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.
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 the first time in my life, I am going to publicly reveal who my favorite president is, in honor of President’s Day weekend. Not once during the six years I have been teaching in various locations and settings, or in two years as a history lecturer, have I ever said who it is. The reason? Well, it is just so hard to narrow them down. I have more that I do not like than like, but I think that is the same for most people. After all, has there been a president that was ever truly honest to a fault? No. Has there ever been a president not corrupted in some way? No. Has there ever been a president that truly gave a damn about the American people, instead of his political cronies? Hell no. So, you can see why it has taken me so long to come to an answer. I have known for some time now, but just wanted to double-check and make sure. He is not perfect either, you can be sure, but you will find him to be a rather adequate choice when you look at some of the other brilliant commanders-in-chief we have had over the years.
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.
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!
Unlike the other cast members of the films Gods and Generals and Gettysburg that I have been able to track down over the last several months, Les Kinsolving is not noted for his acting. Appearing as Confederate General William Barksdale, the distant cousin of the real general, he is more known for his career in the political spectrum, which includes serving as a White House correspondent (part-time now) and talk-radio host on 680 WCBM, which is run out of Baltimore. Les’ career has spanned several decades and has encompassed so much, including being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
When I was done asking him about his filming experience, I just had to probe him on some of his political views, and what being a reporter in our nation’s capital is like. Les was very kind to me and answered all of my questions, and I did not even know this interview was going to be taking place when I woke up this morning. I had contacted him a few days ago, and he responded this afternoon. Rather than schedule an interview for the future, we thought it best to just get it done today. I asked him about his filming experience, what it is like being related to a Civil War general (and a second one which will knock your socks off!), and much more, in our interview below!
LK: Well, I have a cousin, the one that I played the part of, General William Barksdale, and I had always been interested in the Civil War, and I heard they were going to do a movie on the battle of Gettysburg. So, I talked to the author of The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara, on the phone and I enjoyed speaking to him very much. He was a very stimulating person and he told me about Ron Maxwell who was going to direct it. I phoned up to Maxwell in New York, and we made an appointment. I did not tell him of my relation to Barksdale, and I talked with him and we had a wonderful time and there was a great deal of mutual interest. It was then when I told him of my relationship to General Barksdale of Mississippi, and he asked, “You’re his cousin?” and I responded, “I am.” and he said, “You look like him.” Then he said, “Just a minute”, and he went into this closet and came out after a while with this great big picture of Barksdale. He was the only Confederate general at Gettysburg who did not have a beard or a mustache, and again he told me that I looked like him, and I said, “I’m complimented”. He then asked me if I would like the part! (laughs). It took a long time to be produced but I had the part, and I played it again in Gods and Generals, which followed it.
GC: In both films, your scenes were very short, but how much did you have to prepare for these roles?
LK: I had previously been in a considerable number of plays, both little theater and light opera, but this did not take any time at all—I just had a couple of lines in each. I was still honored to have these lines. When I was first cast in Gettysburg, there were no lines and Maxwell waited until my scene came and put in a line for me. General Lee, played by Martin Sheen, says to me, “General Barksdale, is Mississippi ready?” and I said, “Mississippi is ready!”. (laughs) And that was it! I just had one or two lines in Gods and Generals as well. But in Gettysburg, I also played an extra as a flag bearer in a Virginia regiment during Pickett’s Charge, which took seven days to film.
GC: What was the hardest part of your filming experience?
LK: I think the hardest part was when I was playing this Confederate flag bearer and we went over the wall at the charge, and there were three huge Yankees who went after my flag, and I held it and it broke right in two, and I went down and got kicked; I don’t think they did it on purpose, there was just an enormous amount of action. They strapped me up with one of these wrap-around bandages and I was able to go back and do it three or four more times, because we did that scene six times that day.
GC: Did you happen to see the Gettysburg documentary that was on the History Channel last week?
LK: I did not see the whole thing because it came on while I was broadcasting.
GC: Okay, because there was a pretty big section on General Barksdale in it and I was just curious if you had any thoughts on that.
LK: Yes, my son watched it and told me, and I just ran in and took one look and was disgusted because the first thing I saw was that this Barksdale had a beard, and Barksdale did not have a beard at the time of the battle! The picture that I have of him, he does not have one, and I was disgusted at that.
GC: Now, a lot of us Civil War enthusiasts and historians wish we could be related to somebody who fought during the Civil War, so what is it like for you, to not only be related to a soldier, but a prominent general at that?
