Like Grant in 1864 (or Lee in 1862), the To Appomattox Kickstarter campaign is rolling full speed ahead, with its launch beginning today (for an unprecedented $2.5 million), just about an hour ago. Already I am pleased to see quite a few backers and thousands of dollars raised. I am still contemplating which option to donate to, and will probably go with the $100 “Haversack” option, which includes a DVD set of the series and some other goodies. I am going to keep this post short, because I have written about this series at length already, including just a few days ago with writer and executive producer Michael Beckner himself. After years of waiting, the time has come for US to try to get this series off the ground. It looks promising, but in the end, we need results. The Civil War community, myself included, always complains about a lack of related projects, so now WE finally have the chance to get something made. There is not much more to say than that. If you are a die-hard and want to donate a thousand, or can only spare a few bucks, every little bit counts—and I am sure the production staff would agree. Please click here to check out the Kickstarter page and see all the support options. Over and out.
Aside from a pleasantly plump looking Robert E. Lee (as my friend and fellow Civil War blogger Steven Hancock pointed out earlier), this latest trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, directed at the international market, is the best one we have seen yet, and might even be the last chance to wet our appetites that we get before the film opens up on November 16th. While the “Unite” trailer from last month was outstanding, this one contains more dialogue and an expanded view of Tommy Lee Jones’ character as Thaddeus Stevens and one of the insults he uses to denigrate pro-slavery representative Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), a series of which one reviewer, who had already seen the film, described as “blistering”.
As you all know, I used to write for the unofficial fan blog of To Appomattox, and still wish them the best of luck in production and plan on covering it from a far on here once filming begins, but I just have to say that I am not too crazy about the name change, the mini-series now shifting over to Grant Vs. Lee. I can see why the title was changed, because the majority of television viewers in this country can probably barely pronounce the word “Appomattox” correctly, let alone know what it refers to, however, I think that the new title they have come up with is a bit too gimmicky and hokey for my liking, sounding like something the History Channel would have produced, and you all know how I feel about them and their Civil War productions. Grant Vs. Lee is definitely better for marketing, because most people (or at least I certainly hope so) know who Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant are. Even the casual reader of history and anyone who paid attention in school knows them, so I can obviously see the marketing angle they are coming from. The rumor is that ongoing network negotiations have forced the title change, and that comes as no surprise, since respectful titles and historical authenticity must go out the window for the almighty dollar. Thankfully, it is being reported that the script has gone unchanged, which, unless you want to really be fanatical, is all the matters.
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.
For something that happened a hundred and fifty years ago, the Civil War is the one event that still stirs up controversy, more often times caused by people who know nothing about the war, and even less about why it was fought. The Confederate Flag will always been an undying symbol of hatred and slavery for the ignorant, who have nothing better to do than march in rallies protesting its showcasing. Granted, the hillbillies and racists who tattoo themselves with it while unfurling massive banners on the backs of their rusted pickup trucks do nothing to help the cause that it should fly, and fly proudly, but what about those who respect the flag for what it really is?
We know that the Civil War was not fought entirely because of slavery—yes, the government and wealthy aristocratic plantation owners of the south made that their reason, but what about the common man, the overwhelming majority? What about the soldiers who hardly had the money to feed their families, yet alone own another human being? Political correctness in this country is appalling, and while I would love to sit down and rant to you about what my feelings for the flag are, I have already done so here. No, why I write to you this afternoon is because of an ordinance recently passed in Lexington, Virginia, which has banned the Confederate Flag from being flown on public property. No big deal right? Well, unfortunately, that might encompass the grave-sites of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (EDIT: still trying to find confirmation if this applies to cemeteries). The proposed answer to the ban? Flying an American Flag over their places of burial instead. Why don’t we just dig up their bones and throw them into a dumpster while we are at it? Maybe we can re-write history books to say the War never happened. Can this nation further desecrate, humiliate, and cloud the honor of those that found themselves on the opposing side of the Union?
Is removing the Confederate Flag from the graves of two men who both publicly detested slavery while fighting for their home state really the answer? How about shunning it from city streets? No, this is not being done for any other reason than political correctness and boredom. When people have time on their hands, they tend to think of things they can do to screw with peoples lives for sport (controversy sells, does it not?) . To my friends and those up here in the north who might not see this as a big deal, I have to remind you that there is a different climate down south, when it comes to history, and this is a very drastic ordeal the city of Lexington is undertaking. Men died fighting for the Confederate Flag, and their ancestors still live on to this very day. Do you have any ancestors or know someone who died fighting for our American Flag? I must say, that too is a flag that has been involved in controversial wars, and of course, the mass killing of American Indians. I hate to go that route, but something like this leaves me with little choice to do otherwise. How are they not to be judged on the same level? Thousands of people owned slaves while the American Flag was flying before the Civil War erupted, and even states that fought for the side of the Union continued to do so, even after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. What’s the matter, your history teacher leave that out? Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution were both authored with slavery very much apart of society in the 1700’s, all while Old Glory flew proudly over the capital.
