing them with the sign of the cross. The men of the so-called “Fighting 69th” knew what they were up against, for the field in front of them was already strewn with dead and dying soldiers. The dead, allotted about the green grass like seeds thrown into a field by a farmer, were literally shredded to pieces. Eyes were still open, for the bullets struck them with such an impact that death would not even allow them a half a second to close them.
Some men prayed, others mumbled incessantly to themselves, sick to their stomachs with fear as they would meet Brigadier General Daniel Harvey Hill’s men who were nearly invisible, waiting for them behind a fence on the bank of a sunken road. The brigade marched forward nonetheless, inspired by their leader, General Thomas Meagher, who galloped in front on a beautiful brown horse. Men fell in their ranks by the hundred as they continued to march, blood spouting into the air, and landing on the faces of the men behind them. Countless men tripped over the fallen bodies of others, most of which were still alive, screaming in agony knowing they would not receive medical attention for hours, if at all. Faces were black with powder, hands burnt from the heated steel of their rifles.
As the Union soldiers closed in on the road, their strength was dwindling. Meagher’s subordinate officer, also on horseback, ventured too far out in front of his men. He turned his horse sideways, to ride across his line, when a cannonball struck the horse and took off its head. The hoofs continued to gallop for another twenty feet, when the destroyed body slammed into the ground, sending the officer off head first, snapping his neck. He stared upwards at the sky, clouded with smoke, as visions of life back on the Emerald Isle danced into his head, until he thought no more.
The Union continued their pressure, and the Confederates picked them off with ease. Cannon shot from artillery a little less than a mile away knocked over men like dominoes. Solid shot bounced off the ground and tore off legs, while shell shot burst upon contact, throwing men backwards into others. The attack began as a complete mess, for the Union soldiers could not even fire back. The men of the Irish Brigade were armed with “buck and ball” ammunition, which comprised of a musket ball and three small pellets. Just like shot-guns, these were ineffective at long range. This was selected personally by Meagher, who wanted to force his men to get so close to the enemy, that the harp design on their green flags would be visible.
As they reached the halfway point, the Confederate soldiers stopped shooting because the Union soldiers were no longer visible. The land where this attack was occurring was rolling farmland, and luckily for the Irish, they were out of sight as they continued their march on a downward dip of land. These two minutes or so allowed them enough time to catch their breath, and when they emerged, they were so close to the Confederates that now it was their time to inflict damage. The troops under Hill were shocked, and before they could fire back, the Union unleashed a barrage of fire that knocked down half of the front row of soldiers. One man, as he tore the cartridge in between his rotting teeth, was hit with splinters in his left eye, when a fence post shattered under the hail of bullets.
The tide of battle had turned, and the Confederates were trapped. With nowhere to go, they kept firing, even as hundreds of men fell backwards into the road, a sight that was beginning to look like a mass grave. Blood spilled and pooled at the bottom, so much so that when one man looked back and saw his wounded brother sitting up against two other dead soldiers, with his intestines in his lap, and left arm located three feet behind him, he ran to him and slipped in the blood. Falling forward, he was impaled on the bayonet of a rifle that had fallen inconveniently pointed upwards; its owner’s head was missing above the jaw. The Union continued to pour fire into them. There were now so many dead bodies in the lane that retreating Confederates could not even run, as they stumbled over the bodies that were beginning to bloat in the midday sun.
Even as they ran, the Union kept shooting, as they would show no mercy in this furious attack. The bullets that spurned from the barrels of their rifles acted as the judge, jury, and executioner for human lives, not taking time to wonder anything about the character of the man they were about to take down. When the smoke cleared, and this portion of the battle was over, 2,600 Confederate soldiers lay dead or dying in the small farm lane that only spanned 800 yards. The Union, meanwhile, lost 3,000. All of this happened in the span of three and a half hours.
The Union claimed victory at the road, but the mass grave of twisted and writhing soldiers caused many to throw up at the sight and smell that was beyond putrid. “We shot them like sheep in a pen,” remarked an attacking Union soldier, “If a bullet missed the mark at first it was liable to strike the further bank, angle back, and take them secondarily.” This was just one small part of the battle that spanned only twelve hours on September 17, 1862, and resulted in a combined 23,000 casualties, the most destructive day in the history of America. The first photographs of dead on a battlefield would be taken at Antietam, and though their morbidity completely grossed out the populace, the war continued for nearly three more years.
For those of you wondering about the promised Ron Maxwell interview, he emailed me a few days ago assuring me he has not forgotten. He is swamped with work right now and will try to get me something next week. Let’s hope for the best!