LK: Well, I am also related to another Confederate soldier named Robert E. Lee, who is a fifth cousin. Robert Duvall, who portrayed Lee in Gods and Generals, was also related to him, and so we found that we were distant cousins.
GC: What it is like being related to one of the greatest generals in military history?
LK: I agree with you, I think he is one of the greatest men in our history, with enormous courage and fundamental decency, and he will always be remembered. Of course, there are those that like to tear him to pieces, but that is expected of those who are still fighting that war.
GC: I would like to move to your other career now, as a White House correspondent. What does that entail?
LK: I am a White House correspondent, but I am not a full-time one anymore because I am a talk radio host and columnist, and I just can’t do it full-time, and with this particular press secretary, as well as the last one, who are two of the three most difficult I have ever dealt with, they hardly ever call on me. This one almost refuses me consistently, so I only go once a week. What I do is, I always have two questions, just two. He allows the people in the front two rows from the networks, to ask eight, ten, and twelve questions, but he will try to bypass me. Sometimes I will call out the networks, and sometimes I don’t. So what I do is, we report for the nine million people who visit World Net Daily, we list all the people at the briefing and the large majority whom he never recognizes or allows to ask questions because he is playing favorites with the front two rows. I think that is abysmal. I made a suggestion once, which was one of the few times I have ever had applause from the back, that he should call on each person in the front row for two questions and work his way right back so he gives everybody a chance, and then go back to the front row and give them two more. That got applause, but not from the front row (laughs).
GC: I have another question for you, and this is just out of curiosity, but what do you think of Sarah Palin?
LK: To look upon her, I think she is a very beautiful lady, and I realize that she had a lot of problems at home, but I think she really damaged herself by leaving the position of Governor of Alaska. I thought she did a good job out there, but she resigned. Now she is going all over the country campaigning, but she hasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, announced her candidacy as yet. I’m generally impressed with a lot of what she stands for, though I do not agree with her on everything…I don’t think there is anybody I agree with on everything.
GC: One more political question for you, who would be your favorite president, whether in your lifetime or in the past?
LK: Let me say that I think the greatest of all presidents, closely followed by Abraham Lincoln, was the father of our country, George Washington. I am a great admirer of his and he was not only a military leader that without him, we would have never won our independence, but he was our first president and guided us through the really tough times in getting us established as a country. There are a number who I admire in the modern era as well. I personally liked Ronald Reagan a great deal and I knew him when he was in California because I was a columnist and reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, and then the Examiner, while he was governor. There were times when I would ask him questions and he was always very astute and very amusing. I thought he was a great president, and there were others of course. The Roosevelt’s were two of the greatest and let me see who else…we have had some bad ones (laughs).
GC: Well, then who would be the worst president of your lifetime?
LK: That would be a tie between Jimmy Carter and the one we’ve got now (laughs).
GC: Thanks for being honest! I’m an independent so I don’t care who you don’t like.
LK: It’s not that I don’t like Barack Obama, it’s just that he has these press conferences where there are eighty reporters (I’ve stopped going to his press conferences) and they’re ridiculous. He’ll only call on certain ones. In the last three he called on thirteen, thirteen, and seven. He takes an enormous amount of time in answering questions—he gives these long monologues, and it sounds like he is dodging questions with these long answers, and he does this often. That is one of the reasons why I am not very impressed with him. There are times when I have commended him, and I think his order to go after Bin Laden was wonderful, but I think Bush had the same purpose. If they had just found him earlier under Bush, like the Seals did, I think he would have given the same order. I will try to be fair with the president whenever he says or does something that I believe honestly is good. I feel that it is only fair that you should try to emphasize that, and I do.
GC: One last question for you, and this is going back to the Civil War. If there is one piece of information that you think is being taught the most incorrectly about it, what would that be to you?
LK: I would say the alleged massacre at Fort Pillow, where they try to smear [Confederate General] Nathan Bedford Forrest. I have really studied that issue, and I have concluded and spoken out on this a number of times that it was not true. I think there are a lot of things that are misrepresented, but that is one of the worst. I hope that answers your question.
GC: Yes, it is definitely up there on my list. That, and people who say the war was fought solely because of slavery.
LK: Well, the interesting thing about the slavery issue, which is not often mentioned (laughs), is that among the slaveholders in the United States were Ulysses S. Grant and Mrs. Grant.
GC: And I don’t think Robert E. Lee owned any.