Let’s keep destroying our history. Let’s keep ignoring the truth. I have spoken to even the staunchest of Unionists on this very matter, and they all agree that the flag these men fought for should remain over their eternal resting places. This is what happens when people with no knowledge have final authority on the matter. I cannot think of anything more infuriating when it comes to the Civil War, except of course when someone wants to build a Wal-Mart near a battlefield. You can say I am pretty angered at this, almost with a tear in my eye thinking of my heroes having their grave sites ravaged by some politically correct charlatans.
For the past several years, historian Cary Eberly has been writing for the very popular, and award-winning website, ExplorePAHistory, and if he was not busy during that time, he surely is busy now! The accomplished writer is currently working on three books; one on the American Civil War, one on George Washington, and the other on Indian chiefs Cochise and Geronimo. These books, however, will be a little bit different, as they are photographic narratives, which will attempt to illustrate the history and bring it alive, either inspiring an interest in those new to the field we love so much, or enhancing it for those who have already immersed themselves in the subject. While I have known Cary only briefly, I can confidently say that if his kindness is indicative of his writing, than we are all in for a treat.
I had contacted him last week, and he told me that he was going to Antietam for a photo-shoot for his book on Grant and Lee, and would do the interview when he returned. Sure enough, he did not forget, and I now have him to thank for these wonderful and informative answers below. Cary is also serving as a historical adviser to the upcoming television mini-series To Appomattox, which was the main subject of our discussion. I also want to point out something he says in his second answer, about wanting this series to appeal to all ages, and consideration being made to create companion lesson plans for the series to be used in schools. This is probably the most important aspect, aside from the entertainment factor in this show, and that is the education of our youth. As someone who will be teaching a class on the Civil War this fall, as part of a special weekly elective program at a nearby middle school, this will be my chance to do my part and drum up interest to those still in school. Please enjoy the conversation below:
GC: How did you first get involved with “To Appomattox”? What will your role be with production?
CE: My involvement with To Appomattox began with a suggestion from my friend, author Thomas Fleming, to contact documentary filmmakers about making my George Washington book into a film. I had developed a friendship with him over the previous two years, as he was quite impressed with my photo narrative format in the George Washington book, and offered to help me, as well as write the introduction for it. By the way, his next books will be his 51st and 52nd , and will be with Da Capo Press; one on the Civil War and the other on the Revolution. So as I began to contact documentary filmmakers, I saw comments about the upcoming To Appomattox on various reenactor chat rooms, and contacted Michael Beckner with a photo narrative book I was working on about all the battles of Robert E. Lee. Like Tom, he also liked the format, and after reading his script, I decided to combine a Grant and Lee battle narrative into a single book in the hope that he would use it as a companion volume to his film. As for the production itself, I don’t see myself having a role in that. At one point, we discussed another photographic book that would present my photographs of the actual battlefields to the sets that they will create, and I suggested we ask each actor the same three questions about the Civil War, and sprinkle their answers throughout the book. [People love celebrity quotes!] Maybe something to add to the DVD boxed set.
GC: This is something I asked J.D: what are your hopes for what this series will accomplish?
CE: My hope for the series is that it will reach a whole new generation who are not being taught the central role that the Civil War played in making Americans who we are. The American Revolution set us free, but the Civil War was the white-hot cauldron that forged what it would mean to be an “American.” That war decided what kind of country we would be, with freedom for all, regardless of race, creed, or religion. It settled issue of slavery once and for all, something that had been a stain on America’s character since the first slaves arrived. And I think this series has a unique opportunity to reach people across a wide spectrum of age, interest and education, as a result of the script that Michael Beckner has crafted. Not only is it extremely accurate, but he weaves the drama of the war into his story while capturing the relationships between so many of these generals who shape the way this war was fought. These men had bonded together like brothers during their years together at West Point, and in so many life and death battles during the Mexican-American War. By placing these deep relationships at the very heart of the story, he paints a compelling and accurate picture of the gut-wrenching human drama that tore so deep into American families. I think when the final episode airs, the viewer will come away with a very accurate picture of who these principle characters were; flawed human beings who often did unbelievably heroic deeds. And this series can be a jumping off spot for people who want to learn more about the Civil War, and that includes schools. We have spoken of creating a lesson plan for all levels in the educational system, starting with middle school, all the way up to college level courses. Everything in this film reflects the most recent scholarship, and all my books are designed to appeal to a more visual generation who will see elegant photographs of the battlefield itself, what the soldiers looked like, opposite a thrilling narrative designed to spark a deeper interest in these stories that every American should know by heart.
