Abraham Lincoln: Man of Conflict, Man of Dissent

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Introduction

Nearly 150 years after his death, Abraham Lincoln remains a polarizing figure. To some, he is the greatest president the United States of America ever had, a man who freed the slaves and saved the Union. To others, he was a power-hungry tyrant, who invaded his own country and used back-room, sometimes scandalous politics to get what he wanted. No matter what one’s personal view of him, however, all can agree on two things: he was a master politician, and a deeply conflicted man, both internally and his public persona. No person of such high standing in American history has had his views gradually change to the point of nearly a complete reversal. No president has ever been in office in the midst of such terrible and chaotic internal strife.

It is difficult today to look back upon Abraham Lincoln and give him a singular label for what he should be remembered for, but almost always, it boils down to the slavery issue, and how he had the Emancipation Proclamation drafted and then his fight to get the 13th Amendment passed to free the slaves prior to the conclusion of the American Civil War. However, as is the case with many figures when studied through the looking glass back through history, people see what they want to see. Lincoln is a much more complicated figure to study, because at the same time this country was experiencing its single greatest moment of political dissent, Lincoln was dissenting against his own government and party, and sometimes, even himself. His views, which began as quite simple ones began to change and morph over time to what we know them as today, but to ignore the journey that he went through would be a disservice to both the man and the history of this nation.

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Can There be Such a Thing as a “Family” Civil War Movie?

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Can you believe that there are actually people out there in this world who watch movies together as a family, and then sit and discuss them? I personally know of a few who do, and some who don’t, but probably would if there was something worth discussing. Just last spring, when I was teaching a course on World War II, I sent out notice that we would be watching parts of Schindler’s List after school. A few days later, a parent called me asking, “Could you please tell me what scenes you will be showing so I can discuss the film with my son when he gets home? It was such a powerful movie when I first saw it.” This actually made me very happy, to find out that there are people who watch films and talk about their meaning, or the effect they leave on the viewer. The Civil War is a surprisingly family-oriented subject, not just with the actual history of soldiers going off to war, and sometimes finding themselves on the battlefield fighting against good friends and even family members on occasion, but because of what the modern tradition of reenacting has done for “living” history. We see with many re-enactors, how it was the father who first got involved as a soldier, and then after a few years, the wife joined as a soldier’s companion or battlefield nurse, and later still, the small children getting involved with dressing up and becoming a drummer boy, or something along those lines. It must be assumed that these families watch Civil War movies together because they are all into the subject so much, but sometimes, that can be a difficult task.

Civil War & the Big Screen: An Open Letter to Hollywood

Dear Big-Time Hollywood Financiers,

From this year, straight on through to 2015, the United States of America is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the country’s most important event, the Civil War. During those four years, from 1861-1865, nearly 600,000 men gave their lives for various causes, whether it was fighting to keep America united up north, or fighting for states’ rights down south. Never in our history was there more passion exerted over such a small length of time—the stories are endless, not just of the violent and bloody battles, but the individual soldiers that fought in them, and their loved ones at home, anxiously awaiting to hear from them. Though tactics and technology change, the overall scourge of war remains exactly the same. The phrase that we historians and enthusiasts use, “History Repeats Itself”, to which many roll their eyes, has become cliche, but it is true. It is for this reason that we strive to remember the past, however inconvenient or displeasing that may be.

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Interview with Author and Historian J. David Petruzzi

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!

Movie Review: Ride with the Devil (1999)

The Civil War is a subject that is unfortunately rarely tackled by filmmakers, but what is even more scarce than that is how well, and accurately, it is portrayed on the big screen. I cannot attest to the accuracy of Ang Lee’s film, because my knowledge of the Western Theater of the war is not so great, but I would personally like to thank him for not allowing Hollywood and a carefully placed love story ruin a fantastic tale of the brutal fighting in neutral Missouri between the pro-Confederate Bushwhackers and the pro-Union Jayhawkers.