LK: His wife, Mary Custis, had a number of slaves, and he emancipated them. Grant, who was too poor to keep slaves, sold them, but Mrs. Grant continued to own them, and I think it was in 1864, she was almost captured by Confederate cavalry with her slaves! (laughs) I have no indication that the Grant’s ever mistreated their slaves, and I do not believe that the Lee’s did either. I have always been opposed to slavery, even though I am a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and I was one of the 25,000 who walked in the last day of the Selma March to Montgomery, because I believe new occasions teach new duties, and time makes ancient good uncouth.
GC: I want to thank you so much for this interview. It was great getting a chance to speak to you.
LK: It was my pleasure, and I hope that this gave you everything you needed, and I am grateful and honored.
I want to thank Les again for taking the time to conduct this interview. It truly was an enlightening experience! You can visit his official website here. Please check out my other interviews with Gods and Generals and Gettysburg personnel, located in the Civil War section on this site, which include Brian Mallon (General Hancock), Patrick Gorman (General Hood), Bo Brinkman (Major Taylor), and Jeff Shaara (Author of G & G).
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.
There are people who know their stuff, and then there are people who really know their stuff—Jeff Shaara would fall into the latter category. It was an incredible opportunity to be able to interview the author of Civil War novels Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure, both of which have reached the New York Times Bestseller List. Jeff Shaara has been lauded by readers and historians alike who appreciate his epic style of storytelling, that has included nine novels spanning the American Revolution, Mexican-American War, Civil War, World War I, and World War II, with the fourth part of his WWII series coming out in May. I really learned a lot today, not only about history in general, but what goes into writing a book and how that gets transformed into a film. I also had to ask about his late-father Michael, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning historical-fiction novel The Killer Angels, which was turned into one of the most successful war films of all-time, Gettysburg, in 1993.
I knew the interview would be great because right off the bat I told Jeff to feel free to talk as much as he would like, and he jokingly said he felt a bit intimidated by that, and I explained that sometimes interviewees give only a one sentence answer. His response was, “I never do that.” Our main focus today was the Civil War but we covered all aspects of American history in our interview below:
GC: I just want to start off by asking you about your father. I read somewhere that you and him were not close while he was writing The Killer Angels. Is this true?
JS: Actually, the chronology of that is a little bit inaccurate. During the writing of The Killer Angels, we were extremely close. I was a teenager at the time and we went to Gettysburg together and worked on some of the research together, and I stopped way short of taking any credit for the book, that’s not what I’m saying. During the time writing the book, he was suffering physically because of his first heart attack and there were a lot of things, particularly on the battlefield of Gettysburg, that he could not do such as climbing the Round Tops and things like that. I was the kid, so that was my job to go around through the bushes and climb the hills looking for things that he was trying to find. After the writing, when the book came out in 1974, he and I, by that time, had parted ways, so when the book was published we had a very difficult relationship. He had a difficult relationship with almost everyone including his brother and father. He was very dramatic in the way he approached relationships and if you didn’t live up to his expectations or do things the way he thought they ought to be done, he had a tendency to react very dramatically and write you out of his life. He was a difficult man, he was suffering from the effects, not only of his heart disease, but of a motorcycle accident that had happened in Florence, Italy, in the early 1970’s that really cracked him on the head badly—he was in a coma for several weeks and the effects of that changed his entire life; it changed his brain, the way he wrote, the way he thought about things and it really affected his relationship with everyone.
GC: What inspired you to write the prequel and the sequel?