GC: What event or character are you most excited to see portrayed on-screen?
CE: I think I’m most excited to see Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman portrayed accurately on the screen. So many films have painted both men as a caricature of who history and their own private letters teach us they really were. The truth is always more interesting than fiction, and in the case of these two men, it could not be more applicable. Like all of us, both men were flawed human beings who overcame a whole range of human hardships, to contribute and shape America in positive ways that still reverberate in our culture today. I also look forward to seeing the relationships develop between the young boys who arrived at West Point, and would someday lead these immense armies against each other. Men who had been like brothers; West Point roommates, Mexican War tent mates, the best-man at each other’s weddings, many married each other’s sisters, etc. The story Michael Beckner will bring to the screen, will really show the bond that developed between the men, North and South, who would lead these armies in a war that cost more than 620,000 American lives, and another 500,000 wounded.
GC: You just got back from a photo shoot for a book you are working on. Can you tell us about that?
CE: The photo shoot was at Antietam. It was for my Civil War book, On to Appomattox: Grant & Lee, Following the Warrior’s Trail. Early in the summer, I met a number of young, lean reenactors, mostly from the 63rd Virginia. In this case, two of men are park rangers at Antietam National Battlefield, and were able to secure permission for a few of them to sleep on the battlefield last Saturday night. While I already have more than enough photographs to complete this book right now, I keep getting better and better reenactor photographs, so it’s very hard to stop at this point! Ha! These are all young, lean men of the right age and weight to reflect the kinds of men who actually fought the Civil War, so I plan to get a few thousand more images so that I can operate from abundance when it’s time to put the book together. I’ve posted a few of the new ones on my Facebook page, but I always keep the majority offline, and save them for the book.
GC: Do you have a favorite battlefield you like to visit? How about a favorite General? And why?
CE: I don’t really have a favorite battlefield or general, per se. Like so many stories from history, there is always something new to discover. At any given time, there are usually eight to ten books on my nightstand that span anywhere from the Roman Empire to the Afghanistan war. I sometimes read two or three books on the French & Indian War, before choosing a different era and immersing myself into that. So there is always something new to read and learn about. When I tire of a certain subject for a while, I simply go to a new subject and my interest is renewed.
GC: Lastly, if you had a time machine and could travel back to any period in history (aside from the Civil War), where would you go and why?
CE: Great question! And that reminds me of a movie that must have had a great deal to do with deepening my interest in history at a young age. The 1960 movie Time Machine with Rod Taylor, was an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ famous novel. While the 1960-era special effects left allot to be desired, like the body-builders who played mutants, painted blue with really bad, long-haired white wigs, it was that time machine itself that really intrigued me. The machine itself could never move off of its specific patch of earth, but could go backwards or forwards in time, according to the date you set on the “dashboard” of what looked like a stripped-down Model A. As Rod set the machine to go backwards, the time-lapse of his neighborhood would be visible in all directions, until the buildings were long-gone and dinosaurs were roaming the neighborhood. When he went forward in time [if memory serves], nuclear war had left the landscape with very few humans who were working as slaves underground and being rounded up by the blue mutants! Now I grew up about two miles from Valley Forge, and during our winter sledding of the hills below where Anthony Wayne’s men were stationed, I would try to imagine what had happened in specific spots around the park like Washington’s headquarters, the river crossings, etc. Ever since that movie, I often make history a little more real when I am standing where it happened, by pausing for a few minutes, and quietly reflecting on what happened there right where I am standing. I have a Twitter account approaching 20,000 followers, and a post a few stories each day from the History Channel about what happened “This Day in History.” Knowing that something happened on this day, so many years ago, makes it a little more real to me to stop and imagine it occurring “on this very day!” Now, if I had that time machine you’ve so graciously brought to me, I would have a virtually endless list of where I would like to go. But if you would make me choose a single place and time, this week I would travel back to the Battle of Long Island which will take place this Saturday, 235 years ago, August 27, 1776. It was the first major battle of the American Revolution after the Declaration of Independence, and the beginning of a brutal series of losses for our young Continental army that would test George Washington’s resolve all the way until he turned the table on the Hessians at Trenton on Christmas night. Exactly how long can I stay?