Ride with the Devil is a film that could very much be compared to Cold Mountain, which came out five years later. Both show a side of the war that very rarely makes it into theaters: fighting in any state other than those on the east, a gritty and down-to-earth depiction of war and its effects on civilian life, and a love story that gets intertwined. My problem with Cold Mountain was that the love story became the driving force, and although that is how the book went, the film became ruined because of it. Maybe I just do not like Nicole Kidman, or her put-on southern drawl, but either way, I was not a fan of the film that started out with a bang (a semi-accurate, effects laden portrayal of the Battle of the Crater, at Petersburg) and then went on to get progressively worse.

Anyway, back to the film at hand, Ride with the Devil grabbed me from the first scene and unlike the other aforementioned film, it kept my interest for the entire running time. Many people do not realize how it was in Missouri, which was a “neutral” border state. One would think that a neutral state would remain relatively calm, but that was not the case here. You had to choose which side you were for, and risk your life in making that decision. Should you choose to not pick a side, you would more than likely be killed anyway, just because of how the fever of the region was at the time.

Tobey Maguire plays the lead role as the son of a pro-Union German immigrant. Unlike his father, the character of Jake Roedel joins up with the Bushwhackers who seek vengeance against any northern unit, known as Jayhawkers, who conduct a murder raid on Missouri citizens, many of which are innocent and killed for sport. The Bushwhackers are not regular army though—they go by their own rules and have their own leaders.

James Caviezal plays the leader of the bunch, “Black John”, until the never-portrayed Captain Quantrill makes his way into the film. Skeet Ulrich and Simon Baker also co-star, while Jewel Kilcher ends up being the love interest with Maguire’s character at the end. However, the one character who deserves to be recognized with a fantastic performance is Jeffrey Wright, who plays Simon Baker’s slave. Though not treated exactly as a slave (he was purchased by Baker, his childhood friend, when up for sale, so they could be together), we get to see the atmosphere surrounding how black people were treated in the Western Theater. At first, he is treated by others, namely Maguire and Kilcher, as you would expect, but by the end of the film, they grow to respect him. It is a heart-wrenching character portrayal that tackles a lot of complexity. The severely underrated Tom Wilkinson, as well as Mark Ruffalo, also make their way into the film in minor roles.

The one aspect of this film that I appreciate the most is its realism. The treatment of women and blacks in this movie is far from the romanticized and revisionist nonsense of Gone with the Wind’s glorious “Lost Cause” mentality of the old south. The women are treated with respect, but have their place, while a black man, Wright’s character, is relied on heavily for protection, but is not trusted as far as one could spit. This, along with the repeated usage of the N-word, shows what the times were like, and makes that part of this film a reason to watch it. The love story was also shelved until the end, which did a lot for the balanced pacing of the film, and when it emerged, it was so subtle that it fit right in.

Overall, I will give Ride with the Devil an 8 out of 10, because of the apparent historical accuracy. Director Ang Lee did a fantastic job of weaving in historical characters with fictitious ones, and the same can be said of the events portrayed, such as a great scene involving Quantrill’s infamous raid of Lawrence, Kansas. I would recommend this to be shown in any history class, because like Glory, the heavy language was a sign of the times. The dialogue could also be compared to Gods and Generals, because it was the dialect and style that they spoke in back then, not a revised form to fit conformist views like we see often enough in today’s films.

I did not see the much lauded Criterion Collection version of this film, nor was it the director’s cut. Since this was so good, I would imagine that the extended version is even better. I will have to try to watch that when I have the time.

Civil War Journal: An Interview with Author and Historian James M. McPherson

When it comes to historians, James M. McPherson has a résumé that the rest of us can only dream about. Having put more than fifty years into studying the American Civil War, Mr. McPherson has authored over twenty books on the subject, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning volume which served as a part of Oxford’s History of the United States, Battle Cry of Freedom. More familiar to me would happen to be a book he wrote in 1982, Ordeal by Fire, which was transformed into a textbook for the excellent Civil War class I took last semester (HIST 235 for those who may want to take/audit the class at Brookdale). To this day, it is the only book I have purchased at my college that was actually worth the money.