JS: It began, and you probably know some of this, with the film Gettysburg. It was this film being such an enormous success, and for my family, it propelled The Killer Angels to number one on the bestseller list, and it had never been a bestseller at all. When it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the book was never successful, which was really a blow to my father. He expected greater things to come from that. Any writer who receives the Pulitzer Prize has the right to believe that his ship has come in and that all the doors will fly open and he can do anything he wants now, and that didn’t happen to him. So it was very ironic and very bittersweet to my family that in 1993 and 1994, when Gettysburg was such a monumental success, he missed all that. He died in 1988 and didn’t live to see any of it. And so when I learned that Ted Turner wanted to do more Civil War films, the idea would be to take my father’s book and go before and after it with some of the same characters. I had never written anything before, I was not a writer, I never wanted to be a writer. I was actually a dealer of rare coins and precious metals down in Tampa, and the idea of continuing his work, the whole point was for me to tackle this, but it was always about a film, about doing the background and research, creating a story that someone else could adapt for a screenplay. Because I’m representing my father’s estate in New York, and the heirs are my sister and I, my sister being an anthropologist, she said to just handle it and that she wasn’t interested in the business side of it at all. Well, I’d been a business man all my life so it was natural to me. So I’m dealing with the publisher in New York, Random House, who now has this number one bestseller, and so they’re taking my phone calls and I’m getting to know these people up there, and when I told them I was working on the prequel to The Killer Angels, their response was, “Send it to us and we’ll take a look at it.” That totally surprised me because I had no expectations. I’m often asked, “How did you know how to write a book?” I had no clue, and secondly, “Were you intimidated by trying to follow your father’s footsteps?” The answer to that is no, because I had no expectations. Ron Maxwell and I agreed that if whatever I wrote was lousy, nobody would ever see it. It would go in the trash can and that would be the end of it. I attacked this with really no sense of destiny or any of that. All I was trying to do was put a story together with the same kind of research my father had done, which I learned with walking with him at Gettysburg, was to put a story together that could be adapted to a screenplay. When I sent the manuscript to Random House in September of 1995, and I’ll never forget this, the phone call I got from Claire Ferraro, who was the publisher then, said, “We don’t care if it’s a movie. We like the book. We think you’re a writer, here’s the contract.” That changed my whole life.
GC: When you write a novel, how much research do you do and how long does it typically take you?
JS: The research is usually twice as long as it takes to write the book. I typically read 50 to 60 books for each book that I write, and it has to be original source material—the diaries, the memoirs, the letters, the collections of writings of the people who were there. That is a big lesson I learned from my father, stay away from modern history and modern biographies. That does me no good at all. If you’re getting into the heads of a character, and you’re speaking for a real historical character, you better get it right because a lot of people out there will get pretty upset about that. I had somebody actually say to me, “How dare you put words in the mouth of Robert E. Lee?” Well, okay, that’s a challenge and if I dare do that, or put words in the mouth of George Washington, or “Black Jack” Pershing, or Eisenhower, or Adolf Hitler for that matter, I had better believe that those words are authentic to that character because if I don’t believe it, neither will you. Then the book deserves to lose credibility. That’s the point of research, to feel that before I even write the first word, feel as though I know the character and that I would speak for them. Once the reading is done, the other part of it, is again, a lesson I learned from my father, to walk the ground. To go walk in the footsteps of people, see the hillsides, see the battlefields, see the homes, the grave sites, whatever there is out there for me to see, and it’s not that it’s mystical—I don’t go to battlefields and look for ghosts, but there really is something very powerful about walking the same ground as the characters I’m writing about. That’s a crucial part of the research as well. Once that is done, only then do I start writing, and typically, it takes me five to six months to write a manuscript because I’m doing it full-time.
GC: You’ve made hundreds of historical figures come alive in your books, but in your two Civil War novels, which of them has been your favorite?
JS: There are some obvious answers there, like Joshua Chamberlain, and the characters that people latch onto and have made popular, but I love the character of Ulysses S. Grant, and to some people he is sort of a non-entity because he’s not as charismatic as Robert E. Lee, he doesn’t have the young charm of Chamberlain, but Grant changed history. Grant changed the world, and he was responsible, primarily, because you can make an argument that Abraham Lincoln had something to do with it, for winning the war, and a lot of people don’t realize just how powerful his role was. I just love his character, I love his relationship with his wife. Writing his death at the tail-end of The Last Full Measure was difficult, I was emotional about it. I did the same with all three of the characters in The Last Full Measure, Lee, Grant, and Chamberlain, and I said goodbye to each of the three of them but Grant in particular, because he was suffering from throat cancer and dealing with Mark Twain and these magnificent scenes at the end of his life, and boy that was hard. So I would pick him above all others.
GC: What was your reaction when you found out that Ron Maxwell wanted to make a movie out of Gods and Generals?
JS: Well, Ron and I had been talking all the way through Gettysburg and I got to know him during the filming, and so we had talked about this for years. We talked about it from the time it was a success in the theaters and from the time The Killer Angels became a bestseller, we were already talking about continuing with this project. We struggled through several years because this was something we wanted to do and no one else cared. We had a lot of verbal support, and a lot of Civil War groups and reenactors thought this was a great idea, but unfortunately none of them had millions of dollars to make this happen (laughs). Even when we started talking with TNT and Ted Turner’s people it was difficult because none of them really believed in this project. So it wasn’t a surprise to me when we started talking about this, it was the point right from the beginning.
GC: Did you have any role in the production at all?