I would like to thank Cary, not only for this interview, but for his kind words. When he sent me the responses to my questions, he noted, “First, I wanted to compliment you on your blog site. It’s really impressive to see how you are crafting this site into something really special! And I am honored that you have asked me to be a part of it.” This really means a lot to me, and hope to keep interviews such as these coming as many times as I can! And please click here to visit Cary’s official website.
When I was growing up, of the many things a little boy dreamed to be, a CIA agent was most certainly one of them. Every Friday night, I would sit down with my dad to watch The Agency, which ran from 2001-2003. During that time, I was captivated and excited by a show that was beginning to become a rival in the hardcore Law & Order household we lived in. Little did I know, several years later, I would be talking to the man that created and wrote the series, Michael Frost Beckner, who has now turned his talents to making something even more up my alley. He is going to be the writer, as well as one of the producers, for the much talked-about upcoming television miniseries, To Appomattox. We are going to see a lot of projects on the American Civil War over the course of the next four years, but none of them promise to be as endearing as this, a series with more than 50 prominent speaking roles and a team of 16 historical consultants working to make sure they have the most accurate script and screenplay possible. Among those is J. David Petruzzi, who I interviewed a few days ago.
This new project, To Appomattox, is currently in the pre-production stage, with filming set to begin next spring, and a release slated for 2013. Before he becomes too busy, I contacted Mr. Beckner in hopes of doing an interview, and he agreed. He has also written the screenplays for films such as Sniper, with Tom Berenger, Cutthroat Island, and Spy Game. Below is our conversation:
GC: When did you first realize you wanted to make a TV series on the Civil War? What was your inspiration?
MFB: I grew up in a home where I was told that when “Dixie” is played, you stand. Luckily, “Dixie” wasn’t played much in Studio City, California, because I’m sure I would have been laughed at by my fellow elementary school students. There have always been the ancestral portraits over the mantle and my mother and grandmother always attended their Daughters of the Confederacy meetings. On the other side of my family, there were the tales of my one-eyed, eye patch-wearing Union “General” great-grandfather. (I put “General” in quotes because I’m pretty sure he only ever made Colonel, but I learned at an early age not to contradict my grandmother on that one!). But, it was when I was working on my CBS series The Agency at Langley. My wife was with me and somehow the conversation got to the Civil War. I was telling a group of Agency officers that Professor Lowe’s balloons launched pretty much from where the CIA headquarters now stands; first American aerial recon! Later that night, my wife started asking me about the history of the war…and I guess I went on and on for the next day she told me I knew more about the Civil War than the espionage world I’ve made a career writing about. She was pretty forceful telling me it would be a crime if my next project wasn’t about the war. On one hand, when Anne gets an idea fixed in her head she’s relentless; on the other, I knew there’s no one in Hollywood who would ever do a Civil War film. And I need to write films that pay me. So in an effort to get around writing a film, I promised her I’d write her a play centered on the four times Grant and Lee meet over the course of their lives. Well, that got bigger and bigger, my passion for the subject unleashed—especially under the encouragement of my project mentor Dr. John Y. Simon, Founder & former Director (deceased) of the Ulysses S. Grant Association at the University of Southern Illinois, at Carbondale. Meanwhile, the deadlines I had discussed with the University of Richmond—where we had planned to premiere the show before taking it to London (there was no interest in a Civil War play in NYC)—I found to be tighter/stricter than my television deadlines. The play, To Appomattox, ultimately became the outline to something much bigger, which was first a two hour film. That was too breathless… Then I wrote a four hour mini-series…that showed there was too much left out…but where was the time to write it the way it needed to be written? During the Writers’ Strike of a few years back, that time became available. When that was over, I had finished a 13 episode series that seemed to write itself. The amazing thing with To Appomattox is, I realize now, this project, picked me… Not the other way around. Somewhere along the way, I realized I wasn’t writing this for Anne or for myself, nor—as with every other script of my career—was any of it my invention. It belongs to all of us and all our forebears; I’m just really a custodian of our shared history and I came to it not because I knew I could write it, but that it had to be written by me, because of my ability to get projects made, attach talent to what I do, get studios to finance my work: if I didn’t write To Appomattox no one was ever going to.
GC: Aside from hundreds of hours of research, what is the most difficult part of writing a screenplay for an eight hour series?