Aside from writing tremendous pieces such as the aforementioned books, and some of his other notable works, What they Fought For: 1861-1865, For Cause and Comrades, and Tried by War, he has also authored books aimed towards children, such as Fields of Fury, which I actually enjoyed myself, even a 19. Other than publications, he has also appeared on television numerous times, including slots on Biography and The American Experience. He is currently a Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and is the foremost Civil War historian in America, and it was an honor to be able to conduct this brief email interview with him. Below is our conversation:

GC: The thought of 600,000 Americans dying over the fact that cooler heads did not prevail in the years leading up to 1861 is appalling . Is there anything that Abraham Lincoln or any of the other politicians could have done differently to prevent the American Civil War?

JM: The Southern states could have accepted Lincoln’s election and remained in the United States.  Lincoln could have acquiesced in Southern secession and allowed the United States to be broken up.  The Confederate government could have refrained from firing on Fort Sumter.  Lincoln could have pulled the troops out of Fort Sumter before it was fired upon.  Any of these actions might have prevented the war.

GC: In your mind who was the best general in each army? And who is your personal favorite?

JM: Lee and Grant. Grant [is my favorite].

GC: Blame is always thrown in so many different directions for why the Confederates lost the battle of Gettysburg. What do you think was the real reason?

JM: To explain why the Confederates lost the battle of Gettysburg, I have always liked Pickett’s own response to that question several years after the war: “I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

GC: I find George McClellan’s tendencies, personal letters, and actions to be almost comic. Do you feel the same way about the “Young Napoleon”, and what do you think was his biggest mistake?

JM: I think his letters were tragicomic.  His biggest mistake was to patronize Lincoln and not to pay attention to Lincoln’s repeated advice to him.

GC: Out of all the different movies made about the Civil War, which one is your favorite, and why?

JM: Glory. It gets at a key issue of the war better than any other movie.

GC: A new theory (if I can call it that) out there is that John Wilkes Booth was not killed after he escaped, and that the soldiers shot the wrong man and lied so that the nation would be at ease about the Lincoln assassination. Do you give any credence to this notion?

JM: It is actually an old theory, and it is absolute rubbish.

GC: Lastly, because you have studied the Civil War for so long, where is the level of interest today compared to when you first started writing about it in the 1960’s? Is battlefield preservation where you would like it to be?

JM: The Civil War probably had a level of interest in the first half of the 1960s similar to today’s, but it declined thereafter until it began to rise again in the late 1980s until it is reaching another peak right now at the beginning of the sesquicentennial.  I have been gratified by the amount of success in battlefield preservation during recent years, but there is always room for even greater efforts and successes in this endeavor.

I would like to thank Mr. McPherson for taking the time out of his busy schedule to conduct this interview. I probably don’t have to recommend his work to anyone, because even if you are a newbie to the Civil War, chances are you have read something by him, whether it was a book or an article. His most recent work was a biography of Abraham Lincoln, which came out in 2009.

Movie Review: Gettysburg (1993)

EDIT: Read my movie review of the 2011 director’s cut!

It is because of Ronald Maxwell that no director will ever again be able to make a movie about the battle of Gettysburg. This film, which was based on the Michael Shaara novel titled, “The Killer Angels”, had its name changed to Gettysburg, upon test audience reactions stating that they felt the title reflected that of a movie about a motorcycle gang. But no matter what the title is, this movie is and always will be the most prominent Civil War film, surpassing the likes of Glory and The Blue and the Gray made before it.

I try to get to the battlefield every year around the anniversary, but this summer I was unable because of my work schedule. However, I am going to be there next week, and with each trip to Gettysburg comes a viewing of this film, even in the rare instances I go twice a year. This movie never gets old, plain and simple.

For those who do not have an interest in the Civil War, this may not be the film for them. There is no Hollywood drama here, just a good storytelling of what was going on in the minds of the greatest generals and leaders present at a small Pennsylvania town for three ill-fated days in July.