JS: None. We could expand on that but I don’t know that I want to. To this day, I do not own a finished script, and I made some suggestions that were ignored, little historical things that I thought were problematic, and they listened dutifully and ignored everything I said. I realize at the end of the day, this was not my film—it was Ron Maxwell’s and Ted Turner’s film. I really had nothing to do creatively with the film or physically with the production. I mean, I’m in it, in one scene on camera, but really, it’s not my movie, and if I can add, it’s also not my book. It’s based on my book, despite what some historians say, and I’ll leave that alone, but it is based on my book but it is not my book. It is maybe ten percent of my book, and that was really a shock to me because The Killer Angels is about ninety percent of the film Gettysburg.
GC: Yeah, The Killer Angels is almost word for word.
JS: That’s exactly right, it is almost word for word. In Gods and Generals, there are maybe only three or four scenes taken from my book and put in the film, and that’s it. It’s an entirely different movie than I would have written, and would have liked to have seen done.
GC: My next question was actually going to be, for those that have not read the book, how did it differ from the final print of the film? But I guess that would be too much to go into.
JS: It’s enormously different, it’s radically different from the film. There are characters in the film that do not exist in the book, and a great many characters in the book that never made it to the film. It’s just an entirely different story, and I have to tell you, I’ve heard from literally thousands of people through my website, and I get emails every day and try to be as accessible as I can, and the overwhelming percentage of those that wrote me said, “How could you let them butcher your book like that?” I have no answer to that because I had no control or power to change what came up on the screen.
GC: I know you said on your website that right now, there are no plans to make The Last Full Measure into a film, but if they do decide to make it into a film in the next four years because of the 150th anniversary, will you comply with that and let them use your manuscript?
JS: When you say “they”, that’s the big question. Who is “they”? (laughs) We don’t know the answer to that because there is no “they” right now, but the thing is, there were mistakes made with Gods and Generals that I would not allow to happen again. If a film is going to be made from The Last Full Measure, I will have much more involvement or there simply won’t be a film. I’m not saying it has to be a hundred percent my book, I know better than that, some things don’t translate from the book to the screen, I get that. It’s not about ego, it’s about telling the story. The failure of Gods and Generals was to tell a good story and reach out to the general audience. The enormous success of Gettysburg was that it was attractive to a general audience. You didn’t have to be a Civil War buff or reenactor to understand what was going on, the characters were developed for you so you knew who they were, and it was a marvelous film. In Gods and Generals, the film was almost, and I don’t know this, it is my opinion, as though it was geared to the academic historians and the general audience was ignored. I’ve heard that, it’s not just my opinion, from a huge number of people. Like a guy would go to the film all excited because he knew what the story was about, and he would take his wife and kids and the wife and kids would get up and leave because they had no clue what was going on. That was the problem and it will not happen again. I’m not saying I will write the script, I’m not arrogant to suggest that I’m also a screenwriter because I don’t know that I can do it, but I will have considerable input into the script and will make sure it’s a good story and that it does appeal to a general audience, or there will be no film.
GC: Well, let’s hope that a producer steps forward and puts down some money because I would really like to see this trilogy complete.
JS: It has to start there, you’re absolutely right. That’s the other thing I hear, and I get letters on this literally every day, people want to know (which was why I put the note on my website) when the third movie is coming out, and it’s like they’re waiting for the shoe to drop because the story needs to be completed. I’ve had people chew me out and say, “Why aren’t you making the third film?” as though somehow I am stopping this. Gods and Generals cost $60 million to make, and if someone comes up with $60 million, fine, let’s talk. But so far it hasn’t happened (laughs).
GC: Could all of this have been avoided if they made Gods and Generals into a miniseries? Say like five parts, or even two separate films which was talked about?
JS: I don’t think the two separate movie idea would have worked, but I do think the miniseries idea would have worked much better. The problem is, you can’t make a ten-hour movie, I get that, but you can make a ten hour miniseries and I think some of the resistance, originally from TNT, and I don’t know this for sure, but some of the resistance was because they realized there was just too much story to cram into a movie that someone is going to sit in a theater and want to watch. Definitely, it could have been much more successful as a miniseries.
GC: You plan on writing another Civil War trilogy, this time on the western theater. Can you tell us anything about that?