MFB: Making the choices of what to put in and leave out; who to focus on, who not to. And then once knowing exactly what that focus was and what I’d be able to tell well and properly, having the disciplince to cut five hundred pages out of the script and take 13 episodes down to the 8 we’ll now produce, and be secure in the knowledge that the 8 hour version is far better, dramatically, than the 13. The other difficulty is where my 20+ years of writing film and television craft came into play. Pacing the episodes scene by scene, opening and ending at the right moments. The film is straight history, but that crafting has allowed each episode to feel like a “movie.”
GC: One of the most important aspects of any war movie is the violence level– too gory and people will be grossed out, not gory enough and people will say it is inaccurate. How are you going to go about setting up and filming the battle scenes?
MFB: There is only about 15 minutes tops of war in each episode. Those sequences will be fully realized to historical accuracy. I get “grossed out”—and I think I’m similar to most people—when violence is gratuitous or created for “shock value.” At it’s extreme it’s actually desensitizing and—for example horror/slasher films—portrayed to get a sick laugh. There’s no place for any of that in To Appomattox. Think back to the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. That was the most realistically portrayed warfare I’d ever seen. The violence was at the most extreme level I can remember. I was horrified and I was frightened and I was heartbroken. Tears rolled down my cheeks. It also gave me a deeper understanding of my country and countrymen…and that was cathartic. To understand the hearts of the men who fought in our Civil War, the meaning of it—going in and coming out—we MUST understand what they faced in battle. Portraying Civil War battles exactly as it was will pay them respect and honor; to be put in their shoes will allow audiences to come away from this series with a deeper emotional connection to who we are as Americans and why we are Americans, and why Americans are unique. As for network viewing, if we go with the cable network we’re now in discussions with we have no content problem. If we go with one of the two major “alphabet” networks with whom we’re talking, because this is straight history, we can broadcast with a “content warning.” Sort of like how they show Saving Private Ryan on network TV, although that’s a fictional story.
GC: How will you approach the battle of Gettysburg, especially since a full-length (and very popular) film has already been made about it?
MFB: Episode 5, “Reunion” focuses on Gettysburg. Because one of my overriding positions in writing and producing this series is to connect audiences directly with this past—to show that it wasn’t all that long ago and the people weren’t all that different from who we are today and that we are connected; also NOT to show it the way it’s ever been portrayed before—Episode 5 takes place during the present of the battle and at the same time over the course of three battlefield reunions. Another aspect of this hour, is that I’ve used it to examine the “mythologizing” of the war. How it happened, why it’s happened, how that’s effected our own conceptions of American heroism…for better, or worse.
GC: After all the hours of writing this series, have you developed any personal favorite characters?
MFB: I was reared to believe William Sherman was insane and evil. After writing this, I’ve grown quite fond of the general and am very sympathetic to him. Back when this was a play, I approached Lee and Grant the way I was taught: Lee was the greatest American ever; Grant was a drunk and a butcher. I have no greater respect for an American hero than I do for Ulysses S. Grant. Funny, though, it’s the characters I couldn’t tell the stories of (no room) that have become my favorites. There’s John Sedgewick, there’s Nathan Bedford Forrest, and my very favorite, Gouverneur K. Warren. In the latter’s case, I’ve begun writing a play, a courtroom drama, entitled Inquiry based on the Warren’s Court of Inquiry that convened on January 7, 1880. Also, there’s a movie in the illustrious life of Dan Sickles.
GC: Lastly, did Will Patton, Paige Turco, Richard Speight Jr., Jason O’Mara get involved in the project through their work with you on The Agency? How do you think they will adapt to their roles?
MFB: They’ve been close, close friends since The Agency. In fact, Will and Jason were attached all those years ago to star in the Grant/Lee play. This entire cast didn’t come together from “packaging” but from personal relationships and deep passion for this history. For everyone in the cast of To Appomattox this is a labor of love…for their families, their children, and their nation.
I would like to thank Michael for taking the time to conduct this interview! This really wets the appetite and makes one hope that 2013 won’t take too long to get here. It is also sad and true when he mentioned about Hollywood’s lack of interest when it comes to the Civil War. Ron Maxwell alluded to the same exact thing last month. You would think, with so many potential stories and dramas (even comedies) just waiting to be told, there would not be this severe reluctance to make a film about that era of our history. That is why each and every film done about it, when done correctly, is important to the telling of our history. This is a story, like many others, that needs to be told, and thankfully, Michael is here to do just that.
I will also be launching a new sub-page at the top of the site to keep track of the interviews and articles that get written about the show, much like my ‘Gods and Generals Archive‘. You can either scroll up or simply click here. And don’t forget to visit the show’s official website.