In a time-slot that eclipses four hours, we see examinations into the thoughts and tactics of Generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet from the Confederacy, and Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain from the Union. These are the three focused on, but we also see the South’s Generals Pickett, Armistead, Garnett, Kemper among others, and the North’s General Hancock. The film is predominantly told from the Southern perspective, but the North gets prominence on the first day with Sam Elliot as General Buford and Chamberlain’s stand at the Little Round top on the second day of fighting.

Martin Sheen plays Lee and nailed the role. His beard looked to be one of the few that were actually real, leading to no continuity errors. Lee is presented as a very calm demeanored general, loved by his troops and heavily respected by his offers, much like the real Lee.

Tom Berenger tackled a more complex role in General Longstreet, who is torn between acting on his instincts to disagree with Lee, and being a good soldier and obeying his orders, no questions asked. The two men find themselves quarreling several times throughout the three days, which occurred in real life, and some historians suggest that had Lee listened to Longstreet, the Confederates would have won Gettysburg, and possibly even the war.

The role of Union officer Chamberlain went to Jeff Daniels, who nailed the very serious professor-turned-soldier from Bowdoin College in Maine. It is because of his lack of military training that he ordered the bayonet charge on the second day of fighting that saved the Union line, because many doubt a trained and true officer would have been so bold. The character of Chamberlain’s brother Tom went to 80’s acting star C. Thomas Howell, who injected some humor into his very serious brother. It is also hard to believe that Daniels would go on to star in Dumb and Dumber just a year later, showing his wide range of acting talents.

The supporting cast was also outstanding. Sam Elliot plays the rugged cavalry general John Buford, Stephen Lang as George Pickett, Andrew Prince and Richard Garnett, Patrick Gorman as John Bell Hood, Brian Mallon who plays a terrific General Hanc0ck (I honestly wish he got more screen time), and Richard Jordan as Lewis Armistead.

Out of all of those, though, it is Jordan’s that steals the show. Armistead and Hancock were best of friends before the war started, and Armistead is very sad he will have to face him on the third day of battle. Sensing he will be killed, he gives a special package to Longstreet to deliver to Hancock’s wife upon his death. This is made all the more emotional when Armistead is seriously wounded, and dies off camera. His final words, after hearing Hancock was injured too were, “No! Not both of us. Not all of us. Please, God!” Richard Jordan himself would also die just days after filming, without living to see the finished product.

Though this film experienced mild box office success, cracking the top ten at one point, it did not receive much time in theaters because of it’s four hour-plus running time and limited showings theaters were restricted to. Gettysburg would achieve notoriety a year later, when it was broadcast as a two night event on TNT, whose owner Ted Turner produced the film, and even had a small role as Colonel Waller T. Patton.

In just two nights, 23 million people would tune in to watch, making it the most watched television event in TV history at that point in time.

This film holds a special place in my heart as the film that got me interested into the Civil War, a passion that is with me today. For that, it will receive a 10 out of 10, despite it’s flaws, such as no mention of the brutal July heat, smoke coming out of actors mouths, flopping bayonets, and obvious fake beards. Those goofs are fun to watch for, but this is such a serious film, and try to not have a tear in your eye at one point or another during Pickett’s Charge, which is one of the most well choreographed battle sequences I have ever seen.

That seems to be the stamp on Maxwell films: realism. Each battle scene is very simple and realistic, with no drama. All that is added is the wonderful score by Randy Edelman, another element of this film that is one of the best.

It is also worth noting the film’s unique opening credits, where a picture of the actor is overlayed with a picture of the person they are portraying, showing the similarities between the two.

I cannot recommend this film enough, and if the interest is there, also check out Gods and Generals, the prequel which was released ten years later in 2003. It uses much of the same actors, and is a little shorter, but once again we have great battle scenes, even if it does have too much dialogue.

EDIT: Brian Mallon discusses director’s cuts for both Gettysburg and Gods and Generals.