JS: Yes, the book I just finished, which will be out in May, is the fourth and final WWII piece, the end of the war in the Pacific. I am working, right now, on the research, for a new trilogy which will be Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Sherman’s March. Each one will be out in the spring, starting in 2012, ’13, and ’14, with each one of those year’s being the 150th anniversary of those events. It’s a challenge because doing a book a year is tough. I have so much research material already that I think gives me a leg up and I’m very excited about this, as is my publisher and people I’ve talked to around the country. This is funny, and I have to laugh, I’ve gotten a lot of letters from people in Tennessee and Mississippi saying, “You know, we’re kind of tired of hearing about just Robert E. Lee and Virginia.” (laughs) There’s a whole lot more story that no one seems to want to find out about. I’ll respond to that and do the best I can.
GC: I just took a Civil War course in college, and I knew so much about the War previously, but this class just opened by eyes to how much more is out there, and not many people focus on the western theater and it’s always Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson in the east, and I think the west would be a very important part of the war that hasn’t been covered.
JS: I agree completely, which is why I’m excited about doing this.
GC: Aside from the Civil War, you’ve written about the Mexican-American War, the American Revolution, WWI, and WWII. Which of those has been your favorite topic to cover?
JS: That’s a tough question, and the problem in answering that is, if I don’t love the characters and period I’m writing about, I’m not going to write a very good book. When I move into a new era, I get totally swallowed up by that era—I’m totally immersed in it and the characters. Of course, the biggest challenge is finding those characters and who the voices are going to be. I’m very proud of the American Revolution series. A lot of people have said this to me, and I don’t judge my own book, I wouldn’t even know how, that my World War I book is my best book. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve heard that. The book I had the most fun doing was the Mexican War story, Gone for Soldiers, because I knew the characters so well from being involved in the Civil War and doing so much research, and going back to their early lives, and all of them with the exception of Chamberlain, talk about their experiences in Mexico and the profound effect it had on them. I didn’t know anything about the subject, most people don’t, and I started doing the research, and found a wonderful story and one that I had no idea existed—the heroism of Jackson, Grant, Longstreet, and Lee, was amazing. I didn’t know any of those stories and it was a lot of fun to write, plus I love the character of Winfield Scott and Santa Anna. I had a great deal of fun with both of them.
GC: I’m actually a big Alamo buff, so would you ever consider writing a story about that, since you mentioned Santa Anna?
JS: There have been two stories suggested to me that I should write. One is the Alamo and one is Custer’s last stand. Because they have been done so many times, I don’t know that I could do that. The thing is, the story of the Alamo doesn’t stop at the Alamo. The rest of the story is San Jacinto and Sam Houston and if I was to do it, it would probably be the whole war for Texas independence. I’ve had a lot of people from Texas write to me about that. As you know, the story is not just the Alamo. It’s hard to compete, especially when you have John Wayne’s Davy Crockett, it’s hard to tell a story and get away from that, and I would have to get away from that.
GC: I’m with the people from Texas, I think the story needs to be told, mainly, because no one has ever gotten it right. The John Wayne version was very inaccurate, to say the least.
JS: Absolutely, even the most recent Alamo movie and some of the books, nobody has gotten it right. Right now I have a pretty full plate and what I really want to do after the Civil War set is Korea and a Vietnam story, so I’m not sure when I would do that, but you’re right, it’s a story that needs to be told right.
GC: One last thing, an email question from “Andy”, and he writes, “Do you ever plan to write a novel that does not deal with war?”
JS: I get asked that fairly often, and it isn’t that I’ve decided to do nothing but war stories but my publisher was very clear, and they’ve told me that I’ve built an audience and it’s the thing my father never did. My father always wrote different topics. People are always asking me what other historical works did he write besides The Killer Angels, and the answer is none. He wrote a baseball story, a Hitchcock sci-fi story, he was all over the map. My publisher was clear that I’ve built an audience with this one theme, the epic historical military novel, and as long as there are readers out there who want this, to stick with it. Now there is a story I want to do, and I don’t want to get into too much, because it’s been done a few times, but I would like to do a story of a 1930’s gangster. The other thing, if I ever went outside of the United States and did a foreign story, it would probably be Napoleon. Even though that’s military, it’s a very different story and one that most Americans have no idea about. But for now, my publisher says, and this looks terrible on paper, but, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s the philosophy that they are employing with me right now. I’ve got an audience and the following is there so until that audience goes away, I’ll stick with what I’m doing.
I want to thank Mr. Shaara for taking the time out of his busy schedule to conduct this interview. It truly was an enlightening afternoon and I hope you all enjoyed reading this rather lengthy and extensive piece. I can only hope that The Last Full Measure will be made one day, but until then, enjoy the terrific books on American wars that Jeff has given us, because the book is always better than the film. Also, don’t forget to check out his website.